Alberta's one-time dream of an elected senate appears to be dead but the government leader in the upper house says that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Senator Peter Harder was in Calgary Wednesday selling the merits of Justin Trudeau's changes to the red chamber, which include asking Canadians to apply to be senators and screening candidates through an arms-length independent panel before the prime minister decides whether to appoint them to sit as independent members.
Alberta has long been the centre of agitation for Senate reform, with demands from politicians for a triple-E (elected, equal, effective) Senate and the former Progressive Conservative government holding its own provincial elections for the upper body.
But the fire around the issue has cooled over the years, said Harder, a former federal civil servant who also served as chief of staff to Joe Clark when he was leader of the Progressive Conservative Opposition.
"It was associated with a whole suite of concerns about lack of voice in national institutions and I think one can make the case the west does not lack voice in the institution of government," Harder said in an interview.
"Two, the experience of constitutional reform has not been entirely celebrated across the country and the prospect of reengaging constitutional reform doesn't have the enthusiasm it did."
Alberta held non-binding Senate elections in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012 and five of the winners were appointed, one by Brian Mulroney and four by Stephen Harper. Three of Alberta's current six senators — Doug Black, Scott Tannas and Betty Unger — were victors in the provincial votes.
However, Alberta's current NDP government allowed the enabling legislation for Senate elections to expire at the end of 2016. A spokesman for Premier Rachel Notley, Shannon Greer, said the government currently has no position on Senate reform.
Harder said he does not know what Trudeau would do if a province held an election for a vacancy in the upper house but noted that he sees little momentum behind the idea of an elected Senate.
"I can't predict that it will never resurrect but I think personally there is a problem with an elected Senate because the House of Commons would face legitimacy issues which aren't in question with an appointed Senate," he said.
Trudeau first moved on the Senate when he was leading the Liberals in opposition, expelling all senators from the Liberal caucus.
Since becoming PM in 2015 and implementing a new appointment system, Trudeau has named 27 senators who sit as independents, including Harder.
Harder, who met Wednesday with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, the Canada West Foundation and Mayor Naheed Nenshi, said the Senate is now more non-partisan and autonomous. That is seen by amendments to legislation it has brought forward in areas such as medically-assisted dying and consumer protection, he said.
However, he acknowledged that there remain inherent flaws in the structure of the Senate, including that Alberta only has six senators — the same number as much-smaller jurisdictions such as the Atlantic provinces.
Roger Gibbins, the former president of the Canada West Foundation think tank, said it's likely that only an "overarching crisis" would return the issues of Senate reform and elections to the frontburner.
While regional tensions have eased in Canada, the discussion around adequate representation has shifted to ensuring indigenous Canadians and women have a place at the table, he noted.
"The landscape has changed a lot," said Gibbins, who gave the government credit for doing "about as much as they can" on the Senate issue.
"The problem remains these are personal appointments of the prime minister ... It's not getting any closer to a democratic institution."