Stephen Harper laid all his senate reform hopes on the Supreme Court of Canada ruling his way, but given his history with the SCOC maybe that was the wrong move. Indeed, the Supreme Court has tossed the senate reform hot potato back into the hands of the Prime Minister, which is as good as not doing anything considering the options now in front of the government and the PM. All the chips Harper had left in regards to senate reform were bet on the Supreme Court to give him the wiggle room he needed to do what he had always promised to do, but didn't, and had to after the expense scandal. He lost.
On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't enact senate reform on its own; senate elections had to be agreed to by the House, the Senate, 7 out of 10 provinces and 50 per cent of the population; term limits have to come with the blessings of the provinces; and the complete abolition of the senate requires the 100 per cent approval of Parliament and the provinces. Other than that, the government could re-open the constitution, another action that requires a majority rule from the provinces and the people, and given past attempts to staple changes to the constitution vis-à-vis Meech Lake or the Charlottetown Accord, that seems an equally unlikely option.
The decision of the highest court works both to Harper's advantage and works against it. On the one hand, he can say that he's tried his best to reform the senate but was rebuked by another unelected institution. On the other hand though, he had promised long before he'd formed a government to reshape the red chamber, and rather than delivering early, he appointed a bunch of people that saw their senate offices as ATM cards. Most interestingly though, the one maneuver left to Harper is one already taken by his arch-nemesis Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau's maneuver earlier this year to remove all Liberal senators from his caucus was laughed off by both the Conservatives and the NDP as a purely symbolic gesture, but it seems now that all that's left are symbolic gestures, and with that being the case, isn't it better to be the first to make that gesture? Of course, disavowing party status isn't going to solve the senate's problems, but as the old saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Creating a non-partisan senate may be far from a long term solution, but it is a start if the goal is to alter the senate in a way that doesn't require national assent.
There are opportunities here to create a different political body that falls somewhere between abolition and elected, but people across Canada may be asking "why bother?" Well, believe it or not, the senate does work, and the most recent example was the testimony it gathered regarding the Fair Elections Act. It was only after the senate came back with recommendations for amendments that the government seemed to start taking the idea of changing the bill seriously. That's some impressive political persuasion for a supposedly outdated body of policy dinosaurs (so to speak).
Like a lot of big problems, remodeling the senate is going to be more work than we thought it was going to be, and that should hardly be surprising. Perhaps now that we know where the boundaries are, we might be able to work together to create meaningful, if not total, reform of the senate. But somehow, I doubt it...