Putting Senate to rest

History will eventually tell whether this was the week when public fatigue with the Canadian Senate passed the point of no return. What is certain is that the abolition of the upper house is well on the way to being upgraded from a Plan B dearest to the heart of the NDP to the Plan A of a critical mass in the country’s political class — possibly including Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.

History will eventually tell whether this was the week when public fatigue with the Canadian Senate passed the point of no return.

What is certain is that the abolition of the upper house is well on the way to being upgraded from a Plan B dearest to the heart of the NDP to the Plan A of a critical mass in the country’s political class — possibly including Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself.

The latest controversies involving a handful of senators potentially playing loose with the upper house’s honour system and — in the case of Patrick Brazeau, also crossing the line into Criminal Code territory — have once again cast a disreputable shadow on an unloved institution.

The fact that Mike Duffy and Brazeau were hand-picked by the current prime minister to sit in the Senate and happen to be Conservative household names only compounds the damage.

But this week’s developments are just the latest in a series that is turning outright abolition from the path less travelled to the preferred route for dealing with a colonial-era federal institution.

Over the past decade Ontario — under a Liberal government — has added its influential voice to those calling for the abolition of the Senate.

At the same time, the pro-abolition NDP has expanded its reach into Atlantic Canada and Quebec. Despite an influx of New Democrats from the two regions of the country that are said to be most attached to the Senate, there is no indication that the party is under pressure to tone down its Senate stance.

But perhaps the most significant sea change has taken place among the chattering classes in Western Canada.

In the region that has long been the source of the momentum behind the drive to reform the Senate, the reality that its provincial makeup is unlikely to be rebalanced through a constitutional amendment any time soon has sunk in.

To move to an elected Senate in the current circumstances would amount to enhancing the legitimacy of a house that distorts the demographics of the country in favour of the smaller provinces.

But just how hard would it be to abolish the Senate? The short answer is: harder than many abolitionists would like, but not necessarily as impossible as some are claiming.

The Harper government is asking the Supreme Court to chart a constitutional path to a variety of Senate reform options. Significantly, abolition is on the list.

No one expects Canada’s highest court to tell the federal government that it can unilaterally do away with one of the two houses of Parliament.

But the court might find that the support of seven provinces accounting for more than 50 per cent of Canada’s total population would be sufficient to abolish the Senate. Such a finding would free the federal government from the shackles of provincial unanimity.

And then most of the analysis that dismisses the abolition of the Senate as impossible starts from the premise that Quebec and the Atlantic provinces would never support it.

Yet there is scant evidence that Quebecers, to name just of the constituencies that are professed to want to hold on to the upper house, are more attached to the Senate than Ontarians.

The other obstacle is a deeply entrenched reluctance to step back into the constitutional minefield. But abolishing the Senate — even as it might require a high degree of provincial approval — would not demand the kind of prolonged negotiation that reforming the institution would.

When one is taking down a house, there is no need to haggle over a new interior design.

If Harper wanted to get the abolition ball rolling, his government could introduce a constitutional amendment in Parliament.

The provinces would then have a three-year window to get on board. If enough of them did, the amendment would succeed. But one way or another, the country would at least finally have the conversation it deserves on the future of the Senate.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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