Justin Trudeau’s surprise move of booting all senators from the Liberal caucus was certainly bold. That it came as a surprise to his caucus, both MPs and senators, is problematic considering the ramifications of such a move, and it makes him look capricious. But for all of the purity and nobility of his intentions, it also strikes me as being both short sighted and lacking in an understanding of the fundamental aspects of our system of government.
The most fundamental flaw with Trudeau’s proposal is that the Senate itself be non-partisan. While he sees partisanship and patronage as problems with the Senate as it is currently constructed, and to a certain extent he’s right, his move was more about throwing the baby out with the bathwater than it was about finding a constructive solution. The Senate is not, has never been, nor should ever be a non-partisan body. To believe otherwise is not only factually incorrect, but it betrays the fundamental aspects of responsible government that our system is based upon, where partisanship acts as a check and balance within our democratic system. Our parliament is not a technocracy, nor does it serve our interests to try and impose a technocratic function to the Senate.
Responsible government is based on a system of holding government to account, and in a bicameral system, that accountability was carried out in both chambers. There are distinct roles for government and opposition, and for those roles to be meaningful, those carrying them out need to be coherent and organized. It’s why we have parties in the first place – so that the government has the support to maintain the confidence of the House, and the opposition to effectively hold them to account and to be in a position to form a new government if the current one loses that confidence. This is echoed in the Senate, where the roles of government and opposition are carried out in the organization and structure of debate and committee structure. The institutional independence of the Senate allows that kind of opposition to speak truth to power without the same constraints faced by MPs in the Commons with their electoral considerations.
That Trudeau rather cavalierly dismissed his senate caucus betrays a misunderstanding of this system, and of the role of opposition. That he blindsided his own senators and didn’t allow them time to figure out how this imposition of independence would work within the Senate’s rules and structures was bad form. He also didn’t come prepared for an answer as to how he planned to pass legislation through his “independent Senate” should he become Prime Minister, other than to make a dig at the ghost of Jack Layton, who didn’t have an answer either given that he had no Senators and never planned to appoint any. It is unnerving that Trudeau couldn’t answer a fundamental process question like that because this is a bicameral parliament, and it should be a topmost consideration. That said, this kind of short sightedness is all-too-common, where nobody thinks through the consequences of the “reforms” they propose – or enact in this case.
Trudeau has also committed to creating a non-partisan and transparent process for Senate appointments should he become Prime Minister, but in his press release, he outlined two fundamentally different and problematic proposals to achieve this – appointments commissions like that for the Order of Canada, or a process like that for Supreme Court Justices. This is also a red flag in the practice of responsible government because it is the duty of the Prime Minister who has the confidence of the House to make the recommendations to Queen about these appointments. If Trudeau does indeed propose a process like that for Order of Canada nominations, then he creates one where it is someone other than the person maintaining the confidence of the Chamber who is advising the Queen, which should never happen.
It also poses a giant problem of accountability – as it is, the Prime Minister is the person for whom the accountability for these appointments rests, and he or she can be taken to task either by the House or by voters. An independent commission is accountable to nobody, nor is there any guarantee that they would make better appointments than those currently being made. If Trudeau chooses a process akin to Supreme Court nominations or that put into place for vice-regal appointments whereby a shortlist is drawn up and given to the Prime Minister to choose from, then he retains the accountability and function of advising the Queen, but it also conflicts with his desire to eliminate the appearance of patronage.
While there is merit to the idea that Senators not sit in national caucus with MPs in order to enforce independence, throwing them out of the party entirely diminishes their representational roles within regional caucuses, as well as the loss of decades of experience – both in terms of policy and in parliamentary institutional memory – within his caucus as a whole. Those are important considerations for policy development and in tempering some of those bright ideas that MPs get every so often that have been attempted in the past and either blew up in their faces or were stopped for good reason. How they feel that dumping that wisdom overboard serves them in the longer term is mystifying.
While everyone is lining up to praise Trudeau for his vision and leadership, he should beware the unintended consequences. People have pointed out that these senators are now accountable to nobody but themselves, which was largely true beforehand, but there was some level of pressure that the party leader could put on them beforehand. That is now gone. Liberal senators are now organizing themselves as the “Senate Liberal Caucus” in order to maintain that caucus structure within the Senate, and they maintain their party memberships but are being seen to distance themselves from their elected counterparts, especially in light of spending allegations. In the end, it leaves the whole announcement with the unfortunate appearance of being more about optics than of substance.
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