PARLIAMENT HILL—Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s bid to take the Liberal party out of the Senate is being lauded by some but will have little impact, according to Liberal senators themselves.
Trudeau announced Wednesday that he had asked Liberal senators to sit as independents, effectively dissolving the Liberal caucus in the Senate.
It’s a historic move, and would be revolutionary if not for the fact that the former Senate Liberal Caucus will be using its newfound independence to sit as the Liberal Senate Caucus under current leader James Cowan—something the Speaker in the Senate has confirmed the caucus has full authority to do.
That means the Liberals can maintain their current budget as the opposition, current staffing, and current authorities.
Cowan told reporters Wednesday that little would change. “I’m not a former Liberal. I’m a Liberal and I’m a Liberal senator,” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper used that point to comic effect during question period Wednesday afternoon when he said, “unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal.”
But Trudeau went beyond turning his senators loose—he also committed to putting in place an “open, transparent, non-partisan public process for appointing and confirming senators” should he become prime minister.
Trudeau’s announcement was praised by Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who called it “a novel way to reduce partisanship in the Senate.”
But Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State (Democratic Reform), denounced the changes as an attempt by Trudeau to distance himself from the findings of the Auditor General’s pending report on the Senate.
It’s unknown when that report will materialize, but the AG has not included a Senate review in the items to be covered in his spring or fall reports to Parliament, which could mean it won’t be seen until spring 2015.
Poilievre also slammed Trudeau’s appointment process because it would take the appointment of senators out of the hands of elected officials, making the Senate even less democratic.
“Today, what we had was a smokescreen, and a proposal to make the Senate even worse than it already is.”
Trudeau said that although the move is not the perfect solution, it’s the best that can be done without hearing from the Supreme Court regarding the range of motion the government has to change the Senate without opening the Constitution. The Supreme Court is weighing that matter now.
Significant changes to the Senate would likely mean amending the Constitution, a move that would require the support of seven provinces containing 50 percent of Canada’s population. The government has asked the Supreme Court for a legal roadmap on Senate reform and what changes can be made without amending the Constitution.
“If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more,” Trudeau said.
But amending the constitution to reform the Senate is not a priority for Canadians, he said.
“They don’t want a long, rancorous, and likely pointless debate with the provinces that would distract us from focusing on more important problems.”
Abolition or Reform?
While the government favours an elected Senate, the PM has indicated he would push for abolition if the Senate could not be reformed.
The NDP is firm on abolition, but introduced a motion last October that would have taken parties out of the Senate. The Liberals voted against it at the time.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair noted Wednesday that his party had proposed that all Senators sit as independents as far back as Oct 23, 2013, an idea that Trudeau described as impossible at the time.
“Getting rid of the Senate is not going to be done by snapping your fingers, but we believe fundamentally that Canada deserves better than having unelected, unaccountable people making laws for the rest of us. We would get rid of the Senate purely and simply,” said Mulcair.
Trudeau dodged answering why his party voted against the NDP motion then only to enact its proposal now, but said due to the fact that the NDP had a similar position in the past, he looked forward to their support now.
Mulcair said the change will make little difference in the behaviour of Senators who have been “schilling and fundraising for the Liberals.”
“Mr. Trudeau has always made it clear he doesn’t want to get rid of the Senate. He will keep it as a happy hunting ground for former Liberal bagmen and others. That’s his goal.”
Mulcair also speculated Trudeau’s about-face was connected to the AG’s Senate review.
As Trudeau sees it, however, asking Senators to sit as independents is an immediate solution to two pressing problems: partisanship and patronage.
He said senators are forced to act in party interests, making them redundant because they have no more independence than MPs. Instead of being an independent chamber of sober second thought, the Senate simply amplifies party politics and the power of the Prime Minister, he said.
Speaking in the Senate later Wednesday, Cowan said the Senate was entering “uncharted waters.”
“I believe the change will allow the Senate to better realize the potential envisioned by the fathers of confederation—a truly independent chamber of sober second thought,” said Cowan.
Former Senate Majority Leader for the Conservatives, Marjory LeBreton, said the Conservatives will not be following suit.
“I was born a Conservative, I was raised a Conservative, I’ll be a Conservative until I die,” she said.
She also downplayed Trudeau’s announcement. “All he’s advocating is for an unelected body still. And we stand for an elected Senate.”