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To truly reinvent itself, the Senate must first prove its value

Later this month, Peter Harder will celebrate his first anniversary as Representative of the Government in the Senate, Justin Trudeau's point person in the Red Chamber. Is he having fun?

"That's an emotion that's eluding me," he confesses.

Canada's Senate is struggling to reinvent itself, to shed its reputation as a refuge for party hacks, to become instead a truly non-partisan body of sober second thought.

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Then along comes Don Meredith.

The Ontario senator awaits an ethics-committee report on whether and how he should be punished for abusing his office by having sexual relations with a teenager. Mr. Harder has called the Meredith affair "a kick in the gut."

"It comes at a time when we've had some momentum and some real progress," in transforming the Senate, he said in an interview. "This is a bump on the road for sure."

During the final years of Stephen Harper's Conservative government, the Senate reached its nadir, with Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau all suspended during the Senate expenses scandal.

At the height of that scandal, Justin Trudeau expelled all Liberal senators from caucus. After he became Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau inaugurated a new policy of appointing senators based on merit who sit as independents. There are now 42 independents of one description or another. With another batch of senators facing mandatory retirement at age 75, independents should form a majority no later than the summer of next year.

"We have in this Parliament the gift, as senators, of … establishing a new pattern of expectation for a Senate that is deliberative, that … is less partisan, more independent, accountable and transparent in our actions," said Mr Harder, who served many years as a senior bureaucrat in the federal government.

We saw that new, improved Senate in action last year when it debated the government's assisted-dying legislation. The Senate revised that legislation, and then sent the bill back to the House of Commons. The House accepted some but not all of the revisions and returned the bill to the Senate, which properly deferred to the will of the Commons and passed the bill.

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That was a good day. But the Senate still suffers its share of bad days. Earlier this week, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose and Larry Smith, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Senate caucus, removed Senator Lynn Beyak from the Aboriginal Peoples committee, after she spoke in defence of the disgraced residential-schools system.

"I see the parasites are still following you," the CBC reported Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie saying to Ms. Beyak, last week, when reporters tried to question her about her removal.

That comment reflected the sense of entitlement that too often infects senators. Conservative senators, who still sit as a caucus, have used procedural means to delay a number of pieces of Liberal legislation, including C-4, which revokes Conservative legislation seen as anti-union, and C-6, which scraps Conservative legislation that made it easier in certain circumstances to revoke a person's citizenship.

Conservatives are also delaying bills that would change the words of the national anthem and that would extend human-rights protection for transgender Canadians.

Mr. Smith rejects any suggestion that the Conservatives are obstructing legislation. "Opposition parties have tools at their disposal," he told The Globe and Mail. "It's not to obstruct legislation, it's to have the time to hold the government to account." His caucus has concerns with the bills mentioned, he said, and will be bringing forward amendments to improve them.

That said, "generally speaking, I've been impressed with the calibre of the new people coming in," under the merit-based appointments system. He expects a future Conservative prime minister will appoint senators of equally high calibre, whether they sit as independents or Conservatives.

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One question making the rounds is whether the Senate, based on a precedent set by the House of Lords, has the power to expel Mr. Meredith for misbehaviour, if that's what the ethics committee recommends. Mr. Harder is of the view it does. The Supreme Court is likely to have the final say.

Changing the Senate appointments process to make its members more competent and less partisan has been one of Justin Trudeau's boldest innovations. Yes, he has appointed mostly progressives. The next Conservative prime minister might choose merit-based conservatives. Or a future prime minister of whatever party might return to appointing based on patronage, claiming the non-partisan experiment has failed.

To prevent that, this Senate must prove its value as a true chamber of sober reflection. If it succeeds, Mr. Harder might even start to have fun.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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