Justin Trudeau's unilateral Senate reform - Macleans.ca

Justin Trudeau’s unilateral Senate reform

Senators no longer welcome in the Liberal caucus


Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has just now announced that Liberal senators will no longer be members of the Liberal caucus. Here is the statement from his office.

“Canadians expect their leaders to be open and honest with them, and they expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly. The Senate, through extreme patronage and partisanship, has become an institution that poorly serves the interests of Canadians.

“Paired with patronage, the pervasive issue of partisanship and control in the Senate is a deeply negative force. We need immediate action to address this. That is why, as of today, the National Liberal Caucus will only include elected Members of Parliament, and not Senators. This action will immediately mean that each of the 32 current Liberal Senators will become independent of the Liberal Caucus.

“This is about doing the right thing for Canadians and our institutions. I believe that Canadians are rightly seeking an effective institution that debates the difficult issues they are facing today. Equally, I believe that Canadians have no desire to re-open the Constitution. I am taking action today with these reforms, and I hope to earn the opportunity to go further as Prime Minister.

“That is why I am also announcing today that if I am elected Prime Minister, I will put in place an open, transparent and non-partisan appointment process for Senators. This process will be developed working with experts and informed by other non-partisan appointment processes, such as that of the Supreme Court Justices and Order of Canada recipients.

“Further, as the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing and join us in ending patronage and partisanship in the Senate. All he needs is the judgment and will to get it done.

“Taken together, these steps represent the most significant and concrete actions to reform the Senate in its history. At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers. When public institutions fail to serve the public interest, we take bold steps to change them. These proposals will bring real, positive change for Canadians.”

The NDP suggested last fall that senators should not sit with party caucuses. (The New Democrats then put a motion before the House calling, in part, for senators to sit outside party caucuses, but the Liberals argued it was unconstitutional for the House to pass such a motion and thus voted against it.)

Last May, Greg Sorbara, a former Liberal cabinet minister in Ontario, proposed an independent process and a chamber of independents. (Jean Rodrigue-Pare has proposed a bi-partisan appointment process. And here, as noted on Twitter, is Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy arguing for an independent selection process—though one that would’ve had the Governor General acting on the advice of someone other than the Prime Minister.)

Seven senators were already listed as independent, but that total now becomes 39 independents against 57 Conservatives, at least unless or until the independents decide to form their own arrangement. The 32 formerly Liberal senators might not be able to sit with the Liberal caucus, but they are entirely free to form their own caucus.

Also potentially relevant to this discussion: It was six months ago that the Prime Minister decided that the Government Leader in the Senate would no longer be a member of the cabinet.


Justin Trudeau’s unilateral Senate reform

  1. LOL Just saw a headline

    ‘In one fell swoop, Trudeau has changed the game on Parliament Hill’

    Indeed he did. Non partisan would be much better. Good plan

  2. As I said elsewhere, once again, JT sweeps over top of harper and Mulcair, makes a decision that most Canadians will like (and does not involve digging into the Constitution), controls the headlines and agenda for a few days, and looks more prime ministerial than the sitting pm.

  3. Thanks for finally waking up and endorsing senate reform or abolition. True, we in the western provinces beat you to it by a decades now rest of Canada, but at least you are finally on board.

    Judging by the comments by EmilyOne and patchouli, you guys have even started thinking of it as your own idea. Good.

    • What can we say? We kinda figured that the MP from Calgary who became PM promising never to appoint a Senator was going to get around to doing something concrete at some point.

      Who could have known that post-2006 Stephen Harper would be such the polar opposite of pre-2006 Stephen Harper? No one could have seen that coming!

      • Now, now. He did put a few questions about it before the equally egregious activist Supreme Court judges. He’s created an institutional mobius strip of inaction.

        • The Senate Reference was a masterful move. It’s got a fascinating timeline that Tory reform plan.

          1) Introduce Senate Reform legislation in 2011.

          2) Ignore your own Senate Reform legislation for two years, letting it languish. Act occasionally as though the opposition is obstructing your reforms. Hope everyone forgets that you now hold majorities in both the House and the Senate.

          3) Ask the Supreme Court to settle whether or not anything in the Reform Bill that you tabled two full years ago is remotely constitutional.

          • I think the legal term is ‘kicking the can down the road’. It sounds better in Latin, of course.

          • If I’m not mistaken, the latin is “punting”.

          • I think that would be “rolling the amphora down the road”, as they did not have cans back in those days.

            Google translate gives various results, maybe someone with expertise can advise.

      • Well, touche.

