No easy Senate fix on the horizon

Patience with the Senate has run out on Parliament Hill and beyond.

Patience with the Senate has run out on Parliament Hill and beyond.

With the exception of the Liberals, who have been arguing that the main problem with the upper house is that Justin Trudeau is not appointing its members, every party agrees that business as usual should no longer be an option.

But what can any of them realistically do about it?

On Thursday, a government MP said Prime Minister Stephen Harper would stop appointing senators until they can be elected. Harper’s office immediately denied Eve Adams’ assertion.

To freeze appointments on such an open-ended basis would be irresponsible.

There is no guarantee that any attempt at Senate reform will succeed or at least not in a timely manner.

Like it or not, the Senate is an essential part of Canada’s legislative framework.

Its function is spelled out in the Constitution. To render it dysfunctional through attrition would amount to crippling the operations of Parliament itself.

But there is little to prevent Harper from at least freezing Senate appointments until the 2015 election. Such a gesture would come at little cost to his control of the upper house.

At this juncture, the Conservatives outnumber the Liberals in the Senate by a margin of almost two to one.

There are three vacant seats and nine more retirements to come — including those of three Liberal senators — between now and the fall of 2015.

As an aside, Marjory LeBreton — the government Senate House leader who believes a Liberal is hiding behind every Parliament Hill bush — will reach retirement age (75) shortly before the next campaign. (Mike Duffy’s tenure is set to expire in 2021.)

Between now and the 2015 election, the Supreme Court will wade into the debate. The government has belatedly asked the top court to pronounce on the modalities involved in reforming or abolishing the Senate.

A Quebec reference on the same issue is working its way up the court system.

But any substantial reform of the Senate would require a constitutional amendment, and a high level of provincial support.

The route the Conservatives mapped out early in their first mandate is drafted with the intent of bypassing the constitutional path.

But even if a unilateral federal move to an elected Senate is vetted by the Supreme Court, it will only exacerbate a root cause of the disconnect between the upper house and the political reality of the federation.

Harper’s plan would not address the regional distribution of the seats of the Senate.

His proposal would enhance the legitimacy of an upper house within which Western Canada is chronically under-represented.

The NDP has long advocated the abolition of the Senate and that option has more traction in the public than at any other time in history. If it was put to a referendum against the background of the current spending scandal, a majority would likely support it.

But the Senate could not be abolished without a constitutional amendment.

Unless a clear majority in every province was on side with abolition, one or more premier would likely block the plan or at least try to wrestle some other constitutional concession in exchange for its support. If the constitutional file is re-opened, it will be very hard to limit the discussion to Senate reform.

A third option, also designed to avoid the constitutional route, would see the Senate became a merit-based chamber with its future members appointed by some august body of so-called wise men and women.

Under that scheme, the upper house would be non-partisan but also not terribly accountable. Is Canada really ready to give a hand-picked chattering class elite sway over its duly elected government?

Even with guidance from the Supreme Court, there is no easy Senate fix on the horizon.

But pushing the pause button on replenishing its ranks long enough to have a national discussion as to what to do with it would be a sensible first step.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.