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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Senate reform: an altered state of affairs? Add to ...

So here we go again, apparently: another round of pondering Senate reform, a subject that animates a few Canadians and bores the rest.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, harkening back to his former Reform Party days, wants to alter the Senate. The precise details of his true intentions aren't known, but there is talk of an elected Senate, or a limitation of the terms of senatorial appointments.

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If he can't get reform, the Prime Minister has warned, he might seek abolition of the Senate, an outcome already supported by the federal NDP and premiers of a handful of provinces.

Go right ahead, gentlemen. Climb into the sandbox of Senate reform and start playing. But before doing so, pause and read at least a summary of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling of 1979 that will complicate every game you might wish to play.

In that ruling, on a reference from Pierre Trudeau's government, the court said 9-0 that Ottawa could unilaterally do almost nothing to the Senate. In particular, Ottawa could not unilaterally abolish the Senate, change the powers of the Senate, alter the number of senators from each province or fiddle with the method of senators.

The Trudeau government had proposed in 1978 a massive change to the Senate, including the selection of members by Ottawa, provincial legislatures and "some other body or bodies." The change envisaged the possibility of electing senators. Elections, ruled the court, would "involve a radical change in the nature of one of the component parts of Parliament." Such a change could not be implemented unilaterally by Ottawa, since it would "affect a fundamental feature of that body."

So all those thinking of entering the Senate reform sandbox should therefore be aware that Ottawa can do very little unilaterally with the Senate, at least not the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution.

The Court essentially saw the Senate as an integral part of the federal system, because senators reflect regional interests in the Parliament of Canada. As such, the federal system cannot be changed by one level of government alone, even if the Senate is part of what is known as the "federal" government that resides largely in Ottawa.

So forget unilateral federal action. If tried, the action would be taken to court. Unless today's Supreme Court overturned a previous unanimous judgment, the action would be unconstitutional.

What about some federal-provincial agreement? In theory, maybe, but just try to secure such an outcome. There's a reason, after all, why every federation or confederation in the world has an upper house of some kind: to offer a regional offset against the representation-by-population of the lower house.

Provinces that want abolition are in a minority and will remain there, since why would the smaller provinces want to yield up an institution in which they are overrepresented? The same goes for Quebec - it won't give up anything in which its interests are potentially defended. The same also goes for diehard defenders of a Triple-E Senate - elected, equal and effective. They won't give up their dream and settle for abolition.

What about electing senators? Ottawa cannot implement this alone, the court said in 1979, but maybe provinces could hold elections and Ottawa could appoint the winners. That might be a possible innovation, since the federal government would not be unilaterally changing the rules of the game. But unless every province agreed to such a change, the Senate would have various tiers of members, some elected, some appointed. (On the other hand, this is how the United States got an elected Senate. Oregon first insisted on electing senators. Other states eventually followed suit.)

But do provincial governments really want elected senators? Some publicly do; others privately do not. The untidy fact is that many premiers want to be the ones to speak for their provinces on the national stage, instead of a bunch of provincially elected senators. Think of the United States. Which Canadian premier would want his role on the national stage to shrivel to that of a governor?

Put the idea of electing senators on the table. Then wait for a second or two before Quebec (and other provinces) comes along with a list of other constitutional demands. What would begin as a one-issue change would quickly become a multi-headed constitutional hydra.

And we all know where that has led, and would certainly lead in the future: constitutional agony, acrimony and deadlock. Beware, therefore, all ye who think about the temptations of the sandbox.

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