Predicting a timeline for Senate reform
Feb 9, 2014

Predicting a timeline for Senate reform

Historically, big changes in governance often occur in a period of rapid debate and change, following a long period of relative inaction while structural pressures build. For the Senate, the problems regarding the institution have been clear for a long time, but prospects for change have been dim. Complaints about the system and the occasional proposal for change are uttered here and there, but they didn't command centre stage.

In the last year, however, there has been a confluence of factors that make the prospects for change increasingly likely. Firstly, Harper won a majority government. A long time critic of the Senate - back when it had a distinct Liberal majority - such reform was a core campaign plank, albeit one that was set aside during his minority years. Then, the Senate Scandal blew up in his face, forcing the very failings Harper had long decried (before hypocritically engaging in them himself) onto centre stage. With Harper having put in a request to the Supreme Court for advice on the constitutionality of various actions, we are sure to get significant momentum after that with the picture of precisely what is constitutionally viable made more clear. Most recently, Justin Trudeau took the action to unceremoniously dump all Liberal Senators from his caucus which, rightly or wrongly, is the biggest change to the Senate since 1965 when the 75 year old mandatory retirement age was set.

Taken together, momentum for Senate reform has never been stronger. All three parties are calling for it, in different ways. A large majority of the population supports it (see image). And the issue has consistently been the number one political news maker in the last year.

Yet, I doubt it will be 2014. I think the big moment for possible change comes after the next election. Harper has dragged his feet too much on the issue. We know nothing is going to happen until we hear back from the Supreme Court sometime later this year, but by that point there will be little time before he transitions into being a lame duck at the tail end of his mandate. Instead, it will be a major issue in the 2015 elections. This is as it should be; it is a big and important issue and as it comes to a head, it is as reasonable an issue as any to fight an election over. Come 2016, the elected party will have a strong mandate for change, won in an election prioritizing this issue, following a time when there a strong sense that change should happen. That is the moment when this will happen, if it happens.

Assuming this timeline is correct, that means there is a lot of importance now in having the debate of what change we want. It is true, all three parties have established policy prescriptions (NDP wants abolishment, Liberals want non partisan appointments, Conservatives want elected candidates). But the details are still in the flux. And there is time to shift the views of a particular party as well as the possibility of various messy situations (imagine, for instance, a NDP-Liberal coalition).

It is precisely in the period leading up to a moment of big change when the debate over precisely how that change is going to be implemented most matters. Arguably, since 1867 this is the most important time to discuss this issue and to determine the best course of action. It's a big and complicated issue, for the nature of institutional structures has far reaching and often unpredictable consequences. We know what Canada has turned out like with our Senate, what the US has turned out like with theirs, but much harder to predict what it will be like if we change.

In this spirit, stay tuned for various analysis and prescriptions regarding the Senate coming on this blog.

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