After years of chest-beating and healing over the Constitution Act of 1982, Canada’s Parliament is going to be put to work again to modernize Canada’s democratic federation. The decision to introduce legislation to (1) fix terms for Senators of between 8 and 12 years and (2) provide for provincial elections of Senators is a rare and timely exercise of prime ministerial leadership.
This initiative should be widely supported: the status quo is an offensive pretense. Currently, the Prime Minister of the day fills every Senate vacancy arbitrarily; the most powerful office in the land is free to populate the Chamber of sober second thought on a whim.
Furthermore, abolishing the Senate altogether is neither a feasible option nor responsible. It’s a ploy by those who can’t make up their minds on what can be done and provincial chieftains who wish to monopolize the task of representing their provinces. To imagine a federation as diverse and demographically dynamic as Canada being governed by only one national assembly, elected by representation-by-population, is not serious. Do they think the American federation would hold together without the American Senate?
Yet, so far, the naysayers and worriers are enjoying greater attention than those who want to democratize the Canadian Senate. Predictably, The Globe and Mail, an ally of reform, frets. Electing senators, it reports, is fraught with legal and practical difficulties, according to David E. Smith, a political scientist and University of Saskatchewan:
“Even if the federal government has the authority to permit elected senators, he observed, each province would probably enact its own rules for such elections, if deciding to act at all.
"You're going to end up with an array of provincial rules for the indirect election of a national official," he predicted. "And I think that raises some questions."
There is something quintessentially Canadian about worrying about democratic reform being messy.
Some provinces will take up the invitation to hold elections faster than others and some constitutional lawyers will try to argue that the prime minister is overstepping his constitutional authority in limiting his constitutional discretion to make Senate appointments. However, at its worst, top-down reform by a Harper majority should be a lot tidier than the two decades of bottom up populism that drove US Senate reform a century ago.
The story, in the first instance, shouldn’t be whether Harper’s incremental approach will offend those who don’t like it but whether it has merit.
Here, Harper will have to find in himself more than Pierre Trudeau’s audacity as a strategist. He’ll have to go public and sell his proposal. And if the Opposition in the House of Commons complains that they can’t make up their minds without a Supreme Court reference or a First Ministers conference, he’ll have to be prepared to look arrogant, just like Trudeau.