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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Trudeau’s Senate idea fresh, brave – and worth considering Add to ...

Now that various masters have solved Rubik’s Cube, perhaps they might turn their attention to the Canadian Senate.

Senate reform, like Rubik’s Cube in its early years, remains a puzzle without a solution. Many have tried their hand at changing the Senate, but it remains unreformed, all-but-unreformable and unloved.

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What to do with the Senate produces ideas that range from the impossible to the unlikely, although do not tell that to ardent preachers with easy answers.

The New Democrats want abolition: great politics but a constitutional dead end. As the Supreme Court will tell us in the near future, abolition would require unanimous consent of the federal government and 10 provinces. This being a federation where constitutional reform invariably goes to die, and where unanimous consent is as rare as winter flowers, that 11 governments would agree on abolition is the stuff of fantasy.

The Conservative Party seeks an elected Senate, a dream of the former Reform Party that morphed into today’s Conservatives. An elected Senate has an alluring appeal in a democratic age, except that this idea, too, is fraught with almost insuperable problems.

Changing to an elected Senate would likely require approval of seven provinces with at least half the country’s population. In the flick of an eye, Quebec would object since it has other priorities.

British Columbians would awaken to the fact that they are substantially under-represented in the Senate – six measly seats out of 105. The same for Albertans – six seats. The same, too, for Ontario – 24 seats out of 105, far below the province’s share of the national population.

An elected Senate would disadvantage the big provinces. Why would they buy in? Unless of course every government could agree on reallocating the Senate seats in the Senate, which would be beyond the grasp of even the masters of Rubik’s Cube.

And has anybody thought seriously about how to untangle the Commons and an elected Senate when they clash and frustrate each other, as the elected lower and upper houses often do in the United States and sometimes in Australia?

So now along comes Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau with another alluring possibility, less implausible on its face than the options of the other parties but nonetheless fraught with problems.

Its virtue is that his changes would not require constitutional amendment; its liabilities include an array of unknowns, impracticalities and implausibilities.

It is a brave, even imaginative idea in a theoretical kind of way, and demonstrates what is not yet fully appreciated about Mr. Trudeau: his willingness to take risks. It puts the Liberals in the Senate reform debate with a new idea, which is the right place to be, intellectually and politically speaking.

Mr. Trudeau unveiled his ideas for a Senate of independent, non-partisan appointees without consulting his caucus or the rank-and-file of the party, and in defiance of the party’s constitution, a method that usefully illustrates the almost unbridled power of a party leader in the Canadian system. Would a body of independent senators, however selected, curb that power somewhat or would they roll over as non-elected people?

Getting from today to where Mr. Trudeau proposes would take many years. Even in a Senate of the Wise, there would have to be leaders and groups, since a body of solo flyers would be a recipe for chaos. Even municipal councils without formal parties have a mayor. Leaving Rob Ford aside, the Toronto municipal council without parties is hardly an admirable system.

Who would choose these new senators? A non-partisan “panel,” Mr. Trudeau says. Who would appoint this panel, and what criteria would it use for selection of the senators? Would a legislative body composed of what we might call the great and the good really be representative, instead of being accused in this populist age of being of and for the “elites.”

It is instinctively correct that such a body would beat today’s Senate dominated by bagmen, former MPs, party organizers, defeated candidates, former prime ministerial staffers and partisan loyalists. The Senate’s occasional good works cannot compensate for its lack of legitimacy as the House of Political Patronage.

Abolition is all politics; an elected Senate a dangerous, futile dream. Could Mr. Trudeau’s Senate ever happen, and could it work? His is a new idea worth considering as perhaps better than all the other options.

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