Senate’s fate remains solid despite years of treading on shaky ground

Spoiler alert: if there are any precocious five-year-olds out there reading this column, the chances of significant Senate change during your lifetime are slim to none.

But you would never imagine that listening to federal politicians make wild promises about changing one of the political institutions that has fascinated, enraged and bemused Canadians since it was sanctified by the British North America Act that created Canada in 1867.

Meaningful change is all but impossible, but more about that later.

For context, it is useful to remember why the Senate was created and has endured, despite the best efforts of some senators over many decades to discredit it.

In many ways, it was the promise that made the Confederation bargain possible and the glue that held it together despite periodic bouts of provincial discontent.

Smaller provinces saw their constitutionally guaranteed allotment of Senate seats as a promise that their influence in the federal government would never become irrelevant. The appointed Senate was supposed to be a chamber of “sober second thought” that would ride herd over the excesses of democracy while making sure that regional and provincial interests were given voice.

And of course, since the days of John A. Macdonald, prime ministers have seen the Senate as a way to reward their friends and party stalwarts and to strengthen their political power.

Now, with Senate expense scandals afoot, with Senate intrigues as much an interest for police departments as political scientists and voters in-creasingly fed up with the Parliament Hill gong show, politicians are doing what politicians so often do — making promises they cannot keep.

Prime minister Stephen Harper, once a Reform party Senate Triple E stalwart and now the prime minister with one of the longest lists of appointments in history, insists the Senate must reform, become elected or disappear.

He has asked the Supreme Court how far Ottawa can go without the full consent of provinces. The answer next autumn is almost certain to be: “Not very far.”

Then there is NDP leader Thomas Mulcair leading a campaign to abolish the Senate.

And last week, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau tried to carve out his own ground by announcing that in the interests of non-partisanship, all 32 Liberal senators would leave the Liberal caucus and would no longer be recognized as Liberal legislators.

The Liberal senators quickly announced they would essentially become Independent Liberals, still supporting the party even if not being told what to do by the leader.

Harper scoffed that the announcement was a publicity stunt, that non-elected Liberal senators would merely become unelected senators “who happen to be Liberal.”

However, in some quarters Tru-deau was given credit for at least proposing something different, and he correctly nailed the problem that faces Mulcair and the abolitionists: abolition would require a constitutional amendment and there is almost no appetite for a renewed constitutional debate in Canada or chance of success.

As well, there is no chance there would be enough provincial support to change the rules anytime soon, rhetoric from Alberta and Saskatchewan governments notwithstanding.

So the debate is a side show: good to inspire political fundraising campaigns and partisan passion but leading nowhere.

As it has for almost 147 years, the Senate with its strengths and problems remains an insoluble political conundrum, right up there with the weather.

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