Early in my career, when I was a young a political aide on Parliament Hill, I told one of my bosses, senator Lowell Murray, that I thought political parties stifled true debate and the freedom of parliamentarians to express their true beliefs. Lowell smiled wisely and said that, on the contrary, political parties were better able to defend free speech because there was no single interest group that was capable of influencing the views of an entire party. He then contrasted Canada’s system with the one in the United States, which has much less party discipline. There, individuals senators and congressmen regularly amend bills and promote policies of wealthy fundraisers and lobbyists because of the role these groups play in getting American legislators elected.
So I had to chuckle at Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s quick-fix for Canada’s Senate when he sought to eliminate partisanship by removing senators from his parliamentary caucus.
I think it is fair to say that Mr. Trudeau has put his finger on a solution that will resonate with many Canadians, even though there is a perception that most people would prefer to abolish the Senate. Listening to the Jan. 26 edition of CBC’s Cross-Country Check-Up, I was struck by the number of callers who preferred to retain the Senate and reform it, along with another common view that the best way to reform the Senate is to make it less partisan.
It may not be “vogue” to defend partisanship, but there is a reason why it has played such an important role in our democracy. In my experience, quick-fixes often create more problems than they solve – and I fear that’s what would happen if the Senate were truly a non-partisan institution.
It was interesting that one of the first concerns we heard from Liberal senators – or rather, senators who are Liberal – was the impact they would feel from the loss of resources from Liberal Party research and the leader’s office. While some welcomed the new-found freedom, lobbyists were quick to realize that the senators would now need much more information and support if they were going to play a constructive role in the legislative process. As one academic commentator put it, “Lobbyists and interest groups will suddenly start paying attention … Instead of [the Senate] just being a place for sober second thought; it would be the main game.”
Both the Chrétien and Harper governments have gone a long way in removing the influence of money on the Canadian electoral process, but imagine the fun that interest groups could have delaying, maybe even defeating, important pieces of legislation because they would now be able to influence the voting intentions of newly independent senators. This would be a boon for my industry, but I am not sure it is in the best interests of our political process.
It is not partisanship that’s at the heart of the Senate’s ineffectiveness as a democratic institution – it is accountability. We don’t mind electing partisan MPs to the House of Commons, because we know we can un-elect them at the next election if we don’t like what they are doing. We can hold these partisans accountable. Why, in a modern democracy, aren’t we doing the same for the upper house, where people may be appointed by the ruling party of the day but are eligible to be there until they are 75?
Many in the media last week were falling over themselves calling Mr. Trudeau’s Senate move a “bombshell” and a “smart branding strategy” that would raise his profile among Canadians. Before we get too carried away, people may want to consider giving this idea a “sober second thought.”
Mike Coates is chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada. He led Stephen Harper’s election debate preparation team in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections.