The Canadian Senate should be credible, independent but subordinate. Thanks to Justin Trudeau’s reforms, the Red Chamber today is closer to that ideal than at any time in its past. If Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, the Conservative Leader should build on these improvements rather than scuttling them, as he has threatened to do.
For most of Canada’s history, the Senate has been an embarrassment, viewed by the public as an unelected slough of overpaid, underworked party hacks inhabiting an institution worthy only of contempt.
In truth, many senators have served ably. But after the Senate expenses scandal, allegations of sexual misconduct and repeated failed efforts at reform, its reputation was at a nadir.
Having previously expelled all Liberal senators from caucus, Mr. Trudeau decided to appoint only independent senators, from a list of recommended nominees submitted by an advisory panel. Today, 58 senators caucus informally as the Independent Senators Group, or ISG.
Critics point out that urban progressives dominate among Mr. Trudeau’s picks. Fair enough. If Mr. Scheer were to become prime minister, he could choose oil-industry executives, cattle ranchers, Bay Street business leaders, small-business entrepreneurs, scholars from the Fraser Institute − conservative rather than progressive senators, who would nonetheless sit as independents. Instead, the Conservative Leader has vowed to appoint Conservative partisans. This would be a mistake and a waste.
Everyone agrees that, because of the Liberal reforms, the calibre of appointments on Mr. Trudeau’s watch has been very high. Because of the reforms, more than 10 per cent of the Senate is Indigenous and almost half are women. Because of the reforms, the Senate has returned about 30 per cent of bills back to the Commons with proposed amendments, a far higher percentage than in the past.
The government and the House have adopted some of the amendments and rejected others, after which senators have always deferred and passed the bill.
The Senate “has been transformed from a mainly partisan institution that functioned on the basis of top-down, often unilateral leadership of the government of the day, into a more independent organization with a more horizontal leadership dynamic based on negotiation rather than dictation,” University of Manitoba Professor Emeritus Paul Thomas said in an interview. He has studied the Senate throughout his long career as a political scientist.
The new Senate is far from perfect. Conservatives accuse the ISG of being Liberals in sheep’s clothing. With no governing caucus leadership, bills can languish for years, leading to the congestion in the final weeks of each sitting. Important and contentious bills − such as C-48, the moratorium on tanker traffic in upper British Columbia, and C-69, which imposes more stringent criteria on natural-resource projects − are being rushed through in the dying days of Parliament.
But over all, the reforms have made for better-crafted bills. And if these reforms survive into future Parliaments, precedent will evolve into convention, conservative independents will balance progressive independents, and senators will figure out ways to move legislation forward more efficiently.
For the first time since Confederation, “we have robust bicameralism in Canada,” said Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the Senate. "This is not always comfortable for the government or for the government representative. But I believe it is good for the public, and for public policy.”
The 30 Conservative senators, almost all of whom were appointed by Stephen Harper, reject the reforms, saying they undermine the Westminster system of having governing and opposing parties in both chambers. If Mr. Scheer becomes prime minister and carries out his plan, the Senate will once again become partisan and patronage-ridden, with the senators of the governing party under the thumb of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Senate will return to being useless.
But if the Conservative Leader embraced the Liberal approach, balancing the independent progressives appointed on Mr. Trudeau’s watch with independent conservatives, the Senate would evolve into a chamber of highly qualified individuals from all walks of life, sharing a range of political perspectives, but a common will to examine and, where necessary, amend legislation, while always deferring to the elected members of the House of Commons in the end.
The Constitution and recent Supreme Court rulings have rendered it impossible to reconstruct or abolish the Senate. Ignore all arguments to the contrary; they are not grounded in fact. Improving the selection process is all we’ve got. The current approach is working. The next government should help make it work better.