Creating a non-partisan Senate is a work in progress, ministers say

The democratic institutions minister and the government House leader were grilled by the Senate's rules committee

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

OTTAWA – Senators hoping for details of the Trudeau government’s plans to transform their much-maligned parliamentary chamber have been told effectively that it’s a work in progress.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and government House leader Dominic LeBlanc were grilled by senators late Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate’s rules committee.

Senators wanted to know how their partisan chamber is supposed to operate without a government leader in the Senate, how they’re supposed to hold the government to account, whether the government will appoint a whip and, if not, who will assume the duties normally assigned to that person.

Monsef and LeBlanc acknowledged some matters have not yet been worked out.

But in some instances, they said it’s up to senators themselves to figure out how to change their rules and procedures to accommodate the new reality: a Senate which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is determined to transform into a non-partisan, independent chamber of sober second thought.

The government has created an arm’s-length advisory board which is supposed to recommend potential nominees for appointment to the Senate, based on merit not partisanship.

And it has established a two-phase process for filling vacancies in the upper house — 23 of them at the moment with another seat due to fall empty within days.

In the first phase, the advisory board is to recommend nominees to fill five vacancies, one of which will be named “government representative” in the Senate. In the second phase, the board will refine its selection process, including accepting applications from ordinary Canadians, to fill the remaining vacancies by the end of the year.

LeBlanc said the government representative will “facilitate” getting government legislation through the Senate. But whether the representative will be answerable for the government during the Senate’s daily question period — as the government Senate leader has traditionally been — remains to be seen.

In the absence of a government leader in the chamber, LeBlanc noted that cabinet ministers have begun appearing, at a rate of one a week, for half-hour question periods in the Senate. Once a government representative has been named, he suggested some “hybrid” system for questioning the government could be developed.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters noted that there have so far been 12 sitting days in which senators have had no opportunity to question anyone connected to the government.

“I think it’s subverting democracy not to allow us to ask tough questions for Canadians to hold the Trudeau government to account through Senate question period,” she said.

On the question of whether the government will appoint a Senate whip, who would ordinarily ensure that members of a partisan caucus vote according to the party line, LeBlanc said that’s not decided but it would seem to contradict the aim of reducing partisanship in the Senate. He suggested a deputy government representative could take on other duties normally carried out by the whip, like assigning offices and parking spots.

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk betrayed some frustration with the lack of precise answers.

“It seems to me that the two of you should know all this,” he said.

“This is a very unique experiment, I must say. But in the end, we’re going to have a for-government (caucus) and we’re going to have an against (government caucus), no matter what we’re called, it’s going to be a partisan parliamentary system in this place.”

LeBlanc disputed that assertion but conceded some of the hoped-for transformation depends on senators themselves. He urged senators to propose amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act, which would be required to change rules and procedures that are all based on having partisan caucuses in the Senate.

Monsef said the first “transitional” phase of the new appointment process was intended to allow the government to learn from the experience, iron out any kinks and improve the process. She urged senators to share their thoughts on potential improvements.