Thursday, August 11, 2011

Here’s why Senate reform isn’t going to happen

Anyone who thinks Canada’s Senate will be reformed anytime soon should brush up on their ancient Roman history.

The Romans, like us, had a Senate.

And it was a political entity that for hundreds of years was basically powerless.

But it was resilient: In fact, the Roman Senate actually kept meeting for about one hundred years after the Empire had fallen.

The point I’m trying to make is that political institutions, no matter how archaic and ineffective they might be, can sometimes prove extremely durable and resistant to change.

The Canadian Senate is one such institution.

And yes I know Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Senate reform, including having elected Senators, is one of his priorities.

But that doesn’t mean his words or his promises will translate into action.

After all, the Prime Minister is a shrewd political thinker, meaning he probably realizes that taking on the massive job of Senate reform is not really in his interest.

For one thing, convincing the provincial Premiers to go along with reforming the Upper House will require expending an awful lot of energy and an awful lot of valuable political capital on an issue that offers little in the way of positive returns.

Plus, from the Prime Minister’s perspective the Senate probably works just fine as it is.

Why would he rush to have elected Senators when having the power to appoint people to the Senate gives him a great way to reward his loyal supporters?

And let’s face it, would Harper really want elected Conservative Senators, who won’t owe their jobs to his patronage, running around Ottawa?

Such Senators might show an independent streak and (horror of horrors) speak their own minds without regard to Conservative talking points.

Of course, the Prime Minister might still push for Senate reform if there was a public demand for it.

But does anybody really care about changing the Senate?

Certainly, people cared about 25 years ago.

Indeed, back then reforming the Senate was a hot topic in Western Canada, especially in Alberta.

For instance, Albertans were demanding what was called a “Triple –E Senate”, that is a Senate that was elected, effective and equal.

It was an issue the old Reform Party took on with great gusto.

But what generated interest in Senate reform wasn’t simply a desire to reform an outdated institution.

Albertans wanted an elected and equal Senate for one basic reason: protection.

The idea was a Triple-E Senate would provide a much-needed check on the power of the Liberal dominated House of Commons which Albertans increasingly came to view as hostile to their interests.

And they had reason for such suspicion; all too often the Liberals would sacrifice the needs of Alberta or exploit its resources to appease the vote-rich provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

A classic example of this behaviour was the National Energy Program, an ill-conceived Liberal scheme which devastated Alberta’s economy.

So it’s not surprising that Westerners clamored for a Senate with real legislative power and with equality for all the provinces.

In short, they needed an effective voice in Ottawa.

But things are different now in 2011.

The Liberals have been vanquished and the Prime Minister is not only a Conservative, he’s an Albertan.

That means the central government is no longer viewed as a threat to Alberta’s resources, meaning a reformed Senate is no longer needed.

Hence there exists no organized effort in Alberta or anywhere else for that matter, to push the Harper government on Senate reform.

As a result, the Senate will remain frozen in time.

None of this would surprise the Romans.

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