Skip to main content

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau attends a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 29, 2014.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Ottawa Liberal Senators will undoubtedly gripe and squawk in private about being excluded from the party caucus, after a life of service to the party.  If they do it in public, so much the better for Justin Trudeau.

In one swoop, the Liberal Leader has put the Senate back to the top of the news, exactly where Stephen Harper doesn't want it. And he has proffered a symbol to Canadians that he'll combat one of the things that bugs them the most about an institution whose very existence bugs them a lot: the political partisanship of the Senate.

The fact that excluding Senators from party caucuses was NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's idea, and one that Mr. Trudeau once rejected, will be a debating point, but not one that will linger. Actions trump words.  Mr. Trudeau has excluded Liberal Senators, symbolically stripping them of the party label. That's intended to look like a down payment on his promise to de-politicize Senate appointments, if he and his Liberal party take power.

It also puts the squeeze on Mr. Harper, who came to Ottawa promising to reform the Senate, and hasn't. His government has asked the Supreme Court about its options to elect Senators or abolish the chamber, but it knows that's probably legally impossible, at least without the wrangles of re-opening the Constitution for talks with the provinces.

Now Mr. Trudeau has taken a step that Mr. Harper could have taken, to mitigate, though not rectify, the perceived sins of the Senate. And there he was on Wednesday morning, taunting the prime minister to follow suit. And even if he does so now, the prime minister knows he'll be seen as having been dragged into a concession by his opponent.

It isn't just the democratic illegitimacy, or the salaries and expenses and wrongly-claimed expenses that bother Canadians about the Senate. It's that the supposed chamber of sober second thought is packed with political partisans, former aides, campaign workers, and fundraisers, rewarded for service to the party. You don't have to listen long to a radio call-in show or a donut shop discussion about the Senate scandal to know that it's the unseemly tradition of partisan payback that ices the whole unpalatable cake.

That has been a two-party tradition, so the Senate now includes Brian Mulroney's former appointments secretary, Marjory Lebreton; Jean Chrétien's former campaign co-chair, David Smith, and former chief of staff, Percy Downe, and former communications director, Jim Munson; loyal Paul Martin operatives like Dennis Dawson, as well as Mr. Harper's former press secretary Carolyn Stewart Olsen, his party's chief fundraiser, Irving Gerstein, and a key Quebec organizer, Léo Housakos – just to name a few. Senator Mike Duffy, now cast out of the Conservative caucus, was employed, while serving in the Red Chamber, as a fundraising draw.

That is, in effect, why no one has ever taken Mr. Trudeau's simple step before: casting out Senators from the party will, whatever they say in public, irritate some Senators, party loyalists, who will see it as an insult to their careers – and it removes a valuable reward that can serve as a carrot to party faithful.

Will Mr. Trudeau's steps now really end partisanship in the chamber? No, of course not. Liberal senators are already talking about regrouping under some sort of independent-Liberal banner to act together in the chamber – hardly the most convincing re-branding. It will also be hard for Canadians to know the extent of the coordination, behind closed doors, between Liberal senators and the Liberal Leader's Office – just as the full extent of direction of Conservative senators by Mr. Harper's office, including re-drafting inquiry reports and having the party pay Mr. Duffy's legal fees, wasn't known until the RCMP started snooping.

Mr. Trudeau's ideas for appointing senators in the future, through a non-partisan committee akin to that which names nominees for the Order of Canada, isn't necessarily a bullet-proof shield against political involvement, nor will it confer democratic legitimacy.

But both steps have allowed Mr. Trudeau to seize the narrative on the Senate – where it was an issues owned by Mr. Mulcair, whose party has no senators, and is unequivocally in favour of abolishing the Senate.

It will change the political symbolism of the Senate for the Liberal Party, and it will allow Mr. Trudeau to argue he's serious about change. It puts the squeeze on Mr. Harper.

Already, two hours after Mr. Trudeau announced the move, the party was sending out fundraising e-mail blasts, touting the "bold" move as doing more about Senate reform than Mr. Harper has accomplished in eight years.

And if nothing else, it will knock Mr. Harper – who has worked to move past scandal in 2014 with a high-hoopla visit to Israel and a rush to an early budget Feb. 11 – back into stories about the Senate, at least for a few days.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe