Yesterday The Hill Times reported that Prime Minister Trudeau might find himself having to wrestle the butthurt Senate to pass legislation. Reporter Abbas Rana summarized the prime minister’s challenge thusly: “…the government does not have a Senate caucus, the majority Conservatives are in opposition and Senate Liberals still feel jilted after being unceremoniously booted out of the national Liberal caucus in 2014…”

In the second grade, my class was given the honour of writing to then-Prime Minister Mulroney, with the promise that each of us would receive a response. Mademoiselle Sly, already quite aged then and surely dead now, took me aside on the day we were to write the letters. “Your handwriting is unacceptable,” she told me. “You will not be writing a letter.”

And so I didn’t. And a child in his formative years was therefore primed to one day identify with the word “fractious.” So it didn’t surprise me that when I read the above-mentioned story yesterday, that was the word that came to mind.

The irritability displayed by some of those whom former Prime Minister Harper called “senators who happen to be Liberals” is of a distinctly Canadian variety: take us seriously and court us, or else we’ll do our jobs!

Senator Munson, quoted in the article, says that the incidentally-Liberal senators will be “looking very closely at every piece of legislation carefully and individually.” A colleague of mine commented that he enjoyed that the threat amounted to “We won’t block legislation, we’ll just work harder to make sure it is good.” A typically passive-constructive Canadianism.

Others echoed Mr. Munson, with one (bravely anonymous senator) suggesting that because “nobody owes him” — that is, the Prime Minister — legislation will be properly vetted, with “more witnesses called, and more studious examination of the legislation.” Quelle horreur! One might imagine a similar sort of situation, a dysfunctional relationship in which one paramour says to the other: “Don’t you dare threaten to leave me, or else I’ll be a better partner!”

On balance, the “threats” made by named and unnamed senators amount to an indication and a warning: first, an indication that some erstwhile Liberal senators are (still) upset at being summarily dismissed from the Liberal caucus in 2014, and second, a warning that therefore they will punish the Prime Minister by helping him create the sort of Senate that he has said he wants. After all, Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly stressed the need for a non-partisan body that would operate as a genuine chamber for sober second-thought, consistent with the intentions of some of those who designed it in the first place.

Of course, the Senate’s very Canadian threat might simultaneously produce a problem for both the government and the Red Chamber, one reminiscent of Wilde’s quip that “when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” If each party in this bizarre squabble gets what it ostensibly wants — “punishment” for Mr. Trudeau for the cranky senators and a thoughtful, active, non-partisan body for the Prime Minister — then we might quickly see Canadians, with their contemporary, Americanized democratic sensibilities, irked by an unelected body delaying or fundamentally altering or killing legislation sent to them by their elected counterparts in the House of Commons.

It is of special significance that all of this is occurring against the backdrop of Canadians’ growing disdain for the Senate. In the wake of several scandals — Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau, Harb — the legitimacy of the institution, in the eyes of citizens, has been even further diminished (not that there was much left to diminish). So in this case, while nobody stands to win, the Senate is drawing dead in an especially unfortunate way.

Best case, this whole affair spawns a Canadian version of the popular American political melodrama House of Cards, starring, presumably, Gordon Pinsent (in which, perhaps, Quentin Durgens, M.P. finds himself chosen to be first minister). But it’s far more likely that both the government and the Senate each find themselves embarrassed when this gambit leads to a situation that Canadians find odious: an overactive (partisan or not) Senate. Then, a distinctly Canadian threat will have earned the Senate the dubious distinction of having ensured that every party in this silly mess ends up licking the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

David Moscrop
David Moscrop is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, a columnist with the Washington Post, and the host of the current affairs podcast Open To Debate. He is also a political commentator and a frequent contributor to print, television, and radio.

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