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June 20, 2011

The Reform Party idealism of the 1980s and early 1990s that proclaimed Canada should have an equal, elected and effective Senate is pretty much dead. But that doesn't mean that Senate reform should be forsaken. It will have to be an ongoing task rather than a one bill fixes all solution.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's encouragement for more Senate elections and fixed terms is a positive move that is far from radical. Nevertheless, the Ontario and Quebec governments reacted with predictable outrage. They see elected representation in the Senate as something that would increase the Senate's legitimacy as a voice of regional representation and thus be a threat to their own power.

The snarfing and growling from the two most populous provinces cannot continue forever. There is little moral legitimacy to a house of Parliament in which the bulk of the appointments go to long-time loyalists of the governing party. Sooner or later, most likely later, the force of events and the moral untenability of the current situation will lead even the most hidebound defenders of 19th century practices to change their views.

Eventually, Canada will get an elected Senate. It is just not likely to happen quickly or all at once.

Whether the Senate ever becomes "equal" or "effective" is another matter. Indeed, it hardly seems fair that an upper house with an equal representation from each province should ever become too effective.

The fact that those who crowed most loudly for a Triple-E Senate when the Liberals were in power federally have gone silent under the Conservative regime is itself an indication that their real concern was not about empowering regional voices. It was that they didn't like the party that controlled the House of Commons.

The Senate is indeed effective in a modest way. It does give "sober second thought" to legislation and its members speak with voices less constrained by party discipline than do MPs. It may well be that it is because senators are not elected that they can attend more to the common good and less to their personal popularity.

The more urgent need is for the voices of voters to be equally represented in the House of Commons. Partly, this can be overcome by enacting genuine representation by population. A vote in one part of Canada should have the same weight as that in any other part.

Just as important, however, is the need for some system of proportional representation. That, for example, the Conservative Party should win 96 per cent of the seats in Alberta with 67 per cent of the total vote testifies to the unfairness in the system.

While the effort to Senate reform must progress, so too must we move forward to a day when one person, one vote means that each vote is equally represented in the House of Commons.