        Though I do remember from the time of Reform’s rise in the 90’s and well into the aughts that there was a lot of push-back on the very idea that we would have an elected or abolished senate.

        Many believed that a long serving appointed senate was useful as a voice of “sober second thought” precisely due to how it was set up right now.

        • Well, just to be clear, many still believe that a long serving appointed Senate can be useful as a voice of “sober second thought”.

          • Not among the elected parties though, save perhaps the Bloc Quebecois who won’t take an issue one way or another until they can attack the rest of Canada about it.

            I am pleased that the “long serving appointed senate” as a good thing has become a minority position, since I have felt that its deficiencies have been obvious for decades.

            I still would like a EEE senate (perhaps even a long-serving one) to balance of regions with disparate economic interests against the dominant power of large population centers who largely have the same economic interests. But abolition is better than what we have now.

          • EEE is dead, and harper himself killed it. Perhaps his agreement to it was just a populist thing to say during elections. I guess it worked for some voters, but after all this time, and all of his opportunities, it’s dead. It was a conservative thing, and not likely the up-til-now abolitionist NDP will support it, nor will the Liberals.

          • That’s probably true, and more’s the pity.

        • The proposed changes – non-partisan appointments – are exactly the change I’ve wanted for years. EEE gets us US-style gridlock; abolition (without a major overhaul of the electoral process and the HoC to go along with it) just further concentrates power in the PMO.

          Senators with the best interests of their regions and the nation – rather than their parties – at heart sounds just about right (though it will take time to retire all the partisan old warhorses currently inhabiting the place).

    • Emily came out for senate abolition before you were born. LOL
      Eventually you got to that point.

      This delays abolition, but it at least shifts gears.

    • Except that this was exactly what he was saying from the beginning.. that they did not support abolition or extreme reforms, merely adjustments. This is just that.

    • Only most Canadians continue to not support the Triple E senate fantasy that has been pushed by westerners for decades.

  4. CHECKMATE, Mr. Harper !

    • HA! This? Checkmate? It’s not even check. Harper as PM will outlast Justin as Liberal leader.

  5. What does this even mean in practical terms? It sounds like The Dauphin just reduced his own influence and power for no discernible gain. Also, don’t parties receive $$$ to support Sens? Are the Libs going to receive less money now?

    And will anyone who doesn’t follow politics closely give a damn if Lib Sens are theoretically independent or not?

    • IF the Libs gained power next year and held it for several terms, they would still have a Senate minority until 2025. So there’s little downside in the short term.

      They probably reckoned that diminished coffers via parliamentary funds is worth the political gains. Which, judging by Poilievre’s hasty and bafflingly amateur response, promise to be considerable.

    • My understanding is that at least some of the Liberal Senators will receive less money now, at the very least in terms of office staff and funding, if not salary. Any “Official Opposition” type posts (notably, “Leader of the Opposition in the Senate”), some of which get extra funding above what a Senator normally receives I believe, would no longer be operable. Whether the Senators could (let alone would) get some of that staff and funding back by caucusing together independently of the Liberal Party is something I’m less sure of, though to the extent that such actions are possible, they’d also presumably be beyond Trudeau’s control.

    • You missed it.

      The point of this wasn’t his getting rid of them from caucus, it was his announcement of the new appointment procedures. Getting rid of them from caucus is setting the stage for that by providing credibility that he might do things that don’t necessarily benefit him personally.

      It also has the additional benefit that, by doing this pre-emptively, any future senate expense scandals–perceived or real–do not connect to Liberal party now.

      Now that I think about it, it explains why they went against the NDP motion. Something like this has probably been in planning for a while, and the NDP motion would have robbed them of the benefit of it. Now they’re first movers, and the other parties have to put up or shut up — which the NDP can’t because they’ve never had senators — and the CPC likely won’t, because, as they’ve been so acutely reminded, they *need* that party control apparatus in place.

      • Thanks for answers you three. Wherry writes about how to reform parliament and I think there should also be more discussion of msm performance in deteriorating democracy of Canada. Journos seem to be hopeless partisans, even tho they deny it, and never seem to provide just straightforward news/info. I am not really interested in speculation of whether The Dauphin is trying to get ahead of AG report on Senators because we have no idea what Trudeau and his brain trust are thinking.

        • To your point: on Twitter this am, Tasha Kheiridin (sorry not sure about spelling) was ragging on Trudeau, and I wrote to suggest she at least pretend to be more balanced. She tweeted that because I identify as a Trudeau Liberal, I’m the one drinking the koolaid.

