While senators have been fielding public anger about their expenses, the Red Chamber has been handling high-profile legislation in new ways that might mark its evolution.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation that provides a broad new mandate to Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. And half of the chamber acted like they had no leader: the Senate Liberal Caucus voted against the bill that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supported.
Now senators are under public pressure to pass Bill C-586, the bill to modestly increase the influence of backbench MPs – and they must decide whether they, as unelected senators, will meddle in democratic reform in the elected Commons.
With Bill C-51, the Senate showed a little foretaste of a less partisan Senate on a controversial bill. It's legislation that the government thinks will be a popular plank in its security agenda, and Mr. Trudeau, fearing he'd look soft on security, chose to vote for it, though he called it flawed.
And though the Conservative majority passed the bill, the Senate Liberal Caucus ignored Mr. Trudeau and voted against it. It was evidence that Mr. Trudeau's move to cut loose Liberal senators last year had a real effect: he had promised he'd make the Senate less partisan, and expelled all senators from the Liberal caucus. They responded by ignoring his electoralist calculations on a high-profile bill.
But it's a victory for a less partisan Senate that only underlines enduring questions about the chamber's legitimacy. If the Senate had been filled with non-partisans, it's possible the bill would have been defeated. Activists fighting it would have cheered, but the government would have legitimately complained that elected MPs had been thwarted by an unelected Senate.
It's the conundrum that can't really be avoided. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is running hard on abolishing the Senate, and credit him for trying. But getting the support of all the provinces for a constitutional amendment is still a long-shot plan, and every party should say how they'd improve the Senate we seem to be stuck with.
The Conservatives have settled on the status quo. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suggested that partisanship is necessary: if elected politicians don't control unelected senators, who will?
But that's not an answer for the Senate's problem. Canadians are annoyed at the entitlement spending in the Senate, but they're especially annoyed because these are patronage appointees, given a rich sinecure to do partisan hackery. The money and partisanship go together. Prime ministers use the Senate as a reward, and as a payroll.
If there's going to be a less detestable unelected chamber of sober second thought, it takes a weakening of partisanship.
A lot of people like the idea of a check on power – even the NDP, which wants to abolish the Senate, knows its union supporters have been applauding senators fighting Bill C-377, which imposes detailed financial-reporting rules on unions – but it is supposed to be sparingly employed. The same people who applaud opposition to C-377 would be outraged if the unelected chamber blocked a bill they supported.
There is a little outrage mounting now, about Bill C-586, the Reform Act, put forward by Ontario Conservative MP Michael Chong. The bill is a modest attempt at giving ordinary MPs more influence in a system where party leaders now impose rigid party-line discipline. It passed the House of Commons, but it moved slowly in the Senate – in fact it might have stalled if Mr. Chong hadn't stoked a public pressure campaign aimed at senators.
Mr. Chong accused the Senate of subverting the legitimate will of the country's elected representatives. Because the bill deals with how MPs are governed, and not the Senate, he charges that failing to pass it amounts to unconstitutional interference with the elected Commons.
But there are senators who think it is their business, and they're within their rights to defeat it, or delay it – and delay for just a few more weeks will kill it, since all bills will die when the fall election is held. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have strict party lines on Mr. Chong's bill. The Liberal critic, Senator Joan Fraser, thinks the bill is flawed.
There is something else that is happening with Mr. Chong's bill, though. The public pressure is having an effect on senators. They have been asking each other in debate why they're meddling in Commons business. In other words, they're questioning whether it's their place to stop the bill.
And that's the direction that marks the best hope for an improved but unreformed Senate: a chamber that's deferential to elected MPs, but not to party tactics.