Justin Trudeau’s act of severing senators from the Liberal caucus is rightly a cause for discussion on several counts.
How will the Senate, a chamber historically comprised of partisans, function when a large proportion of its numbers no longer take a party whip? How will the ‘new,’ partly partisan Senate engage with the ‘old,’ fully-partisan House of Commons?
For despite Mr. Trudeau’s initiative, Canada’s Parliament remains a bicameral institution. To become law, legislation requires the approval of both chambers (and the Crown). In the absence of the discipline formerly provided by party designation agreement may encounter unexpected and unprecedented challenges and delays. Although the focus and intent of the initiative are very different, Michael Chong’s bill now before the Commons, which would see the power of party leaders over their caucus members and constituency candidates reduced, echoes the Trudeau concern about the suffocating effect of party on good government.
There, however, the similarity between the proposals for upper and lower-house reform ends. As welcome as the Commons bill may be to reformers who seek to reduce the heavy hand of party leaders, Mr. Trudeau’s announcement on the removal of senators from his caucus is breathtakingly different, if only because the announcement is the act itself. In a few words, Mr. Trudeau annihilated the miasma of constitutional discussion, debate, controversy, and paralysis that Canadians have come to expect to envelop the subject of the Senate, and which have suffocated Mr. Harper’s decade-long quest for Senate reform.
Mr. Harper’s travails, it should be said, are but a harbinger of what Mr. Mulcair would encounter were he ever in a position to seek to deliver on the ambition of the New Democratic Party to abolish the Senate. If, in consequence of the Trudeau announcement, a sense of uncertainty about how the new Liberal-less Senate will operate is palpable, so too is there a sense of liberation and of possibility for the upper chamber. Whatever one’s partisan leanings, it surely must be agreed that, in light of Canadian experience, to hold great expectations for the Senate amounts to a revolutionary-like sentiment.
The exodus of the senators from the caucus was only part of what was proposed. Future appointments, Mr. Trudeau said, should be made in an ‘open, transparent, non-partisan process,’ with senators, once appointed, sitting independent from the political parties that serve in the House of Commons. The mechanics of that process need to be determined, but there is no reason to doubt that such a system is feasible, as witness the Appointments Commission for the House of Lords established more than a decade ago. Adjectives like open, transparent, and non-partisan are common currency in politics these days. There is every reason, therefore, for the public to wonder at their value when uttered by any party leader, including the Liberal. What redeems them in this instance is that Mr. Trudeau has already set his former Liberal senators free. There can be no backsliding now, no extenuating circumstances to postpone acting – for he has already acted.
To crib from Winston Churchill: this is not the end of Senate reform; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. If the public truly wants change to the upper chamber; if it finds partisan behaviour in the Senate insupportable; if the Supreme Court of Canada agrees with the Quebec Court of Appeal that the introduction of an elected Senate (in whatever form) requires constitutional amendment – which no one believes is possible in Canada today – then the Trudeau initiative opens a long-closed door to Senate improvement that is both practicable and achievable.
David E. Smith is currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University