          To which I responded: hey, I’m not a journalist.

  6. From Trudeau’s comments:
    “The Senate, through extreme patronage and partisanship, has become an institution that poorly serves the interests of Canadians.”

    Translation: Now that Conservatives outnumber Liberals…the Senate serves no useful purpose to the Liberal Party, so it has to be changed.

    From Trudeau’s comments:
    “This action will immediately mean that each of the 32 current Liberal Senators will become independent of the Liberal Caucus.”

    Translation: Therefore, when it becomes known through the AG Report on Senate Expenses that Liberal Senators have been padding their expense accounts far more than Duffy and Wallin….it won’t be a reflection on the Liberal Party.

    From Trudeau’s comments:
    ““This is about doing the right thing for Canadians and our institutions. I believe that Canadians are rightly seeking an effective institution that debates the difficult issues they are facing today”

    Translation: This is about doing the right thing for Me….as I need a distraction to avoid commentary about my inability to debate any difficult issues on my own.”

    From Trudeau’s comments:
    ““That is why I am also announcing today that if I am elected Prime Minister”

    Translation: Please…please…please, let this happen before the Media actually starts to do their jobs and ask me any difficult questions which may show how completely unqualified I am to follow in Daddy’s footstepts.

    From Trudeau’s Comments:
    “I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing and join us in ending patronage and partisanship in the Senate”

    Translation: At least until I AM THE PRIME MINISTER….and the patronage and partisanship work in my favour.

    From Trudeau’s comments:
    “At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers. When public institutions fail to serve the public interest, we take bold steps to change them”

    Translation: Please don’t ask us about Liberals at their worst. When public institutions fail to serve the interests of the Liberal Party of Canada, we take bold steps to change that.

    From Trudeaus’ comments:
    “These proposals will bring real, positive change for Canadians.”
    Translation: Please forget about our Propensity to steal once we are in office. Once I am the Prime Minister, I expect to see real and positive change to Liberal supporters offshore bank accounts.
    There….just thought I should clear that up for you.

  7. That is why I am also announcing today that if I am elected Prime Minister, I will put in place an open, transparent and non-partisan appointment process for Senators. This process will be developed working with experts and informed by other non-partisan appointment processes

    Yet another “plan” by Trudeau to make get others to make a plan. This hardly constitutes a “bold” step to reform the Senate. I imagine that he’ll simply hire Liberal “experts” to give him a plan that suits the Liberals.

    Now what would really impress me is if Trudeau were to vow to never appoint anybody to the Senate who has been or is a card carrying member of the Liberals. But seeing as he didn’t even kick the current Senators out of the party, I can’t imagine he’d do that. Not to mention that donations to the LPC would evaporate over night.

    • He didn’t kick them out, but didn’t he ban them from campaigning or fund-raising? As for having other come up with a plan: It’s called delegating. Something real leaders do all the time. Something maybe Harper should have done (I mean with his MPs – not handing over the reins to his PMO appointees).

      • Yes, but when someone delegates issues to someone else simply because they themselves don’t know what to do…it’s not leadership.
        Leadership is having a plan, making goals, reaching those goals, and hopefully doing something that actually helps the people of Canada.
        To date….Trudeau has only focussed on what helps his plan, what goals he wants to achieve, and doing whatever he thinks will help him personnally.
        Apparently, given the scarcity of ideas coming from the Liberal camp, their goal and vision is only to see Trudeau become the Prime Minister. All the other stuff…about helping Canada….will have to wait. They’ll think of something when the time comes.

        • And the CPC is accomplishing… what, exactly? What big new ideas are they putting forth? Let’s see… there was this brilliant idea about training grants, but they forgot to consult with the provinces, so that’s been sidelined (though the spending of ad money hasn’t)…

          And then there’s… there’s… uh…

  8. Progressive Canadian Senate proposal enhances Trudeau initiative.
    Building on Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy and Progressive Canadian Precedent

    For Immediate Release January 31, 2014

    Newmarket, Ontario – The Hon. Sinclair Stevens, Leader of the Progressive Canadian Party, today congratulated Justin Trudeau on his historic decision to make all Liberal Senators Independents freed from the Liberal Party caucus in the House of Commons.

    Mr. Stevens stated further that the Progressive Canadian Party has proposed to end the exclusive power to appoint Senators by the prime minister since at least 2010, consistent with former Progressive Conservative Guiding Principles and the intentions of PC Policy Priorities. Stevens said the PC Party proposal will take patronage and partisanship out of Senate appointments by seeking the advice and experience of governance found in those appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council and, in so doing, take the power to appoint Senators out of today’s partisan hands of the prime minister alone.

