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Last week, there was no shortage of pearl-clutching and running for fainting couches as Conservative leader Andrew Scheer reiterated his long-held position that if he should form government, he would return to the former mode of making partisan appointments to the Senate.  The horror!  This caused an immediate flurry of tweets from the likes of Senators Peter Harder and Yuen Pau Woo, and a few of the academics who have become invested in this "independent" model of the Senate, despite the fact that what Justin Trudeau has proposed and attempted to implement is a rather blinkered version of what role the Senate is supposed to play in our parliamentary system.  Scheer's plan to return to partisan appointments is undoubtedly the right one within limits.  It can also backfire and become just as problematic as the damaged state that the institution found itself in by the end of the Harper era because of the improper way in which those appointments were handled.

Despite what Harder, Woo, and even Trudeau himself are saying, the new era of "independence" in the Senate is not actually working, in large part because it was done in a ham-fisted and haphazard way, in complete ignorance of how the Senate operates and is supposed to operate.  Independent senators were appointed without any consideration about how to train them to be senators, which the political caucuses would normally do, and when they started organizing themselves with the help of a couple of established senators who had since declared themselves independent (Senator Elaine McCoy was ostensibly an independent after the rest of the Progressive Conservative caucus aged out), a few of them started developing some very poor habit and beliefs things like the absurd notion that horse-trading was somehow "partisan" and therefore off-limits, rather than simply the way things get done in a political institution.

The result of this new way of doing things?  Delay, mostly, as the Independent senators can't organize themselves enough to keep legislation moving, which is exacerbated by a refusal to do the hard work of negotiation, or to adhere to agreements that are struck.  They point to all of the amendments to bills that went through, but conveniently forget to mention that the vast majority of those amendments came from the government and were simply laundered through the Independent senator who was "sponsoring" the bill (which they absolutely should not be doing).  And because things aren't moving through the Senate with any efficacy, it's causing Harder and others to start proposing very problematic "solutions" like the forced time allocation on all Senate business you know, rather than doing their actual jobs and negotiating with one another.

So would partisan appointments bring things back to a better state of affairs in the Chamber?  Maybe, if they're being done properly, and if Scheer is committed to doing them, then we have to ensure that we won't simply see a return to what Stephen Harper did, which caused its own harm to the institution.  By first refusing to appoint "unelected" Senators (unless it was politically expedient *cough*Michael Fortier*cough*) Harper allowed a huge backlog of vacancies to accumulate until the 2008 prorogation crisis, at which point he suddenly became afraid that the proposed coalition would appoint Elizabeth May to the Senate, and in a panic, he appointed eighteen senators nearly one fifth of the Chamber in one fell swoop, without proper vetting to see that some of them were even eligible to sit in the province they were appointed it (Senator Mike Duffy), and extracting the promise that they would support his Senate reform agenda and only sit eight years (something virtually all of them ignored).  More importantly, however, was the fact that they were appointed under the expectation that they were to be whipped, which was not how the Senate had operated in nearly all circumstances for the vast majority of its existence.  Without enough pre-existing Conservative senators to push back against this blatant abuse of power, it created a cohort of partisan senators who acted more like backbenchers than they did senators which was a problem.

A false notion has been floated by apologists of the current attempt at "reform" that the Senate was supposed to be non-partisan.  It's not true it wasn't supposed to be able to thwart the will of the elected Chamber without sufficient cause, but more to the point, there was an intention that the Senate was supposed to have maintained a partisan balance rather than simply swamping it with partisans from one party or another.  The fact that they are partisans is part of the role that the Senate plays when it comes to maintaining the institutional memory of Parliament.  With a House of Commons like ours that turns over its membership at a much higher rate than other comparable democracies, it is especially important that the Senate hold that role both in Parliament as a whole, but within the party caucuses as well.  Severing that institutional memory only solidifies the power of the leader over his or her MPs, which the Liberals are only now realizing and what the cheerleaders of these "reforms" are ignoring.

And this notion of balance is what any future prime minister (or even the current one, should he be able to admit that he was wrong about these quixotic "reforms"), should strive for going forward.  There was a brief moment in the last parliament where the Senate maintained a rough balance between the Conservative, Liberal, and Independent caucuses, and that is something that we should strive for going forward a mix of partisans with enough cross-bench Independents to ensure that the power dynamic of the duopoly remains broken so that the abuses that it engendered stay buried.  But that will mean swallowing pride, appointing Senators that are not only partisan but also partisan of the opposite stripe in order to keep the balance intact.  We'll see if Scheer is capable of such an action, but if we want the Senate to function the way it was intended to, then it means leaders will need to do the right thing.

