What are we talking about when we talk about partisanship?

The upper chamber and party allegiance

by Aaron Wherry

Justin Trudeau’s decision to remove senators from his parliamentary caucus was presented as a step toward “ending partisanship” in the Senate. “ I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” he said. He called on the Prime Minister to join the Liberals in “making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

In response, Mike Coates defends partisanship in an op-ed for the Globe. There are certainly a lot of things to be said for partisanship: it is fundamental to our current system, it assists in making our formal politics more coherent, it helps unite individuals around ideas and the resulting clash of ideas is generally useful for the purposes of sorting out our general direction as a nation.

It’s also probably not possible to ban all partisanship from the Senate, at least insofar as individuals are free to associate themselves with each other or particular causes or parties. Even if Mr. Trudeau’s ultimate vision of an independent Senate is achieved, those 105 individuals might still group themselves together for the purposes of voting or organizing Senate business or car-pooling to work. They might decide they really like the policies of a particular party.

Possibly what we mean when we complain about “partisanship” what we’re complaining about is the assumption or existence of a slavish adherence to a party banner or party leader. Coates argues that the problem with the Senate is accountability—that we can’t hold senators accountable by voting them out of office. Fair enough (I have a problem with an appointed chamber sitting in judgment of an elected chamber and would generally opt for abolishing the Senate). But in the context of partisanship and the role of the Senate there is also possibly another question about accountability—at what point does partisanship erode the system’s ability to hold the government to account?

This seems like the sort of thing Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin was getting at in his speech to the Senate yesterday.

Some colleagues have raised the importance of partisanship in the Senate. I want to be clear: senators are associated with parties, and that is fine. Being partisan or completely independent is not what is causing a problem. The problem is that we are starting to lose sight of our responsibilities.

I described the problems caused in the House of Commons by strong partisanship and too much party discipline. I think it is much easier for senators to carry out their duties if they manage to reduce the influence of partisanship on their decisions. Each individual’s free will is often a much better guide.

And somewhere in here is the basic question about the Senate and its future: What exactly is the Senate supposed to do? (And further: Is that role necessary? And, if so, how can the chamber best fulfill that mandate?)




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What are we talking about when we talk about partisanship?

  1. “I described the problems caused in the House of Commons by strong
    partisanship and too much party discipline. I think it is much easier
    for senators to carry out their duties if they manage to reduce the
    influence of partisanship on their decisions. Each individual’s free
    will is often a much better guide”

    Senator Nolin gets it, the problem is the long arm of the pmo[anyone's pmo] reaching into the senate and attempting to orchestrate from an apparent distance. Nigel Wright blew up any notion of the senate’s supposed independence.
    Trudeau’s withdrawl of his party’s tentacles from the House both in terms of day to day affairs and fundraising is a big step in the right direction. Kudos to sen. Nolin for acknowledging this.
    It is the withdrawing that is the key factor here. Of course it wont kill partisanship in the senate, and nor should it. If that’s what JT is hoping for he’s still got a lot of hard lessons to learn yet.
    As for an unelected body passing judgement on the first House, surely the fact they will have even less overtly partisan inclination to kill a bill when outside influences are lessened has to be acknowledged. Generally speaking the upper House only blocks or attempts to amend work sent up from the elected one. And should the ultimate nightmare occur – the unelected House seek to create deadlock we can revisit the eject button option knowing that this time it is the right thing to do. That fear alone coupled with sensible term limits ought to help the upper House remember it’s role is not to lead only watch and counsel when it thinks it should.

  2. As I recall we had a few senators in recent years, freshly appointed by PM Harper, who went on to read the exact same statements in front of the press, explaining that their role would be to carry out Stephen Harper’s agenda.
    We shouldn’t ask people to be void of partisanship, as this may not be possible. But we should expect people to carefully and professionally consider facts and opinions that are presented to them rather than setting them aside in order to carry the PMO’s agenda.

  3. Wait, you mean partisanship isn’t just a synonym for being Conservative? Because I’ve been told here countless times that the only “partisans” in parliament are the Conservatives. Liberals have always been described to me as non-partisan. This can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

    • So tell me, in a non-partisan way, how many senators has Stephen Harper appointed knowing they would not sit on the Conservative benches?

      • How does that have anything to do with this? Are you actually suggesting that somehow proves that conservatives are partisan, while everybody else is not?

        • It demonstrates that conservatives today are strictly partisan. They do support the actions of their leader, don’t they?

    • And here I thought partisanship is a synonym for Rick Omen…

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