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Opinion Don’t go into politics, kid. Be a senator instead

Tony Keller is The Globe and Mail’s editorial page editor

The Globe and Mail

The big story in Ottawa this week is the package of House of Commons "reforms" that the government tried to ram through and then largely dropped. What the Liberals were up to – changing the rules to limit debate, thereby speeding up the passage of government legislation – would not have been a positive for Canadian democracy. The Commons is already an enfeebled body, and MPs a neutered lot; the Liberal moves would have made that bad situation a little worse.

What Parliament really needs are reforms to liberate and empower Canada's elected representatives. Unfortunately, since 2015, the only parliamentary body that has been liberated and empowered by a sweeping reform is the Senate, home of Canada's unelected non-representatives.

Over the past few months, I've talked at length with several senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through his new nomination process. All of the men and women I've met are outstanding in their fields. They've come to Ottawa armed with experience, ideas and enthusiasm, and they want to do right by this country – though the same could be said of many, if not most, MPs. But the similarities end there.

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The new senators are unlike any politicians I've ever met, because they're not politicians. I mean that partly as a compliment, but mostly as a description of the new system's democratic deficit.

In our representative democracy, MPs are the elected representatives. They have a constituency that put them into office, and they have to worry, constantly, about what to say and do to avoid having voters take their seat from them. They have power, but it's contingent. That how it's supposed to be in a democracy. MPs also have a party that nominated them, and they have to worry – overmuch, in our broken system – about what that party and its leadership thinks.

The new, independent senators are divorced from all of that. Which means that talking with them is not like talking with a politician. It's like talking to a judge or a tenured professor.

Senators are like Canada Research Chairs in Canadian government, except that, along with tenure to age 75, they have the power to govern the country.

Politicians in democratic societies are wary of journalists and fearful of voters. Our new senators don't have to be, because they don't have voters. Their only constituency is their conscience. Consider whether, in a democratic society, I mean that as praise or as a warning.

The new senators also are not constrained by membership in a political party. In the Commons, greater independence would be welcome, but party was, until now, a mechanism by which Canada's unelected upper house was turned into a chamber generally operating as a subsidiary of the elected lower house.

The Liberals promised to shake up the Senate, and have they ever. The reformed nomination process brought in by Mr. Trudeau may eventually be seen as one of the biggest changes to Canadian government.

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On paper, the unelected, unrepresentative Senate is coequal with the elected, democratic Commons. And there's no way to limit the Senate's extensive powers, absent a constitutional amendment. (Translation: There is no way to limit the Senate's extensive powers.) The only body that can limit the Senate is the Senate itself.

If the newly empowered senators, recognizing their lack of democratic legitimacy, choose to impose rules on themselves, putting reasonable limits on their ability to block legislation passed in the elected Commons, then the Liberal changes to the Senate might work out for the best. The Senate could become a true chamber of independent second thought, but one that ultimately defers to the first chamber, the elected House of Commons.

The senators I've spoken with say they recognize this problem. But they're also filled with enthusiasm for their new jobs and well-founded confidence in their own abilities. There are government bills they want to amend, and legislation of their own they want to introduce. They're not schlepping to Ottawa every week in order to yield to those eunuchs in the Commons. The effects of this are already being felt. The government is suddenly discovering that the progress of its legislation through the Senate, once a given, is now in question.

One day soon, the main opposition to a majority government, maybe even this government, could come not from across the aisle in the Commons, but from down the hall in the unelected Senate. Whether or not it happens, and when, is already out of the hands of voters.

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