    Mr. Stevens noted further that the Progressive Canadian proposal for Senate Reform for a better appointment system would enhance Justin Trudeau’s bold proposal to release Liberal Senator’s from party caucus discipline by providing the means to recommend appointments to the Governor General with the legitimacy of government experience informed by good will and public interest untainted by partisanship.

    Independent Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy praised storied journalist Jim Travers’ urging the Prime Minister to “add brilliance to the Red Chambers’s sober second thoughts,” adding the creative suggestion to conceive the ˜Senate as Think Tank” (2007).

    In March 2010, the Tory Senator added, “Yesterday, another voice weighed in on the conversation. [Writer and Progressive Canadian] Brian Marlatt’s thoughtful contribution suggests that the Governor General take advice on appointments from the entire Privy Council, not just the PM. As he says, ‘Charges of patronage and partisanship would be overcome; there would be no risk to national unity, as would happen if senators were accountable to their province; and senators would not be subject to party discipline, as they would be if elected. Senators would not be just more politicians.’ ”

    “By convention, prime ministers have recommended Senate appointments to the Governor General of Canada since Confederation. Prime Ministers in general have respected the need for balance in recommended appointments but the potential for abuse has always been there. Until today, no prime minister has received a ‘pledge’ to pass his party’s legislation from those he in practice appoints”, Mr. Stevens said. “All Senators named by the current prime minister have made such “‘pledges'”, Stevens added, “this is the real Senate Scandal, the Harper Senate Scandal.”

    Proposals to abolish or elect Senators will not end this new partisanship in the Upper Chamber; proposing firewall federalism by directly electing or appointing elected Senators will threaten national unity, Progressive Canadians argue. “We welcome Justin Trudeau’s initiative to limit partisanship but it lacks a means of joining excellence, such as you might find in the Order of Canada, with experience of government, ” Sinclair Stevens said. “The Progressive Canadian proposal brings together excellence and experience.”

    A quorum of the Queen’s Privy Council across party lines and levels of government, comprising former Governors General, present and former prime ministers and cabinet ministers, Supreme Court Chief Justices, inducted Leaders of the opposition and premiers, could fulfill its historic role as an advisory body to the Crown by recommending to the Governor General persons qualified to serve in Canada’s Senate in fulfillment of its duty as a revising chamber of “sober second thought.” “Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin and their cabinets are members, so am I, and individual distinguished Canadians,” Mr. Stevens stated, “The provinces would be consulted through their premiers invited as Privy Councillors when senators are appointed.”

    “The criticism of Justin Trudeau’s idea would be less and the proposal enhanced by appealing to the excellence and experience in the Queen’s Privy Council. The further virtue, as members of our Progressive Canadian National Council have said, is that Senators will not be accountable to the provinces divisively or to partisan party discipline, not even to voters; their legitimacy as senators comes from their tenure based on excellence and experience to review, revise, and recommend amendment to legislation and regulation without the temptation or power to obstruct an elected government dedicated to good will and the common good of all Canadians. This is practical, doable change, not an impractical utopia.”

    Senator Elaine McCoy, Blog “Hullabaloos” “Senate as Think Tank,” April 30, 2007

    Senator Elaine McCoy, Blog “Hullabaloos” “Same Old, Some New, Ideas on Senate Reform,” March 30, 2010/


    For more information contact:

    “The Hon. Sinclair Stevens, Leader
    The Progressive Canadian Party
    Newmarket, Ontario

  9. This is a brilliant move on the part of Justin Trudeau, showing a decisive approach to the senate that appreciates the need of a chamber of ‘sober second thought’, well recognising that a partisan approach to senate decisions runs contrary to it’s stated purpose. To get the objective view of Senators selected by some non-political group, is a way to modify the incredible power in the office of the Prime Minister, in our Canadian system.
    In our system, unlike for example, the US system, the head of government in a majority
    government has immense power, and is not controlled by a ‘congress’. Choosing a group of our wisest most respected citizens to chair a senate with some power could limit the excesses of any Prime Minister bent on some agenda contrary to the well being of the nation.
    I suggest that it should be based upon the choice of the populace. Senators should be selected by simply polling the citizens for member choice. In the current internet age, this kind of decision should be left to the populous. We should create our own senate by plebiscite. Each citizen is allowed to choose 3 names of other citizens to become Senators. A two thirds senate decision could veto any government bill. And you must be over 25 years old to select names, we don’t want a mass vote for Justin Bieber, just sayin