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Governor-General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate on June 3, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Governor-General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate on June 3, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeffrey Simpson

Real Senate reform? Don't hold your breath Add to ...

The Fathers of Confederation, in drawing up plans for Canadian federalism, spent more time on the shape and powers of the Senate than any other item.

Some Fathers preferred an elected body, while others, including Sir John A. Macdonald, wanted an appointed but not hereditary one. In the end, they opted for an appointed Senate. For decades thereafter, not much thought was given to it, except by those sitting in the Red Chamber or wishing to be appointed there. It was a cushy place that did little harm and occasional good, but never functioned as a representative body for the regions.

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Every other federation has an upper house that tries to reflect/protect regional interests, either by direct election (the United States) or regional parliaments (Germany). In theory, our Senate is supposed to reflect/protect regional interests, but, as an appointed body, it lacks the credibility and legitimacy to be taken seriously.

Elect Senators, however, and the game changes. Elected senators would be somebodies, and the Senate itself would be something, as in the United States or Australia. And that's precisely why many provinces don't want an elected Senate and why, therefore, there will never be such a body.

What we have witnessed since Prime Minister Stephen Harper started talking again about allowing provinces to elect senators was utterly predictable. Quebec immediately threatened to take Ottawa to court; Ontario's Premier demanded the Senate be abolished; and other premiers, with some exceptions, muttered about problems and obstacles.

If senators were elected, they could credibly claim to speak for their province, which is what premiers believe they should do. Premiers don't want any competition, let alone a U.S. situation where senators are in many respects more consequential political figures than governors, and where states are much weaker than our provinces.

The Supreme Court ruled in Pierre Trudeau's era that the federal government couldn't unilaterally change the Senate's essence: the regional composition. There was some federal-provincial agreement on changing that composition in the Charlottetown accord toward the end of Brian Mulroney's years, but that whole package failed and, with that failure, went Senate reform.

Mr. Harper wants senators appointed to fixed terms, instead of the age limit of 75, a sensible change but not a terribly important one. The business of electing senators arose in Alberta some years ago, and several senators have indeed arrived in Ottawa from provincial elections. But no other province has that Alberta fever to elect senators.

If Mr. Harper gets his way, provinces will be invited to elect senators; but it's doubtful a rush will develop to take advantage of the opportunity. In the United States, it might be remembered, senators were appointed by state legislatures until Oregon broke with tradition and held an election. Other states followed. Perhaps Mr. Harper feels something like that might occur in Canada.

It won't. The big provinces are never going to allow an upper house to become powerful. And even Alberta, in its cooler moments, might question the wisdom of having elected senators speaking for the province instead of, or in addition to, the provincial government.

A lot of the fervour for Senate reform in Alberta came during the long years of Liberal rule with majorities built in Quebec and Ontario. For more than five years, the Harper Conservatives have been in office with almost every seat in Alberta. And it would appear they'll be in office for a long time. So chances are that, even in Alberta, the drive for an elected Senate will fade.

The Senate can't be unilaterally abolished - the smaller provinces with a larger number of seats than their population warrants would never stand for it. The Senate isn't going to be elected - the larger provinces wouldn't stand for it.

A prime minister can tinker with the Senate, as Mr. Harper is doing. He could try to appoint sterling Canadians to the body, instead of following past practice and appointing bagmen, political organizers and defeated candidates. But more substantial change? It's a great subject for university seminars and long-winded dissertations.

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