Justin Trudeau’s vision for the Senate

The Liberal leader looks to an ideal Senate

by Aaron Wherry

While Jack Stillborn considers the ramifications of Justin Trudeau’s senatorial ejections, Peter Loewen asks questions about how Mr. Trudeau made his decision and what comes next and Senate opposition leader James Cowan explains how the new Senate Liberal Caucus is going to function, the Liberal leader imagines a new kind of Senate.

“What got me over the hump was thinking about five years from now, 10 years from now, (when we have) a functioning, non-partisan Senate that actually does a great job of evaluating proposed legislation solely on its merits, not on the political angles of polls or election results or seats that can be won.”

That’s at least a distinct position on the proper function and utility of the Senate. And a case can probably be built that it’s close to what was the original intent of the Senate (if you take “sober second thought” to be the supposed purpose of the upper chamber).

Peter Loewen raises interesting questions about how Mr. Trudeau imposed this change in light of the fact that Michael Chong’s Reform Act would give caucuses the power to determine their own membership, but the flip side of that is that, by something-like-fiat, Mr. Trudeau has granted 32 legislators the sort of freedom and independence that is supposed to be the goal of so many proposals for reforming the House.

Meanwhile, Michael MacKenzie and Chris Tenove consider a few ways a prime minister might go about setting up a non-partisan appointment process. (Previously, Jean-Rodrigue Pare has suggested a multi-partisan appointment committee.)




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Justin Trudeau’s vision for the Senate

  1. PMs have appointed members of other parties before. If the Senate is an independent body, they will do so again.

    • Yeah, but let’s be honest: PMs first stacked the senate with partisans (until they had a majority in the senate), and only then did they appoint independents/other party members… It’s always been (at least as far back as I can remember) a bit duplicitous, and more of a “token gesture” than anything else.

      • That was then. Now it won’t matter

  2. There are 9 vacancies in the Senate right now. One way Harper could try to turn the tables on Trudeau would be to make non-partisan appointments to fill these seats, or appoint some who might even prefer to caucus with the erstwhile Liberal Senators. He could even invite input from other parties on who might be appointed.Of course, even the act of appointing Senators could backfire on Harper at the moment.

    • But wouldn’t it seem like a “too little, too late” act? 7 or 8 years as PM, and he waits for Trudeau to do something before he makes a non-partisan senate appointment?

      • I think you’d have to make a determination about the point at which the details cross over from the level of detail the general public will pay attention to into inside baseball. Yes, any move he makes now will probably be called reactionary or at best overdue by Ottawa observers, but on the other hand he’d be able to say that he did something meaningful to make the Senate a less partisan place – undermining JT’s potential monopoly on the high ground with respect to Senate reform.

    • How would that turn the tables? That would be tacitly endorsing JT’s proposal.

      • Turn the tables is admittedly the wrong choice of words. ‘Steal his thunder’ might have been better. At the very least, it could give him a response to the ‘JT has done more for to reform the Senate as third party leader than Harper has as PM’ narrative.

    • I think anything short of trying to get Liberal MPs to sit in the senate would just be too clever by half.

  3. Trudeau did something about the senate. I’ll give him that much. I’m undecided on whether this is window dressing or not, but I’ll give him that much credit. His quote about “10 years from now” is inspiring, but not convincing.

    Harper should have stuck to his guns and never appointed an unelected senator, but that principle evaporated a while back. This should have been Harper’s Plan “B” : if he has to appoint senators, then at least make them independents. Instead, Trudeau stole the spotlight on senate reform.

    • Plan B? The idea of appointing anything “independent” is the very antithesis of what Harper and the CPC is about…

      Like all things it is what ones does with the options presented that defines merit…with this decision, the ball is fully in the Senators court to do what they can to justify their raison d’être…

      • People have not seen a tangible benefit from the senate since 1867. Why is simple, they all lie and decieve us. Any lie for a vote. They have no intention on reducing the waste and corruption.

        Eliminating the senate is so simple, even Ottawa might get it right.

    • “Harper should have stuck to his guns and never appointed an unelected senator, but that principle evaporated a while back. ”

      Harper: Assumed office February 6, 2006; appointed Michael Fortier as Minister of Public Works February 6, 2006 and announced that Fortier would be appointed to the Senate; On February 27, 2006, Fortier was formally summoned to the Senate . . .
      So, 0 days from assuming office, based on intent; 21 days based on formal appointment . . . Man, he really hung in there and fought the good fight against appointing Senators.

    • If Harper had used this as Plan B, Mike Duffy would never have met Nigel Wright.

    • This might make sense if Harper was at all sincere about reforming the Senate. Instead he sat on it for years, every once in a while trotting it out in his fundraising letters while at the same time using it to repay favours to his political friends.

      It is perhaps time to face the fact Harper wants the senate to stay just they way it is.

      • Yep, just like every decietful politicians have done since 1867. Say one thing and do another defines dyfunctional governance of us. We do not have effective inputs to government as government manages us like tax slaves of state.

