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Fundamental change for the better – was there any of it in our political institutions this year? Or was it all cynicism, pandering for votes, further debasement of our democracy?

Go back to January and Justin Trudeau's lightning bolt – his decision to decouple the Liberal Party from the Senate, where it had appointees dutifully serving the party since Confederation times.

Mr. Trudeau disowned 32 sitting members, turning them into independent operators. It was one of the biggest reforms the Red Chamber had ever seen, one that won much praise from the pundits.

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The chamber is supposed to be a stable of sober second thought. It had become a setting of dictated second thought, of votes controlled by leaders' offices. Mr. Trudeau's gambit was aimed at striking a blow against knee-jerk partisanship, against patronage, against dictatorial reach of leaders.

Political leaders rarely reduce their own powers. This was an exceptional instance. But as the year progressed, we hardly heard a word about it. Senate news was largely limited to the tawdry expenses scandal that convulsed the Prime Minister's Office. Moreover, Mr. Trudeau's team has been inept in promoting his reform.

The decoupling, which was sprung on the Liberals without consultation, isn't a cure-all for the beleaguered institution. It has its downsides. But for the few who notice, it has brought noteworthy change.

The senators have truly been severed from the party place. Every one of their votes has been a free vote. There appear to have been no instructions from Mr. Trudeau's office – virtually no communication.

With this autonomy has come other encouraging developments. The independents, who still function as the Official Opposition, have brought changes to Question Period, often putting forward questions submitted by members of the general public. It's a more direct form of democracy, which is effective because it makes the governing side thinks twice about giving non-answers.

The independents have also introduced open caucus sessions, which members of other parties and members of the press and public can attend.

The independents have not discarded their Liberal Party memberships. Rules stipulate that the Senate be run on the basis of a government and an organized opposition. To meet these requirements, they still operate under the old Liberal nomenclature.

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There is still considerable resentment among the senators about having been stripped of formal influence in the party. "I miss not being in caucus," said Senator David Smith, who ran campaigns from his Senate base for former prime minister Jean Chrétien. Opposition could have undermined party unity and backfired on Mr. Trudeau, but Mr. Smith and others have not taken it that far.

They have come to see some benefits, such as not having to spout the party line. "I've never felt more independent in my life," said Senator James Munson, who has been doing outstanding work on behalf of autistic children. He initially balked at Mr. Trudeau's move. So did Senator James Cowan, the leader of the group, but he has come around and gets high marks for bringing in changes, such as the Your Question Period reform.

Should Mr. Trudeau become prime minister, senators will still be appointed, not elected as many Canadians would prefer. Unless he reneges on his reform, Mr. Trudeau will not be able to whip Senate votes, which could create many complications for him.

But in a system where political partisanship and concentration of power with leaders has been worsening, this initiative serves to reduce both.

In an ideal world, the Conservatives would follow suit on the reform. (It's supported by the New Democrats.) Given the expenses scandal, it would look good on the governing party. Under Stephen Harper, there is no chance.

Mr. Trudeau hasn't bested the Prime Minister on many fronts this year, but the Senate is one. The Liberal Leader has shown that reform of the chamber without amending the Constitution is possible. In a year when the democratic system was again bruised and bloodied, it was a most welcome exception.

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