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Campbell Clark logo

If big Senate reform is beyond their reach, Canada's political leaders have different visions of reform writ small.

Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are both arguing the best way to fix an unelected legislature is to water down its partisanship.

For Stephen Harper, it's tightening the purse strings. His government has expressed a philosophical objection to freeing the Senate from the bounds of partisanship.

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All three leaders now face a completely different debate about changing the hated Senate. It's no longer about what you'd like to do, it's about what you can do. The Supreme Court's Friday ruling dashed the mirage of easy routes to reform by stating that electing or abolishing the Senate requires provincial approval for a Constitutional amendment. And of the three, only Mr. Mulcair would be willing to try that.

But lesser roads to reform remain. Canadians don't like the unelected Senate, but there are other aspects of the Upper Chamber they'd like to change. They don't like the idea that it's a repository for party political hacks. And they don't like the idea that they're paying top dollar for it, too.

Mr. Mulcair used to have the easiest time in debates on the Senate, because his New Democratic Party has never had Senators, and favoured outright abolition. It was clean, simple, and bold. But it's not so simple anymore now that Mr. Mulcair has to admit it would require Constitutional talks, and he's more likely to get bogged down in the public's distaste for re-opening the Constitution.

But his party has put forward one major route for improving the unelected Senate. "The place has to be de-partisanized," said New Democrat MP Craig Scott , the party's critic for democratic reform. Independence from party ties is the only way for the unelected Senate to live up to its original function of providing "sober second thought" for legislation, he said.

That reform policy used to be the NDP's turf, but Mr. Trudeau stole it in January, when he excluded Liberal senators from his caucus, and promised that if he's elected, future Senators would be chosen by some sort of advisory committee. The Liberals pre-empted the court's decision, choosing to look a lesser reforms, and Mr. Trudeau garnered attention for excluding senators from his caucus – even though they banded together as the Senate Liberal Caucus.

Mr. Trudeau's proposal to have a committee choose senators, something like the way Order of Canada recipients are chosen, probably doesn't meet the test set by the Supreme Court, which said the Governor-General, as advised by the PM, must be able to appoint them. But some kind of vetting process by a committee might still do what he proposed: reduce the partisanship in appointments.

But Mr. Harper's government has already declared that a bad idea. At least Conservative senators are accountable to their party, Mr. Harper said, defending party lines in the vote to oust three senators accused of making inappropriate expense claims, Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, and Pamela Wallin.

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His minister for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre said that at least when senators are appointed by the prime minister, they're appointed by someone who is democratically elected. Having them selected by committee would make them less accountable and less democratic. One Conservative MP, John Williamson, said a few months ago that committees would pick a bunch of elites, and he'd rather see senators picked out of the phone book. In other words, if they're not going to be elected, they should be picked by the elected government.

Instead, the Conservatives are signalling they'll go another way. Mr. Poilievre said the government will now focus on minimizing the cost of the Senate, and maximizing its accountability. The latter means more rules for reporting things like expenses. The former is a signal they plan to cut Senate budgets.

There's no doubt that would be popular. A chamber that most Canadians think isn't really legitimate has a budget of $91.5-million, and an administration with 393 employees.

And it suits the Conservatives' favoured approach to many things: making it a taxpayer issue. If Canadians are stuck with an unelected Senate, at least they'll appreciate the cost being cut.

But it's a fight Mr. Harper might really not be willing to pick. Slashing senators' budgets dramatically requires approval from the Red Chamber itself. And there's no certainty that the majority appointed by Mr. Harper will accept his will if it means slashing their budgets, staff, travel, expense, or salaries.

And with big reforms off the agenda, it's not clear how much capital leaders will want to spend on little ones. But all of them will want to say they will do something to change the institution Canadians love to hate.

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Follow me on Twitter: @camrclark

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