An appetite for reform

Senate reform will likely gain renewed prominence at this weekend's Conservative party convention in Calgary.

There is irony in the fact that this weekend’s Conservative party convention is being held at the fountainhead of Senate reform, while at the same time the Upper House remains mired in controversy of historic proportion.

It was in Calgary that an erstwhile young leader of the Reform Party found his most sympathetic ear for a reformed Senate. Preston Manning didn’t just want to change it, he promised to reinvent it as “equal, elected and effective.”

There was appetite for change. The Senate was far from equal, Manning said, particularly when a province like New Brunswick was allowed 10 senators (one for every 75,000 citizens), while Alberta had only six (one for every 661,000).

And it was hardly effective. Rather than generating meaningful work, it was a retirement home for party supporters and failed politicians. (And if that argument was easy to make in the late 1980s, it was easier a decade later when it was learned Senator Andy Thompson was in fact living in Mexico and showing up in Ottawa just long enough to punch his Senate timecard.)

As for elected, Alberta warmed to that notion immediately, becoming the first (and only) province to elect the person the provincial government would then recommend to the prime minister for appointment to the Senate.

The dream of Senate reform has softened as Manning’s Reform party morphed into the present-day Conservative Party. But with Manning’s former policy advisor Stephen Harper at the helm, it remains a popular topic. Indeed, Harper’s latest attempt was shot down last week by the Quebec Court of Appeal. The ruling confirmed one of the most difficult aspects of Senate Reform; that significant change would mean either garnering support from seven provinces (containing half the country’s population), or reopening the constitution – something few politicians have any desire to do.

Which leaves the squalid little display we’ve been witnessing in Ottawa. The latest word is that a vote to expel Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau likely won’t happen until after the Conservative convention this weekend. That will mean the 3,000 delegates expected will have plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the topic.

Some will undoubtedly question Harper’s ham-fisted handling of the affair.

But another narrative likely to emerge will have the familiarity of an old friend: That the Senate is an antiquated and obsolete institution, and that the public has a renewed appetite for change.