Take heed with Senate transformation proposals

Senate

Ever since Justin Trudeau made his rather bold and unprecedented move of tossing his senators from his caucus in a bid to both provide more independence for them and to distance his caucus from the ongoing spotlight on Senate spending, there has been a renewed interest in ideas for transforming the Senate without opening up the constitution.  Last week, Senate Liberal Pierrette Ringuette tabled a motion for yet another transformation initiative, but it’s worth looking at the proposal in detail, and to see why things aren’t as clear-cut as they might otherwise appear to be on the surface.

Everyone says that they want a less partisan Senate, but there seems to be little awareness that there is a certain amount of ebb and flow of partisanship in the Upper Chamber, and much of that has to do with the maturity of its membership.  There can be no denial that the Senate has been on the upswing of partisanship in the past few years, but that has largely been the function of the problematic way in which Stephen Harper approached appointments since he formed government in 2006.

Under normal circumstances, the Senate can easily absorb two or three new Senators at a time with few problems, but when Harper refused to make any appointments until the coalition crisis forced his hand and he appointed 18 new senators in one shot, it created a shock to the system.  Nearly one fifth of the chamber as new members all at once meant that you had a large group of senators easily swayed by the dictates of the leadership, and still feeling beholden to the Prime Minister that appointed them.  Senators do get more independent with time, but the large glut that happened all at once created a more partisan atmosphere that was more willing to take the direction of the leadership – something that becomes less palatable to Senators as they better appreciate their institutional independence.

Where Senator Ringuette wants to take her transformation proposals in order to get a less partisan Senate are in the directions of reducing the role of political parties in favour of the creation of four regional caucuses, changing the way in which the agenda is managed, allowing Senators to participate in the selection of the Senate Speaker, changing Senate Question Period to reflect this new reality, and some rather nebulous talk about establishing some kinds of systems to provide accountability to citizens.  To achieve this, she proposes a transformation committee of nine members to examine the proposals.

There are a few areas that jump out at me, the first of which is the reduction of the role of parties and increasing the regional role of the chamber.  I am wary about this kind of talk because it ignores the federal role that the parties play, as well as the whole notion of a brokerage party.  The reason that our parties are “big tents” is because they incorporate members from the various regions from across the country, both in the Commons and the Senate, and gives them a common platform with which to stand behind.  Dialogue within the party can help to smooth out regional differences between the members and create a more federal vision because they can come to understandings or arrangements that will benefit everyone – hence the term “brokerage party.”  It’s also why we don’t see kinds of riders and one-off deals made in our legislation in order to get it passed, like you see in other countries.

What concerns me about enhancing the role of regional caucuses is because I’m not sure how the greater good that would be served by it.  While Senators do provide regional perspective to the legislative process, the structure of the Senate is still that of a federal institution.  Entrenching regional divisions would seem to me a way to only exacerbate the pre-existing regional tensions that exist in the country.  I’m also at a loss as to how entrenching regional caucuses fits into the mechanisms of Responsible Government, which is how our system is based.  The Senate is one of those bodies that are supposed to hold the government to account, and it does that through the dynamics of government and opposition, with leaders for both sides to maintain that structure.  By having the Government Leader in the Senate as a member of cabinet, there was both a recognized authority to answer questions on the government’s behalf, and to properly shepherd government legislation through the Chamber.

The proposals around changing how the Senate formulates its agenda and how it conducts its Question Period relate to the accountability role in our system of Responsible Government.  Putting the focus on committee chairs in Question Period, as Senator Ringuette suggests, would be removing that pressure from the government.  As for the agenda, government legislation takes priority for a reason, and the structure of the Order Paper currently puts every piece of business on daily so that every Senator can have a chance to speak to every item if they so choose.  It currently provides far more freedom to individual members than the House does, so that should be taken into consideration.  As for the selection of the Speaker, it is also worth noting that unlike the Commons Speaker, the Senate Speaker plays a far more involved role in terms of matters of protocol and parliamentary diplomacy, which needs to be taken into account if there are changes to be made.

While it’s all well and good to go around proposing changes that sound like they will usher in a new era of reduced partisanship, it’s important to remember why our system exists the way it does.  We cannot simply content ourselves to say that anything is better than what we have now – that simply is not true, and only by understanding our present system can we examine reforms with a clear eye.  I’m not sure that anything in Senator Ringuette’s proposal has adequately done so.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

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Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

 

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