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Trudeau’s move doesn’t solve the Senate, but does make problems for Harper

Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons on Jan. 28, 2014.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Liberals have finally come up with a policy on the Senate, and Justin Trudeau's problem is that it doesn't fix what's fundamentally wrong. Stephen Harper's problem is that it aims at one widely despised part of what's wrong.

Mr. Trudeau's grand gesture, sweeping Liberal senators out of the party's parliamentary caucus, was a theatrical flourish to claim action toward the main promise: that he'd take the partisan hackery out of the Red Chamber, if he and his party take power.

The Conservatives scoffed. This, after all, isn't a plan to rid Canadians of the illegitimate throwback of an unelected Senate. Mr. Trudeau's pledge to let a non-partisan committee choose senators, similar to the way Order of Canada recipients are chosen, had Conservative MP John Williamson envisioning elites from "Toronto, Montreal and Kingston" picking legislators.

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"I'd rather have senators picked randomly out of the phone book," he said. "The phone book is going to be much more representative of real Canada."

But the thing is, Canadians can despise the undemocratic nature of an unelected Senate and hate its partisan patronage, too. And they do: Most see the fact that prime ministers from both parties have packed the chamber with party fundraisers, organizers and press secretaries, bestowing the reward of well-paid jobs-for-life, as a particularly galling feature of a disrespected body.

Mr. Trudeau's move has seized the initiative where the Liberals had none. While the Senate scandal raged, Mr. Harper could argue he wanted an elected chamber, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair unequivocally demanded it be abolished. Mr. Trudeau was left to sputter, looking like the defender of the status quo.

In fact, excluding senators from caucus was Mr. Mulcair's idea, one that Mr. Trudeau initially rejected. But Mr. Trudeau did it. It sends the Senate, to Mr. Harper's chagrin, back into the headlines, and the Liberals hope it will also dampen the sting if an Auditor-General's report on senators' expenses finds misdeeds by Liberals.

And now, Mr. Trudeau is arguing he will do what Mr. Harper will not – and that it's the best that can be done, since the road to fundamental reform is blocked.

After eight years in power, Mr. Harper is still campaigning against the unelected Senate. His government has asked the Supreme Court whether it can unilaterally move to an elected Senate, or abolish it. But it knows that the answer is likely to be that either option requires constitutional negotiations with the provinces. That would leave the Conservatives looking for new ways to campaign – perhaps holding a referendum to pressure premiers.

Mr. Trudeau's move to exclude Liberal senators from caucus won't end partisan politics in the Senate. It took just hours before some of those senators were talking about regrouping as an "independent Liberal" Senate caucus – hardly a convincing cutting of ties. Mr. Harper gleefully told the Commons that "unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal."

Canadians won't truly know how independent those Liberal senators really are, how free they are from the party whip, just as they didn't know the full extent of the direction of Conservative senators by Mr. Harper's office – including re-drafting inquiry reports and having the party pay Mike Duffy's legal fees – until the RCMP started probing the scandal.

In Mr. Harper's eyes, independence won't make an unelected Senate better. In Question Period, as he ridiculed Liberal claims of new independence, he suggested that following the government's will is the appropriate course for Tory senators. "Conservative senators are not trying to pretend they are anything other than senators who support the elected government of Canadians," he said.

The problem, however, is that, without more fundamental reform, his Conservative appointees in the Senate will outlast his government, and Canadians don't like funding well-paid rubber-stampers anyway. The fact that those salaries and expense accounts go to loyal party operatives is, for most Canadians, an extra insult: This low-value, high-priced perk goes to their friends. The Prime Minister has been left to argue that the only fix for that is more sweeping reform that he might not be able to muster.

Mr. Harper is quite right: Mr. Trudeau's plan is a quarter-measure that won't rectify the fundamental flaws that Canadians dislike about the Senate. But it is a pledge to change one thing that really bugs them.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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