The Senate (2)

Back in March I said, “kudos to Prime Minister Trudeau for picking some fine Canadians to senatesit in the senate of Canada … [because] … they are all distinguished Canadians who have served our country well and who can continue to serve, even in a flawed institution.” But I also challenged him to take up the business of Senate reform, which, in my opinion, is more urgent than changing the voting system and almost as urgent as the (too slow) process of trying to bring some sort of (very rough and plagued by exceptions) equality of electoral representation to the House of Commons.

Now, the Toronto Star reports that, “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to name 20 new “non-affiliated” or “independent” senators in a matter of weeks … [and] … The government had pledged to fill the remaining Senate vacancies, including six for Ontario, by the end of the year. But a source familiar with the process said the Liberals want to move quickly to fill those 20 seats … The move would mean that, for the first time in the Senate’s history, non-affiliated senators will outnumber their Conservative or Independent Liberal counterparts with a plurality of seats. And it will also put to the test Trudeau’s gamble to make the upper chamber more respectable in the eyes of Canadians … [and, further] … Peter Harder, the Liberal government’s representative in the Senate, expects recommendations from an arm’s-length advisory board on Senate appointments to land on the prime minister’s desk within weeks.

I have no objection to the method the prime minister is using to select senators. The Constitution does not impose too many constraints on him and the first batch were high quality people and I expect the next batch to be a similar quality. But I agree with Senator Leo Housakos, a former Senate Speaker and chair of the chamber’s powerful internal economy committee, that “the new dynamic in the upper chamber will make the operations of that place more difficult …  “The difficulty, and they’re starting to recognize it themselves, is that it’s hard to operate in the British parliamentary system without clusters and caucuses,” Housakos said in an interview Tuesday … “A lot of the decision (about) who sits on (Senate) committees are taken by caucuses, are taken by collectively within groups of like-minded senators.”” After Justin Trudeau dismissed them from the Liberal caucus, former Liberal senators identified themselves as chantal-petitclercWinnipeg_Free_Press-Sinclai‘Indepenedent Liberals’ or some such thing but I’m not, personally, clear oh how the new senators are affiliated, in fact Chantal Petitclerc and Murray Sinclair, for example, are listed as “Non affiliated” on the parliamentary web site while e.g. Art Eggleton and Colin Kenny are still listed as “Liberal Party of Canada.”

But, two points:

  • First, I think Prime Minister Trudeau deserves the benefit of the doubt on these appointments. Like Senator Housakos I doubt that we will see many “right-of-centre politically minded people” on the list of 20 (but I suspect that one or two will be of a Conservative bent just so that the Liberals can crow about being “fair”) but there is not a great tradition of appointing anything but the party faithful to the cherished Senate sinecures; and
  • Second, I think, as I have said, that it is time for Prime Minister Trudeau to start breaking or backing away from or modifying some promises. I said that he cannot, sensibly, square the circle of the his contradictory CF-18 replacement promises, and I think he is bound to fail on electoral reform, too. I suggested :changing the channel” on fighter jets from a “fair and open competition” to revitalizing the Canadian aerospace industry. I think the “democratic reform” file is a bit more complex but I also think that Prime Minister Trudeau could rescue himself by saying:
    • “OK, we will have a proper referendum, after an “education” campaign and it will let you choose from three option: proportional representation, preferential ballots and the existing, familiar, first past the post system and there will be no change unless one system gets 50%+1 votes,” and
    • “While the debates are going on, looking for a referendum in 2018 or 2019, I will be making concrete proposals to reform the Senate.”

I think that could be one of those very rare “win-win” solutions that politicians always seek.

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