The hope for an elected Senate is dead, or at least fast asleep

When Bob Runciman was appointed to the upper house in 2010, it was still possible to believe that an elected Senate was a distinct possibility. Now, the cause of an elected Senate seems dead. Or at least fast asleep.

Nothing will change 'until someone's prepared to come to grips with it,' retiring Runciman says

Sen. Bob Runciman listens to a speaker during a news conference in Ottawa in June. He departed from the Senate this week without seeing it reformed. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Departing from the red chamber this week on his 75th birthday, Bob Runciman notes his disappointment at "the failure to move toward an elected Senate."

​Back when Runciman was appointed to the upper house in 2010, it was still possible to believe an elected Senate was a distinct possibility.

But now, more than 30 years after Bert Brown plowed "Triple-E Senate or else" into an Alberta barley field, the cause of an elected Senate seems dead. Or at least fast asleep.

"I think that an important body like that should have a significant degree of accountability to the taxpayers and people of this country, and that's missing," Runciman said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House on Wednesday, as he reached the Senate's mandatory retirement age.
Government Representative in the Senate Peter Harder: ‘At the end of the day, I think the Senate did the right thing’ 7:55

That will continue to be lacking, he said, "until someone's prepared to come to grips with it."

Perhaps only a significant crisis will motivate anyone to try.

Harper's Senate woes

In a way, former prime minister Stephen Harper did his level best to build support for reform.

Not only did he appoint Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Don Meredith, the four senators whose assorted controversies (justifiably or not) brought the upper chamber to the new depths of disrepute, but he also made exactly the sort of partisan appointments for which the Senate was already infamous: his party's former fundraising director, his party's former president, defeated party candidates and his own former director of communications.

But his government's approach to actually implementing reform left something to be desired.

After seven years of proposing term limits and "consultative" elections, and arguing that Parliament could make such changes on its own, the Conservatives belatedly asked the Supreme Court in 2013 to rule on whether provincial agreement was required.

Up to the provinces

When the court responded in April 2014 that the agreement of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population would be necessary to implement the Conservatives' desired changes, Harper threw up his hands and declared it was up to the provinces to change the Senate.

Had Harper's government referred the matter to the Supreme Court immediately upon taking office in 2006, he might have had seven or eight years to rally provincial agreement.

Instead, despite nearly a decade in office, he accomplished almost nothing toward establishing an elected Senate  — his one step toward reform being the nomination of three senators who had been selected via Alberta's non-binding elections.

No other province was convinced to go forward with a vote.
Conservative Senator Denise Batters: ‘Conservative Senators were the only ones today who stuck up for Canadian taxpayers’ 6:51

"It should have been one of the top three agenda items for the government and it wasn't, and I think it did fall between the cracks," says Runciman, who had pushed for reform as a member of the Ontario legislature.

"And then, of course, the Mike Duffy situation hit the fan and I think the feelings toward the Senate within the governing party kind of soured, and at that point in time the Senate was more of a problem than sort of an aspirational goal in terms of change."

Conservative enthusiasm wilts

Conservatives have yet to rediscover their enthusiasm.

The upper chamber received little to no attention during the party's recent leadership race. Even Michael Chong, the party's leading voice on democratic reform, stopped short of detailing a plan for an elected Senate.

In June, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he believed in an elected Senate but noted that the Supreme Court had set a high bar for change. Were he to become prime minister, he said, he would appoint Conservatives to fill vacancies, apparently eschewing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's move to appoint independents.

In fairness, the prospect of amending the Constitution is a significant deterrent. Opening that door would inevitably provoke demands for other changes. A prime minister looking to establish an elected Senate would be challenged to keep any discussion focused on the upper chamber.

Over to you, Jason Kenney?

But at the moment no one seems particularly interested in even promising to try. (Meanwhile, when the NDP fell back to third-party status, it took the cause of abolition with it.)

Absent federal leadership or prodding, It's not clear why the provinces would take it upon themselves to put together a solution.

But Runciman wonders if Jason Kenney, if he wins the leadership of Alberta's United Conservative Party and then defeats Rachel Notley's NDP government, could take up the cause. Even then, the departing senator figures, it would take a concerted national campaign to make the case for reform.

Of course, Kenney might also conclude that his time is better spent on more popular issues.

Remember Triple-E?

The proposal for a Triple-E Senate — elected, effective and with equal representation across provinces — fit within a concern that Western Canada was not being treated fairly, that Ontario and Quebec had too much power in Ottawa.

In making the case for change, Reform Party leader Preston Manning, could raise the spectre of Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program and wonder if an elected Senate would have made a difference.

Reviving the notion of an elected Senate might require such a rallying cry.

Runciman wonders if Justin Trudeau's independent senators — if the Liberals win another term in 2019, independents could end up occupying something like 80 of the Senate's 105 seats — could one day provoke a crisis by standing in the way of the House of Commons. 

That might stir public sentiment. Another expense scandal could, too. Or perhaps the Trudeau government will find some new way to make the Senate a symbol of injustice and rot.

Never far from scorn

Throughout its history, the Senate has never been far from public scorn. And even if Trudeau's non-partisan appointments have quieted concerns, they could still be dismissed as privileged elites that offend the notion of democratic representation.

But, at the moment, it is hard to imagine anyone caring enough to carve a protest into a barley field or any politician seeing an upside to embracing the case for change.

That sort of apathy has always been an appointed Senate's best chance of survival.

Senator Bob Runciman is set to retire from the Red Chamber. He looks ahead to the future of Senate reform. 12:31

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.