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Kenneth Whyte

The course-changing consequences of senate reform Add to ...

Kenneth Whyte is a journalist and author.

The first time I met Peter Lougheed, I was a groundskeeper at the Alberta Legislature. It was toward the end of his 14-year run as premier, and he came down from his office one day at lunch hour to toss a football with us on the lawn.

A decade or so later, with a haircut and a very different wardrobe, I met him again to interview him for my column in The Globe and Mail. He said, “Nice to meet you.” I told him we had met before and mentioned the time he had played catch with us. He paused for an instant and said, genuinely, “I knew I remembered you from somewhere!”

Of course, he didn’t. Not a chance. But he was a great politician, perhaps the most successful politician in Western Canada over the past 50 years.

We talked at lunch about Senate reform, which was in the air at the time. He was trying to convince me that the Meech Lake Accord version of Senate reform was preferable to the Elected, Effective, Equal (Triple-E) version of Senate reform some of us preferred. He did a good job. Again, he was a great politician.

I don’t want to relive that debate here – the details of Meech are deep in history’s dumpster – but I do want to channel Mr. Lougheed’s thinking to developments in Justin Trudeau’s Senate today.

What happens when you unleash the hounds of reform in the Senate, as the Liberals have now done by quashing partisanship, and increase the legitimacy of its members?

Mr. Lougheed was a great careerist as well as a great politician, and he had thought about Senate reform with both career and politics in mind. He believed that any step toward Senate reform would transform the institution at the expense of the House of Commons, so much so, he said, that “if I was starting out in national politics today, there’s no way I’d waste my time in the Commons. I’d want to be in a reformed Senate.”

He started with the math. Try it yourself. There are 338 members in the House of Commons (there were slightly fewer back then). There are 105 members of the Senate. If you’re an ambitious politician, do you want to be one of 338 or one of 105?

Then there’s risk. A senator is appointed, not elected. And appointed until dotage. An MP has his or her job on the line every four or five years, and may lose it for reasons that have nothing to do with individual performance. Which would you take, regular elections or tenure? (Dumpster note: In any of the reform plans at play during the Meech talks, senators enjoyed longer terms than MPs, even if they had to run for them.)

Then there’s the matter of power. By convention, the Senate is a chamber of “sober second thought,” or at least second thought, and because its members are not elected they have limited themselves to that role.

Formally, however, the Senate has virtually equal powers to the House of Commons. It can’t originate money bills but it can reject, rewrite or obstruct money bills, and do pretty much anything else the House can do. All it lacks is legitimacy, and therein lies the magic of the reformed Senate.

“Think about it,” Mr. Lougheed said to me about five times. A reformed Senate is automatically a more legitimate Senate, and a legitimated Senate will inevitably feel itself entitled to use some or all of the vast powers afforded it in our system of government.

Mr. Trudeau is now appointing senators on merit through a formal review process.

You don’t think senators judged worthy by a panel of worthies to fill constitutionally mandated roles won’t eventually feel entitled to use the powers at their disposal? It’s true they haven’t twigged to it yet but they’ll catch on some day – remember, time is on their side.

You don’t think Canadians will stand for them using those powers without sanction of election? Eventually, these senators will behave more like Supreme Court justices than like MPs, and Canadians respect their Supreme Court justices just fine.

Wait, there’s more. Senators have more freedom than MPs, for reasons both formal and political. Because a government can fall on a confidence vote in the Commons, a certain amount of party discipline is required in that chamber. And because MPs ride into office on the coattails of a prime minister, and owe their seats on committees and in cabinet to the favour of the prime minister, they are easily housebroken.

Once a senator is appointed, he or she is good for life, free to vote his or her conscience, free to follow personal interests or priorities.

MPs would kill for a taste of that freedom (or they would, if they weren’t neutered). This ability to exercise one’s judgment and integrity also enhances a senator’s legitimacy and, it follows, the senator’s willingness and ability to exercise power.

So, at the end of the day, senators have three times the profile, far more security, roughly the same formal powers and infinitely more freedom and real power than their Commons colleagues. Where do you want to be?

Let’s approach it another way. If you’re a premier in a Canada with a reformed Senate – and this was a specific point Mr. Lougheed raised – who are you going to call when you need a bill amended on its way through Parliament? Do you call your lowly, anonymous, hopelessly whipped MPs, presuming your province elected some to the government of the day?

Or, do you invite your senators, who are less partisan, at liberty to listen and probably smarter and more experienced than your MPs, to your lodge for the weekend?

This new parliamentary reality would have happened quickly if Meech had passed and the Senate had been reformed decades ago. It’s going to happen gradually now under the new regime Mr. Trudeau has instituted. It might not happen to quite the same extent it would have happened under Meech, but it will definitely happen.

Senators no longer bound to party caucuses will form their own caucuses and alliances. They will learn to pool their votes, or log roll. The lists of amendments appended to bills from the Commons will get longer and longer, and the negotiations between the chambers to land a bill will get tougher. Eventually some senator will draft an act all on his lonesome, and after that they’ll all be draftsmen.

Corporations, lobbyists, special interest groups and ambassadors will start spending time with senators, especially committee chairs, who will become as important as cabinet ministers in Ottawa (and more expert, given the odds on their longevity).

Senators will become head-table fixtures at chamber of commerce luncheons and prized guests on television shows. Not only will these outside forces want to meet and buy senators, they’ll eventually try to plant their own people on lists for consideration as new senators.

I’m not sure how much thought the Liberals gave to Senate reform before they began to reform the Senate, but we’re on our way now, and it’s going to be a long, interesting and consequential journey.

Some day, a long while from now, it just might look like the most significant thing Mr. Trudeau ever did.

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