How many times in our politics has this ever happened? A political leader comes forward and voluntarily reduces, in significant measure, his own powers?
Historians might come up with the odd example. But they are rare. Normally it's the other way around. Normally we get powermongers, not powerpruners. Normally we get leaders who think like this: "I have the power now and nothing is going to stand in my way."
It's this callous political culture that gives what Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has done with regard to his party's senators such an extraordinary look. It may come to be seen as democratic reform's Big-Bang moment, the time when we finally got serious about doing something about a system that has become a mockery of democracy.
The Trudeau gambit could well touch off a chain reaction or at least provide momentum for more reform. There is much criticism of his exploit – and much of that criticism is justified. But there is broad support. People are fed up with hyper-partisanship. Even conservative groups like the Canada West Foundation and commentators like Robert Fulford see value in what the young leader has done.
The pressure now reverts to the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper can't sit and do nothing in response, handing the cause of democratic reform to the Liberal Party. He will have to respond with a serious reform measure or measures of his own. A good start would be support for a facsimile of what his caucus member Michael Chong is advocating in a private member's bill that seeks to restore influence to parliamentarians.
The Trudeau move is being rightly criticized for the dictatorial manner in which it was carried out. It was done without regard for the party's constitution and without input from the Liberal caucus. There are other problems. While Mr. Trudeau has set senators free of his party, he has not provided an adequate new formula for appointing them. A blue-ribbon panel to anoint senators will face all kinds of credibility questions.
But there is no mistaking the overall effect of the measure. It is a peeling back of power. It strips the leader of caucus numbers and Senate influence. It provides greater independence to a legislative branch of government heretofore heavily influenced by the party leader's dictates.
Nor is Mr. Trudeau likely to stop with the one big reform. Look for him to build on what he is doing to construct a vision of new democracy for Canada to carry him into the next election. He can more easily score points against Mr. Harper on that issue than the economy.
Mr. Harper may resort to his standard attack mode to discredit the Trudeau reform. But he has been facing demands in his own party beyond those of Mr. Chong to devolve power. Though the old ideals of the Reform Party, which once stood for democratization like no other, have been largely forgotten, there are many Tories sensitive to the criticism that what we have is a democracy in name alone; one in which Parliament is overrun, fewer and fewer come out to vote, and laws and regulations are routinely disregarded, the Senate scandal being just one of multifarious examples.
It was under Pierre Trudeau that the last major piece of democratic reform took shape. Though he expanded the powers of the Prime Minister's Office to a fault, it was his Charter of Rights and Freedoms that devolved more power to the people via the courts. It was implemented in a unilateral manner just like the Senate edict of his son. But it too had a salutary effect. It reduced the reach of those who think being a leader makes them king.
Let there be more of that and let the dispersal of then Red Chamber Liberals hasten the process.