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Western think tank praises Trudeau's Senate reform plan, disses Harper

Senate guards stand at the entrance to the Senate in Ottawa, October 31, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Senate guards stand at the entrance to the Senate in Ottawa, October 31, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau's decision to boot senators out of the Liberal caucus is being hailed as more in western Canada's interests than Stephen Harper's "misguided" efforts to democratize the unelected chamber.

And that verdict is coming from a most surprising quarter: a think tank that has championed an elected Senate for decades and is based in the prime minister's hometown, Calgary.

The irony of the Canada West Foundation endorsing Trudeau's plan for Senate reform while criticizing Harper's is almost jaw-dropping.

The West, and Alberta in particular, has been a political wasteland for the Liberals since Trudeau's father, Pierre, imposed the reviled National Energy Program in 1980.

Indeed, with expulsion of appointed senators, Trudeau's Liberal caucus now includes a scant 4 representatives from the western provinces — none at all from Alberta.

Harper, by contrast, began his political career as a Reformer, a western-based party that championed the idea of a Triple E Senate — in sync with the Canada West Foundation's campaign for an upper house that was elected, effective and with equal representation from each province.

But Harper, a one-time darling of Senate reformers, has since fallen afoul of the foundation with his proposal to hold "consultative elections" for Senate nominees — without altering the seat distribution in the Senate, which grossly over-represents the Atlantic provinces and grossly under-represents the western provinces if the size of the population is taken into account.

The foundation initially supported Harper's proposal but subsequently had second thoughts.

"Moving only to an elected, or single E Senate, legitimizes an institution that is deeply undemocratic in its representation," foundation president Dylan Jones said in a written statement Thursday.

"An elected Senate alone will not help the West be heard in Ottawa. In fact, it will diminish its voice."

Jones said Trudeau's move, aimed at restoring the Senate to its intended purpose of providing independent, sober second thought, "is a more logical course than the misguided effort to legitimize the chamber through Senate elections.

"It is ironic that this action to (intentionally or unintentionally) address the interests of the West was taken by Trudeau," he observed.

While Harper has proposed consultative elections and term limits for senators, his reform plans have been stymied by provincial opposition. He finally sought advice last year from the Supreme Court as to whether his reforms can be done unilaterally, as his government maintains, or would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces.

He also asked the court whether outright abolition of the chamber would require the support of seven provinces or all ten.

The top court is expected to rule on the matter sometime this year. Until then, the government maintains its hands are tied.

Rather than wait, Jones praised Trudeau for taking "the first concrete step in decades that moves the red chamber closer to being the institution of sober second thought its defenders claim it is.

"Trudeau's surprisingly principled and decisive step takes the country beyond debate to action. We can leave it to the strategists to agonize over the political wisdom of Trudeau's move, but it is at least refreshing to see something on the Senate file that actually has some logic to it."

Jones said it would be best to simply eliminate the Senate "but Trudeau's course of action is at least doable and an improvement.

"It's hard to see it making the situation worse."

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