  4. What if we used a selection process for Senators similar to that used in jury selection where random selection creates a pool of candidates, and then a vetting process begins. We respect this process enough to hold someone’s freedom in the balance, so why not the governance of the country? Vetting would weed out those who would be inappropriate candidates – those unable to sit for personal reasons such as owning a small business and not being able to be away for an extended period, new parents, medical conditions, etc…
    So, why does this system appeal to me? First off, as soon as you are talking election, you need money, and lots of it, in order to run a successful campaign. Now you owe favours, and are open to influence in your voting by those you owe.
    Second, the jury approach is much more representational of our population. There will be people in the senate that have lived a life less privileged, and who will be able to speak from experience on why things like the Canada Jobs Plan are not workable at ground level, why CPP should be increased, veterans respected, and $20 glasses of orange juice and $1,000 per night hotel rooms are unconscionable expenses and not expected perks of the position.
    And finally, while there will obviously be some personal leanings towards particular parties no matter what method is used, the “jury method” removes all aspects of patronage, and allows each senate member to vote unimpaired by party politics.

  5. Imagine a world without politics man. Unelected people who just happen to possess the absolute truth about what is “correct” untethered to any underlying assumptions or values as to what “correct” is. And like imagine for a second if Unicorns were real…… Woah, I just freaked myself out there.
    You can take Justin out of the University arts lounges but you can’t take the University arts lounges out of Justin.
    Who needs basic concrete proposals affecting arctic sovereignty, the economy etc. when we have Justin leaving us to ponder things like whether the Earth might be in a molecule in a giant space monster.

    • So shocking that you, Charles/Biff, would intentionally mischaracterize Trudeau’s position.

      Why, it is almost as if you are lying.

  6. The thing about the current Senate is that the party leader is democratically accountable to the public for Senators’ conduct. For example, Harper’s election chances will be harmed by Duffy’s antics. So, in a world where that mechanism doesn’t exist, and where non-partisan folks scrutinize legislation with renewed vigour, how are we closer to a better democracy?

    • Well if the Senators’ job is to just do what the party leader tells them, what is the point of having a Senate at all? We are just paying another group of people to rubber stamp what our elected representatives have already done.

      Abolition is virtually impossible. The only answer is to make the Senate non-partisan.

      • 1. Your factual premises are incorrect. The Senate does not just rubber stamp. For example, the abortion debate would be very different right now if so. Reasons for this include the fact that Senators have more independence than MPs because they don’t have to be re-elected (while there is some democratic accountability, there is still less than in the Commons). The party mix of Senators also does not necessarily resemble the result of the most recent election, nor does the regional mix.
        2. Abolition is very difficult, sure. But I see no logical connection that makes “non-partisan” the “only answer”. You need to use the word “because” somewhere.
        3. Assuming that a non-partisan Senate provides some benefit, why does tolerating the problem that I identified (vigorous unaccountable unelected legislators for life) result in a *better* overall outcome than the status quo?

        • A Senate composed of party members does rubber stamp. Your example is the exception to the rule. In particular, Harper EXPECTS them to rubber stamp.

          Why should Justin Trudeau be accountable for the actions of people he did not appoint? Why should Jason Kenny be accountable for the actions of Harper’s appointees? What if Kenny vehemently opposed Harper appointing anyone? If, in fact, Trudeau is accountable for Chretien’s appointees, that strengthens the argument that the Senate should be non-partisan.

          If we had a non partisan senate right now, chances are legislation such as the “tough on crime” package Harper pushed through would not have made it through the senate. A non partisan senate would not have to appeal to Harper’s base, and legislation that is potentially unconstitutional would be scrutinized. We achieve a better outcome when people are appointed on merit than when people are appointed because they raise money for the party leader, and then go into the senate and do that leader’s bidding.

    • I think this is why the end conclusion of Trudeau’s proposal might (ironically) require a constitutional amendment. If Senators are to be cut off from party positions (even more so than they are now), but remain unelected, then we could end up with a Senate that’s even less accountable and more independent than it is now. That could cause major problems for any government’s legislated priorities or supply. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that Senators will become more obstructionist than they have been in the past, but it’s a greater possibility where they are ‘freed’ from the concern that their actions will ultimately hurt ‘their’ party.If you’re going to make the Senate non-partisan, but still intend for it to be subordinate to the House, a constitutional amendment to allow the House to override or by-pass the Senate in some circumstances might be necessary. Such a procedure exists in the UK, but not in Canada. A surprising amount of Canadians (including some sitting MPs I’ve spoken with) believe that such a procedure already exists in Canada (probably because there is a procedure for passing a constitutional amendment without a resolution from the Senate in some circumstances, but this doesn’t apply to regular legislation).

  7. Justin, forget this nonsense. No need to wait 10 generations for Ottawa to talk some more.

    Elimination of the utterly useless senate is so simple, even Ottawa might get it right.

  8. Political family dynasties are for insects and North Korea.

    I don’t believe a single word that comes out of this commie spawn’s mouth.

    Put money back in the pockets of the people you help steal it from, Justin, and I *might* start to believe you are an honest man. Until then, you are just another money laundering lip servicer bent on a golden ticket public pension while you direct the public slush funds to those that put you in power.

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