I also was, for many years, an active member of the NDP and ran for them federally in 1979 and 1980. I've never been a Conservative though I did vote for Joe Clark once, while living in Calgary.
I've been working for the Senator since 2001 and have seen a lot of Senators come and go, not to mention a few Prime Ministers and party leaders.
Reforming the Senate was a priority of the Reform party — in fact the Triple-E Senate was one of the defining characteristics of that party. The Canadian Alliance continued to support it and it is the avowed policy of the new Conservative Party — though they focus on a single-E, elected.
A Bill to limit the terms of Senators and create a consultative electoral system (consultative because the Prime Minister remains constitutionally empowered to appoint Senators) was introduced as early as 2006. At the time the Liberals and NDP (not to mention various experts and the Department of Justice) suggested that the government should test the constitutionality of such proposals through a Supreme Court reference.
The government demurred and the Conservative party frequently claimed that the opposition was preventing them from passing the Bill into law. The fact is: the opposition does not determine when a Bill will be debated; the government does. For five years, various iterations of the Bill sat on the order paper — un-debated because the government refused to proceed to second reading.
Why? The cynical explanation is, unfortunately, also the most logical. Senate Reform — and the supposed opposition of other parties — was a tremendous fundraising tool for the party. Over time, Stephen Harper eventually acknowledged there as a need for more Conservative Senators (mostly to make the Chamber operate properly — the Liberal majority in the Senate blocked no government bills, though it did amend a fair number, usually for the better. They did find other ways to annoy the PM. Once he got the hang of it, Harper appointed more Senators than any previous prime minister, including, as we well know, Senators Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin.
Perhaps, if he had used a blue ribbon panel to nominate Senators instead of his own poor judgement, the recent Senate scandal might not have happened — or been limited to former Liberal Mac Harb. I'm sure Mr. Harper would have enjoyed that.
Then we had the 2011 election and Harper's first majority. Passing Senate legislation should have been a piece of cake; he's used his majority to ram through far more contentious or outrageous legislation. But suddenly Mr. Harper was converted into a Supreme Court fan (remember he always claimed the courts were part of the opposition). Suddenly, he decided that a Senate reference was just the thing. It effectively delayed having to do anything (more fundraising opportunities) and gave him the out he was looking for — he can blame the Court when it quite rightly tells him he needs a constitutional amendment to make the changes he's proposing. Will he enter the lion's den of federal-provincial negotiations? Not likely, he won't meet with the Premiers at the best of times; I doubt if he has much stomach for the sausage factory of constitution making.
Whatever happened to the Conservatives forceful assertion that Senate Reform could be accomplished without an amendment to the Canada Act? Like all magical thinking it disappeared in the face of reality.
That brings us to the magical thinking of the NDP. They want to abolish the Senate. I've heard two approaches broached. The first is naive; the second silly.
The standard argument accepts that a constitutional amendment is necessary — though they insist that it will only require seven provinces with 50% of the population, when it is almost certain to require unanimous consent (the Supreme Court may prove me wrong but I doubt it). They argue that if they form a government they will have a mandate (with at most 40% of the vote) to abolish the Senate. Provinces would recognize the moral imperative and immediately sign on to the process without demanding other more difficult changes. Were they asleep during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord processes?
A 7/50 agreement will be difficult — only Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba currently support abolition. It is doubtful if any of the Atlantic Provinces would agree — it would impact their already diminished influence in Ottawa and, in the case of PEI, would actually reduce the number of MPs they have. As for Quebec, they are already suing the Conservative government over their more limited changes.
More magical thinking with respect to the Senate. It will be abolished because we wish it to be. Go ahead — close your eyes and click your heels together and see what happens.
At least that approach is grounded in some sort of reality. The other plan is simply crazy. Under this plan, the Prime Minister would cease to appoint Senators. When their numbers drop below 15, the Senate (under their rules, which they could amend), a quorum would no longer be possible and the Senate would, in effect, cease to exist. Never mind this would take until 2030 and require the NDP to be in power for 15 consecutive years (or persuade other parties to agree to their plan), what about the constitutional requirement to have all legislation passed by both the House of Commons and the Senate?
No worries: the Governor General would never refuse to give Royal Assent to an bill passed by the peoples' representatives. Maybe, maybe not — I suppose an NDP PM could appoint a compliant a Vice-Regal representative.
The courts are a more difficult proposition. Judges are required to uphold the constitution and would be hard pressed to agree to recognize laws that break the supreme law of the land. At the very least, enterprising defense lawyers would use constitutional arguments to defend any client charged under such laws. It could tie up the civil and criminal justice system for years.
As for me, I do believe in Senate Reform. An elected Senate is only appropriate in a modern democracy. However, every country with two houses (there are over 60 including every single Federal state) uses a different method of (s)election for the two houses. Different terms, different voting systems, and so on. In Australia, they use preferential ballots for MPs and proportional representation for the Senate; as a result the two houses have quite different compositions. Most assign different powers or responsibilities as well.
[NOTE: Abolitionists often point to New Zealand and, more recently, Ireland as places that abolished their Senates. Neither is a federation with the need to represent provinces or regions.]
This kind of reform will require a 7/50 constitutional amendment and maybe Canadian politicians will someday have the courage to enter that arena again (polls suggest Canadian citizens want them to).
In the meantime, what about Mr. Trudeau's proposal? It is more show than substance, no doubt, but it is not without substance either. A more non-partisan Senate where groups of independent Senators sit in loose caucuses of the like-minded could be quite effective as a house of second sober thought or legislative revision. The traditions of the Senate make it extremely unlikely they would oppose the will of an elected government — as long as they weren't elected themselves. Over time — if future appointments were made through a process similar to the Order of Canada or, for that matter, the Supreme Court — the Senate might become quite non-partisan and more acceptable to the public.
And that might make actual constitutional reform more likely. Not quite magical thinking on my part — maybe just wishful thinking.