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Spin Overtakes Best of Trudeau's Attempt at Senate Reform

02/04/2014 05:33 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Despite what may be the best of intentions, Justin Trudeau has not reformed the Senate.

It's hard to see how turning 32 "Liberal senators" into 32 "Senate Liberals" (as they are now called) really changes much.

The irony is that by promoting the view that simply changing the label attached to current senators is truly Senate-changing, Trudeau's supporters (and the pundits and commentators who are following behind) have done Trudeau a disservice. This is because the real leadership that Trudeau has shown, which lies in the substance of Trudeau's forward proposals -- the one that truly would reform the Senate into the future -- has barely been mentioned.

You can't, all of a sudden, pretend that people who are members of the Liberal Party; who pride themselves on being Liberal; who have, in some cases, devoted much of their lives to the Liberal Party; and who, in almost all cases, were appointed to the Senate specifically because of being Liberal, aren't "Liberals" anymore. You can't do this kind of reform retroactively, you can't go backwards.

But it's what Justin Trudeau has proposed for the future that would truly change the Senate, it's makeup, and its value to the Canadian people.

He has committed, if he is elected Prime Minister, to put in place "an open, transparent and non-partisan appointment process for senators ... informed by other non-partisan appointment processes, such as that of the Supreme Court Justices and Order of Canada recipients."

Now THAT would be a true game-changer.

First, because it's actually do-able. Unlike the quixotic call by the NDP for abolition, and the disingenuous Conservative call for an elected Senate, both of which would require fundamental changes to the Canadian Constitution -- which renders them both exceedingly unlikely. Most Canadians want to open constitutional talks about as much as they want a root canal operation.

And, although it may be out of fashion to say it these days, we still need the Senate at the federal level. Senators (those at least who really do their jobs) fill a very important function -- several, actually. One is the work done on specific issues or policies that affect Canadian society. Canada doesn't engage Royal Commissions the way we used to, but a significant number of senators, across party lines, have done incredibly valuable and thoughtful work that has significantly enhanced public policy, on issues such as improving our health care system, mental illness and how to address poverty.

But the most important role of the Senate is to provide the so-called "sober second thought", in the review of legislation that is passed by the House of Commons. Often, the Senate improves it -- sometimes, although rarely, it refuses to pass it. This set of checks and balances is important, particularly when you have a majority in the House of Commons.

Unless -- and this is key -- unless the senators simply follow partisan lines.

Which is why the idea of future senators no longer being appointed based on party affiliation is, indeed, a game changer.

No constitutional change required -- just the leadership of a Prime Minister with the courage to say that he or she would use their power to appoint to the Senate only those people who have been recommended by an impartial, non-partisan (or multi-partisan) group of eminent advisors. People recommended not because of their partisanship, but instead recognized and respected for the contributions they have already made to their communities and Canadian society.

These are exactly the kind of people we would want to provide that wise, sober second thought.

And this is exactly the kind of leadership we should expect from a Prime Minister.

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