OTTAWA – For a generation, Senate reform has been a political touchstone for Conservatives, old-time Reform party types and disgruntled westerners.
The Triple-E Senate — equal, elected and effective — was both a political dogma and a rallying cry.
It helped spur the rise of Reform and the Harper Conservatives who followed. It was the mantra of the right, the path to real equality for the regions.
Not so much anymore. The fire has gone out of the argument and dyed-in-the-wool supporters are questioning the whole idea.
Even the departing head of a Western Canadian think tank that preached the Senate reform gospel for decades has had a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus.
Roger Gibbins, who steps down later this month as president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, joins Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and former Stephen Harper campaign strategist Tom Flanagan among influential westerners who’ve come to the conclusion Senate reform — as currently envisioned — is either unnecessary or misguided.
The dissenting chorus comes with the “Holy Grail” of Senate reform closer to reality than ever, as Conservative majorities in both the House of Commons and the Senate can fast-track any legislation they consider a priority.
Yet a government bill that would limit senators to a single nine-year term and encourage provincial Senate elections is meandering, at best, through the legislative process.
While Tim Uppal, Harper’s minister of democratic reform, calls Bill C-7 “one of my top priorities,” it’s hard not to get the sense that Senate reform has lost its mojo.
“I think we’re now into a new reality where you can’t form a national government without strength in Western Canada,” Gibbins, a professor at the University of Calgary, told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“The Senate was the sort of Holy Grail in parts of Western Canada as the way to provide a regional voice in the national government. So if people begin to feel comfortable that voice is going to be there anyway, then the Senate becomes a less critical reform.”
Gibbins, however, did not stop there.
He said “another reality is starting to sink in” — a reality he concedes is “preaching against the doctrine” of the Canada West Foundation during his 14 years of leadership.
“If we have a Senate that’s elected and effective to some degree — but the seat distribution doesn’t change — then we’re into a situation where an elected Senate may be detrimental to the interests of the West,” said Gibbins.
The four western provinces are vastly under-represented in the 105-seat chamber, with only six seats each. The four Atlantic provinces, despite much smaller populations than the West, have a combined 30 seats; Ontario and Quebec each have 24.
As long as that distribution remains unchanged, Gibbins said: “To the extent that the Senate becomes a more influential body — and that’s uncertain — but to the extent that it does, it would shift power into Atlantic Canada and away from the West.”
That Gibbins is repeating the very arguments made by former Liberal intergovernmental affairs minister Stephane Dion is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
As recently as April 10, the foundation he still leads was mocking Dion in print for his continued warnings about half-baked Senate tinkering.
“Contrary to the doomsayers, if marking an X beside a Senate candidate helps set in motion a good old fashioned constitutional crisis, this may be just what we need,” wrote Robert Roach, the Canada West Foundation’s vice-president of research.
Wall, the conservative-minded premier of Saskatchewan, may have made a more devastating case against Senate reform than Gibbins: irrelevance.
Wall flatly asserted to The Canadian Press in a recent interview that a Triple E Senate was “not going to happen.”
More significantly, Wall doesn’t consider that troubling, given the increased clout of provincial governments.
He said downloading on the provinces under the Liberals in the 1990s and devolution of powers under the Harper government have resulted in “a real strengthening and concentration of authority in provincial capitals.”
“For Saskatchewan, that’s not a bad thing,” said Wall.
Others still see Senate reform — any reform — as movement toward the ultimate goal of equal regional representation in Parliament.
“Half a loaf is always better than no loaf,” said Deb Grey, the first Reform MP elected to the House of Commons back in 1989 when “western alienation” was gaining steam.
“You just say, hey, it’s a step in the right direction — one that we never thought would happen in our lifetime. So you say, ‘good on them, keep at it.'”
By contrast, another old Reform Party stalwart, Tom Flanagan, was quoted last fall saying the current reform bill “scares me, to be honest.”
Peter McCormick, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, said a lot of people who examine the reform issue closely come to the same conclusion: Without first fixing the inequality issue, giving the Senate increased influence and legitimacy locks in its worst flaws.
McCormick said Harper has begun “nibbling at the corners” but argued that’s a mistake.
“Do the easy stuff and then the hard stuff becomes not hard, it becomes impossible,” said the academic. “And without the hard stuff, it’s probably more harm than good.”
Certainly the pace of Bill C-7, introduced last June, does not suggest a sense of government urgency.
It has yet to go to committee, and was last debated in the Commons on Feb. 27, a debate in which Hansard records only a single Conservative intervention in the form of a question.
In the meantime, Alberta has held another round of Senate elections, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has promised her province will follow suit and the Quebec government, as promised, has formally launched a court reference challenging the constitutionality of the reform bill.
Given all these developments, one might expect some priority in passing the legislation, if only to set down a parliamentary marker for the courts and provinces to consider.
Uppal — who would only consent to a five-minute phone interview to discuss Senate reform, during which he repeated rote talking points regardless of the question asked — would not put a timeline on Bill C-7’s passage.
“It’s going through the parliamentary process,” Uppal said, full stop.
Perhaps the government is taking Gibbins’ counsel after all.
“Maybe we want to be cautious about this in terms of making sure we have a Senate that will work,” he warned.