Justin Trudeau’s Senate bombshell has three characteristics. First, a maybe – it may be politically popular. Second, a certainty – it is rash constitutional adventurism. Third and most important, it gives us a look – a disturbing one, in my opinion – into the mind and modus operandi of the man who would be prime minister.
Let’s take these in turn.
We will need to wait and see how this bounces and whether the Conservatives and New Democrats are successful in discrediting the idea, but for now, the politics look good. People are fed up with the Senate (mostly with a few senators appointed by Mr. Harper) and this is the first time that anyone has actually done anything about it. That, plus Mr. Trudeau’s sunny disposition, good looks and winning style, have coupled with the general unease Mr. Harper has generated, and may make people want the Liberal leader to succeed without too carefully examining his policies. Politics was no doubt the motive behind this move.
The constitutional matter is much more serious. If Mr. Trudeau becomes prime minister and fully initiates his policy, here is where we will end up.
Recall that the Senate is co-equal with the House of Commons. It can initiate any legislation, save money bills (which it can amend), and more importantly, stop any Commons bill of any kind. That gives the Senate enormous blackmail power – which it has very seldom used, being made up mostly of political types who, understanding that the people’s business must be done, have been content to defer to the elected chamber.
Now, consider a non-partisan Senate. It has already been suggested that senators will become much more regional, pursuing their province’s interests without too much concern for the greater good. (Couldn’t happen? Cast your eyes southward.) Some in my province, British Columbia, have speculated that this might be a good thing. But think again, and imagine an alliance of senators from the poor provinces, who could easily outvote the rest. No measure would come up from the House without being tweaked to siphon money east of the Ottawa River. That would be senators doing their new job.
Even a federal budget might suffer. The Senate certainly has the power to refuse a budget until it gets what it wants, which might be one senator’s bridge for his hometown, another’s grant for her pet project and a third’s complete boondoggle. Alliances to raid the public purse will be quickly and easily formed in the new system.
This illustrates the other constitutional problem. Accountability is at the very heart of our system. How can you possibly hold to account more than 100 independent senators who can’t even be deselected in an election? The current party system provides for such accountability through the need for caucuses to get along. But Mr. Trudeau no longer has any leverage over Liberal senators. He might live to regret that, and the country would certainly live to regret the Senate he contemplates.
Mr. Trudeau’s idea would have much charm if we were able to convert the Senate into nothing more than a continually sitting citizens’ assembly on many issues with only advisory powers. But that’s not how the world is.
The final point is the most worrisome. By all accounts, the new policy was arrived at without any consultation with Mr. Trudeau’s caucus of elected people, let alone senators or any public process at all, even though this could easily have been done. This is an act of unilateral arrogance and a use of leadership powers that makes the famously controlling Mr. Harper look like a Sunday-school teacher.
It’s not only arrogant but foolish, and should have been known to be so. The law of unintended consequences works with astonishing vigour in constitutional matters. They are very complex, and constitutional changes are normally done only after very extensive consultation and reflection. The Senate is a part of the Constitution and Mr. Trudeau’s move is sufficiently major to qualify as constitutional change. His change seems to have sprung full-blown from his imaginative mind and perhaps a few advisers. This is not good enough, but it stands as an indication of how the man will do business if permitted.
It is important not to let the Senate issue continue to divert our attention from more pressing problems. Without opening up the Constitution, real reform there is impossible. The Senate does little harm and some good. Leave it alone. We should focus our reform efforts where it is really needed and eminently possible – namely, the House of Commons.
Gordon Gibson was an assistant to prime minister Pierre Trudeau from 1968 to 1972. firstname.lastname@example.org