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The Senate Crisis Is Old -- The Urgency Is New

07/22/2013 12:42 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT
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mike duffy is healthy and back at it at ctv (Photo by Colin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

An allegedly famous Canadian historian named A.R.M. Lower once quipped that "Canada is a country whose major problems are never solved." He said that in 1967, so the line was probably supposed be a reference to Quebec nationalism or something, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more succinct summary of Canadian Senate reform just the same.

Contrary to popular assumption, Canada's obsessive hobby of Senate-hating is not new. However sheltered and snobby old-timey Canadian politicians may have been, they weren't complete rockheads, and the idea that Canada's upper chamber of parliament should be comprised entirely of rich landowners appointed directly by the prime minister had enough self-evident flaws to be controversial from the get-go.

In Nice Work, a wonderfully cynical 90s-era exposé on the "continuing scandal of Canada's Senate," author Claire Hoy quotes a Confederation-era MLA calling the thing "the worst body that could be contrived" and a 19th-century governor general who deemed it "nothing but a political infirmary and bribery fund."

Yet in the 146 years since the regressive institution was imposed, Canada's Senate has been reformed exactly once -- in 1965, when Prime Minister Pearson decided that a senator's term should end on his 76th birthday, as opposed to when rigor mortis sets in. 

Pearson's change graciously eliminated the grim reaper's formal role in Canada's constitutional system, but as a larger change to politics as usual, its observable benefits were mild at best. Considering the last grandfathered-in Senate lifer didn't shuffle off 'till 1999, we basically went through the entire 20th century without fully enjoying the fruits of even this exceedingly mild improvement.

But perhaps third century's the charm. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but at the moment the press is hyping hard the idea that some big, big senatorial changes will be heading down the pipe very soon. Really.

Thursday's National Post featured a big important interview between columnist Jon Ivison and "a senior government official" working in the administration of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. Get a load of this, Jon, the official said, Canada's One Good Premier is going to initiate a constitutional amendment (as his right) to formally abolish the federal parliament's horrible upper chamber.

"Hopefully, this will get the ball rolling with the other provinces," Mr. X added.

Even more excitingly, Ivison's "sources" also claimed that "the Prime Minister is coming around to the idea that his government should push abolition" if it becomes evident that all the other reforms he's been pushing -- elections, term limits etc. -- are constitutionally impossible. Which seems likely, given the stated opinions of most of Canada's top lawyers and political scientists -- or at least the ones who regularly get their opinions published in the nation's editorial pages.

And then came Friday. Whoops, said Jon, my bad. Looks like Premier Wall is actually gonna take a "step back" from his "bold leadership position on Senate abolition." That whole gonna-introduce-an-amendment thing? Alas, just a "yarn" spun by an unreliable contact who was supposed to be "a very big deal indeed in Saskatchewan" but is now merely a name crossed off the Ivison family Christmas card list.

But what about the business of the PM "coming around" to the Senate abolition cause? That rumor, fortunately, has somewhat firmer evidence in its favor.

The Harper administration included some queries about abolishment in their big list of Senate questions for the Supreme Court to answer, and the outgoing Tory boss of the Senate, Majorie LeBreton, recently deemed the abolition idea perfectly legit

Plus, some high-profile Conservative allies including the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation (which Jason Kenney used to run) and Reform Party elder statesman Ted Morton (who was once "elected" to the Senate in one of Alberta's rebel elections) have been making enough pro-abolition noises as of late to give the idea some ideological cover.

Indeed, as the PM himself accurately observed a couple months ago, his was the party "that put Senate reform on the national agenda" back in the 1980s, so it'd sure suck to turn around and lose an election over Duffygate while a bunch of Johnny-come-lately Dippers get to portray themselves as voters' anti-Senate choice. So yeah, not too hard to imagine the Tories "launching into full campaign mode for Senate abolition" sometime soon, says Jon Ivison (he's still credible enough for me to cite, right?).

Of course, one loose end remains -- how do you even go about abolishing a Senate in the fist place? There are all sorts of crazy schemes kicking around, but with the Supreme Court not scheduled to even begin hearings on the constitutionality of Harper's what-am-I-allowed-to-do questions 'till November, and gutsy ol' Premier Wall suddenly unwilling to push the provincial dominoes, the whole fix-it movement could remain frozen in carbonite well into 2014.

It's this molasses-paced timeline that makes our current climate of Senate malaise so uniquely suffocating. The Senate's always been awful and critics have always dreamed of something better -- or nothing at all -- but never before have the two traditions collided head-on. Never before has so much scandal poured from the red chamber against the backdrop of a pro-reform government that (quite literally) can't reform fast enough.

Never before, in short, has this nation been so tauntingly close yet frustratingly far from solving one of the "major problems" Professor Lower assumed we never would.

Controversial Canadian Senators