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Trudeau's Senate idea is clever, but fails to address what really ails Canada's democracy

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There are two parts to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s bold Senate initiative: the Senate part and the Trudeau part.

Canadians could be forgiven if they were confused as to the purpose of our federal Parliament’s upper house.

Our original constitutional document, the British North America Act of 1867, doesn’t say much on the subject.

It merely says there shall be a Senate, and then specifies how many members there will be, and what sort of qualifications those members would need.

One of those qualifications is that Senators must own at least $4,000 worth of property.

Back 146 years ago, $4,000 was a fair bit of change, and would have been far beyond the financial reach of most Canadians -- which underscores the identity crisis that has afflicted the Red Chamber since its inception.

Tick one of these three boxes

Is Canada’s Senate supposed to represent the interests of the constituent units of the Canadian federation, the provinces, as do the upper chambers of most federal countries?

Is it supposed to be a kind of council of elders, a chamber of "sober second thought," whose weighty wisdom and judgment should temper the enthusiasms of the elected House of Commons?

Or, in brutal fact, is the Red Chamber nothing more than a shoddy knockoff of the British House of Lords, an ersatz aristocracy?

Based on the history of the Senate, and the kind of appointments Prime Ministers have made to it, number three looks like the right answer.

There are good and hardworking Senators today and there have been in the past.

Over the years, however, Prime Ministers -- including the current one -- have found it convenient to name a slew of party fundraisers, campaign managers and political backroom operators of various kinds to the Red Chamber.

And when Prime Ministers weren’t populating the upper house with a rogues' gallery of partisan political folks, they tended to favour blue ribbon members of Canada's economic and social elite.

Two among Prime Minister Harper's appointments in that vein are Nicole Eaton and Linda Frum, both of whom were born into the moneyed classes and then married into even greater wealth and privilege.

There is no crime in being rich, of course, and some scions of wealthy and influential families have served in the Senate with great distinction. We’ll reserve judgment on the two named above, who haven’t been there for very long.

Trudeau's idea looks better than the Senate as it is

When you look at the whole picture, however, it certainly does not seem as though anyone in power has ever taken seriously the idea that Senators should be particularly qualified to defend the interests of their provinces.

Nor have Prime Ministers generally appointed the sort of folks who might bring an irreplaceable measure of insight and wisdom to the legislative process.

A rather small minority of Senators past and present could be considered genuine champions for their regions.

Even fewer might qualify as wise elder stateswomen or men. In that latter category one might name Eugene Forsey, Thérèse Casgrain, Grattan O’Leary, H. Carl Goldenberg, Florence Bird and David Croll. It is a small club.

For the most part, the Senate is just what the folks who designed it more than 146 years ago probably wanted it to be: a homemade, small-time, colonial oligarchy.

In that light, Justin Trudeau’s promise to create "an open, transparent and public process" for appointing and confirming Senators "and to appoint independent Senators only" seems like a reasonable, pragmatic and quite clever suggestion.

Abolishing the Senate, as the NDP advocates, or having an elected Senate, as Harper’s Conservatives somewhat disingenuously claim they now want, would almost certainly require amending the constitution. And that would require unanimous consent of the provinces which would be almost impossible to get.

What Trudeau proposes is something any Prime Minister could do on his or her own, tomorrow.

His initiative lacks detail, of course, and deals only with the appointment process. The fundamental question of the proper role for an upper house remains unanswered.

For instance, if the Senate is to be a balancing force in the Canadian federal system -- as are the United States Senate, the German Bundesrat, the Swiss Federal Council and the Australian Senate, to name just four -- then how would that work?

Having Senators named in much the same way as Supreme Court justices, as Trudeau proposes, would not assure that they would represent provincial interests.

And do Canadians even want a Senate that would function as a check on the supposedly centralizing power of the House of Commons and the Cabinet?

The last time Canadians had a chance to think about all this was more than two decades ago, during the two rounds of constitutional reform discussions that resulted in the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.

If you look way back to the first Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1980 you’ll see that then Quebec Liberal Leader, Claude Ryan, proposed turning the Senate into a House of the Provinces, with real clout and power.

Justin Trudeau’s father, who was the Canadian Prime Minister then, had a clear response to that idea: "Thanks, but no thanks."

The "No" side, with Prime Minister Trudeau's active support, went on to win the 1980 referendum handsomely, without Trudeau having to promise Quebec or any other province any increased power.

Where does the democratic deficit really lie?

If the current Liberal Leader's proposal might imply any vision for our beleaguered upper house, it would seem to lean toward the "sober second thought" model.

A Senate full of independent, non-partisan, well-qualified and knowledgeable people could, in theory, act as a counterweight to a House of Commons that has become too dominated by the Prime Minister and his entourage.

But to make Canadian democracy more vital and more effective -- and to head off abuses such as the current government’s massive omnibus bills -- what we need is a truly democratic and democratically elected House of Commons.

As things stand now, less than 40 per cent of the popular vote can give one party a healthy majority of seats in the House of Commons. A Canadian Prime Minister who was thus elected -- and was unscrupulous, power-obsessed and ruthless enough -- could use that majority to wield enormous and nearly unchecked power.

That’s how our system works, as the current Prime Minister knows only too well.

The only way to correct that democratic deficit would be by tackling the unfair way in which members of Canada’s House of Commons are elected, not tinkering with the Senate.

But that is a tropic for another day.

In the meantime, Trudeau-fils has won the political public relations battle on this day.

During the winter Parliamentary break, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters he thought Trudeau's charms would wear off when voters got a good look at the new Liberal Leader.

The younger Trudeau's lack of depth and experience will eventually show, Mulcair suggested, and voters will opt for someone with more experience and proven competence.

Mulcair may still be right.

In a live, face-to-face leader’s debate one almost shudders at what sort of odd formulations might spontaneously emerge from the untested Liberal Leader’s mouth.

In the short time he has been Liberal Leader, Trudeau has shown himself to be -- to put it charitably -- a high risk performer when he goes off script.

On this day, however, Trudeau’s Senate gambit seemed smart, confident and very strategic. The NDP’s Mulcair -- and Prime Minister Harper -- are no doubt paying very close attention.

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