Justin Trudeau’s edict dissolving the Liberal Party in the Senate and proclaiming the 32 Liberals there ‘independents’ is a breathtaking confusion of stupidities.
Who is Mr. Trudeau to tell senators whether they are Liberals or not? He told reporters the newly minted independent senators would “no longer be Liberal organizers, fundraisers, activists in any form.” So the senators can no longer be members of a riding association or make political contributions or ask others to do so? Will they be barred from talking to Liberals for fear that they might give advice on organization, policy or communication? Apart from the absurd impracticality of the idea, what about the right of all Canadians to be engaged in politics as they see fit?
The initial reaction of Liberal senators has been to say that they will continue to meet and work together and the Senate Speaker has said he will continue to recognize them as the opposition caucus. Mr. Trudeau can’t stop them. All he can do is refuse to speak to them for fear of appearing to lead them.
The reaction of the Liberal senators highlights the stupidity of the ceaseless whingeing about party discipline and leaders to which Mr. Trudeau thinks he is responding. Liberated from the supposed rigours of the party whip the Senators still want to work together to support the people and the policies they believe in.
The received understanding from backbenchers in the Commons is that they are whipped into submission by their party with the inducements of committee assignments and a possible seat on the front bench and the threat of not having their nomination papers signed. None of this applies in the Senate. They are secure in their seats to age 75. There are more than enough committee slots to keep them all amused. There are only two plums on offer, Government Leader, now not even in the Cabinet, and Speaker. Yet Liberals and Conservatives have kept together in their caucuses with no more floor crossing or becoming independent than in the Commons. Senators have followed their party’s leader and supported its policies and legislation because they think them best. They just are Liberals and Conservatives, without carrots or sticks to keep them that way.
Mr. Trudeau has challenged Stephen Harper to follow his lead. The implication of his scheme is that all senators should be independents such as he has proclaimed the Liberals to be, political eunuchs who are yet permanent salaried politicians legislating and scrutinizing government activity. Legislating and scrutinizing are politics and those who do it are ipso facto politicians.
While the attempt to turn long time Liberal operators like David Smith into independents by the stroke of a pen is preposterous, the long term implication of his scheme is that party people should never be appointed to the Senate. Most people who are interested in politics have a party affiliation because that is how politics works. To exclude them from the Senate would mean filling it with eccentrics and supposed experts from the universities, a dangerous breed.
For the future, Mr. Trudeau says he would “put in place an open, transparent, non-partisan public process for appointing and confirming senators.” Under the Constitution, senators are appointed by the governor-general, on the advice of the prime minister of course. Mr. Trudeau forswears any attempt to amend the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada may have something to say about measures that practically, though not legally, change the governor-general’s powers, when it gives its judgment on the Senate Reference. Who would choose senators openly, transparently and non-partisanly? Perhaps something like the Guardian Council in Tehran. And the reference to confirmation is wonderfully addle headed. Who would confirm the appointments? The Commons? The Senate? Both? It doesn’t bear thinking about and Mr. Trudeau obviously hasn’t thought about it.
Parties exist to organize people and policies that can produce effective government and to offer voters a choice. The government organizes its supporters in the Commons and the Senate to get its work done and the opposition parties organize their members to scrutinize the government and provide an alternative.
The powers of the Senate being almost equal to those of the Commons, any government must rely on the deference the unelected Senate has always shown the Commons and filling it in the course of time with its supporters, as Mr. Harper has done, to get its policies adopted. The implication of Mr. Trudeau’s dissolution of the Liberal Party in the Senate is that he hasn’t any policies he wants them to support. It does rather look that way.
John Pepall is the author of Against Reform, published in 2010 by the University of Toronto Press, and was Progressive Conservative candidate in the Ontario election of 1990.