David Adams Richards is a very gifted writer, but no one could call his books uplifting. The inner lives of the characters who inhabit his novels, including the Giller Prize-winning Mercy Among the Children, are as bleak as the poverty-stricken New Brunswick mill towns in which they’re set.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Mr. Richards’s appointment to the Senate last year, his biography noted that his novels give “voices to the marginalized” and help deepen “understanding of the human experience.” By that account, Mr. Richards was bound to find raw material for future books among his new colleagues.
For most of our history, the Senate was where prime ministers parked party bagmen and other friends who needed a job. The Red Chamber has seen many distinguished and devoted men and women fill its seats over the past 150 years. But they’ve been overshadowed by the patronage appointees who treated the post as a sinecure.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper hated the institution so much he once vowed never to fill seats vacated when the senators occupying them reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. But he needed the unelected Senate to pass his bills and, after 12 years of Liberal appointments, the chamber was in enemy hands. So, fill the vacant seats he did, with the results (see: Mike Duffy) that came to haunt him.
To avoid any guilt by association with this toxic institution, Mr. Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus when he was opposition leader. After his election, he implemented a new appointments process, opening the Senate to anyone who applied and naming a committee to screen applicants. No more party hacks or unemployed pals was supposed to mean no more scandals. So far, so good.
Mr. Richards is among about three dozen senators Mr. Trudeau has named, almost all of whom sit in the Independent Senators Group. The 43-member ISG looks and acts a lot like a party caucus. It members vote overwhelmingly with the Liberal government. Not the cliquey type, Mr. Richards announced this week that he is quitting the ISG to be “totally independent.” (The new Senate nomenclature is nothing if not confusing.)
The fear that all these “independent” senators, ISG members or not, would thwart the democratic process by challenging elected MPs and advancing their personal agendas may not be the real threat posed by the new appointment process. Not yet, anyway.
It is true that a few self-important new appointees have used their Senate perch to try to push their own agenda or pet causes. But the only senators who truly seem out to thwart the government sit among the 33-member Conservative caucus, which still plays by the rules of the old adversarial system. The Trudeau government has its own “representative” to steer its bills through the chamber. In general, it’s been smooth sailing for former senior bureaucrat Peter Harder, who is a “non-affiliated” senator despite representing the government. (I’m as lost as you are.)
Mr. Trudeau has largely appointed progressives who would appear to be at one with his agenda. So, it’s no surprise they’re passing his bills, after amending six of them. The real test will come when a future government tries to pass legislation that these independent Trudeau appointees oppose. Will they rise in protest and thrust the country into a constitutional crisis?
According to Mr. Harder, who recently produced a paper on the matter, the Senate should “continue to see the defeat of government legislation as exceptionally rare, a safety valve to protect Canadians against the tyranny of the majority.” That is a leap from “sober second thought” and imposes on the Senate a grave responsibility its members are unqualified to fulfill. Who are they to say when the elected House of Commons is being tyrannical? We have a Supreme Court for that.
Mr. Harder concedes that the Senate should follow the Salisbury Convention of the British House of Lords by deferring to the government in passing legislation that enact election promises. But he adds that “this does not preclude amendments that would improve the legislation.”
The Government Representative thinks the Senate can “redeem” itself in the eyes of Canadians if it follows his not-so-simple rules. But the Senate is not redeemable for the simple reason that it is, as Mr. Harder himself notes, “the most powerful unelected legislative body in the Western world.”
And if it can’t be elected, it should be eliminated.