Photo Credit: Senate of Canada

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At the very start of Monday's debate, the prime minister talked about what troubled times we live in.  "We live in a very challenging time right now, from protectionism to fear based politics to the transformative technological change people are facing," Justin Trudeau gravely intoned.

Or, you know, he said in the nearest facsimile to grave he's able to muster.

But despite this very serious introduction to a night of political debating, what followed from there were two of the least serious hours you could imagine.  The six leaders who gathered in Gatineau for a debate spent the night bickering, shin kicking, and yammering over one another, while they are aimlessly led from topic to topic by a rotating cast of moderators of varying degrees of competence.

It was a disgrace of an evening, the sort of grim spectacle we've come to expect, and deserve from our federal politics.

It's hard for me to give some sort of answer to what it is we learned on Monday night, but I'll give it a go all the same.

First, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can't answer a question to save his life.  Ask him whether he prefers steak or chicken and he'll answer with a mist of white noise about middle-class families.  It would be infuriating if it didn't lull you into a dull stupor.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer only seems to have his feet under him when he's saying how awful Liberals are.  This probably plays to a certain segment of people, but I dunno.  His exasperated, hectoring style grates to anyone who doesn't have a predisposition to being square as hell.  Many Conservatives make the mistake of thinking people hate Liberals as much as they do, Scheer is one of them.

Neither of those two men shone particularly bright when the debated each other directly.  Their podiums were next to one another, and they'd turn and just bleat over each other like a pair of ornery sheep.  Then someone else on stage would break in with a line, or the clock would run out and it was time to move on and another few moments of our lives had slipped into oblivion, never to be reclaimed.  Great!

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was the only one on that stage that didn't make me shout at the television.  He knew when to shut up and sit back, which on a night like Monday was enough to make him seem heroic.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May did her usual schtick of trying to be the reasonable one on stage.  Which after so many years has begun to wear.  Especially as at the same time she's proposing radical change to the way we cut carbon emissions and shut down the oilsands in about a decade.  People aren't just going to come together on that idea if only they'd just try and get along.  The fact she doesn't see that after all this time in politics should be surprising, but this is who May is, a radical naïf.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had the easiest job of the night.  He just had to say nice things about Quebec, take his shots at the other leaders when he felt like it, and make the odd good joke.  One question asked the leaders what they would do as prime minister about one issue or another — for our purposes, it doesn't matter — and he said it was pretty unlikely he'd end up as prime minister.  Which, yep.

Maxime Bernier was there on stage, too.  He talked about his shitty views on immigration and other things in a very genial and non-threatening way.  You love to see it!

You may note at this point I haven't made much about what policies were talked about at the debate.  But there wasn't much talk of policy on Monday, there wasn't much of anything.  Whenever there might have been an interesting exchange between two candidates, people started talking over each other or the clock ran out and then it was on to the next ephemeral question on who had the best character to be the big boss.

Which brings us to the program itself.  It was set up in a way that could only end in disgrace.  Monday's debate was the only one where all the leaders had agreed to be there and debate in English, and the producers of the program seemed to take this as an opportunity to cram as much democracy as they could down our throats in two hours.

There were sections where one leader would get a question often very specific to that person, then everyone else would be asked to debate that question one at a time with that leader.  Singh was asked why he didn't explicitly oppose Bill 21* in Quebec — which bars people from wearing turbans and other religious clothing from the public service — despite the fact his campaign is about courage and he wears a turban.  Which, fair enough.  But then each leader was asked, in turn, to debate Singh on this point.  The hell?

It was bizarre, and emblematic of the way no one running this show seemed to know what it was supposed to be.  Was it a series of one-on-one debates?  A hopeless free-for-all?  There was a clock, but no one on stage seemed clear on whether that was a time to share, or dominate, or what.  No matter, onto the next topic to yell over each other!

By the end of the two hours I was just glad it was over, so I could go take some more cold medication, crawl in bed and wait consciousness to slip away for a few blissful hours.

At 3:30 a.m. I was jolted awake by the sound of my dog retching in the next room.  Seems the literal garbage she'd decided to eat on her walk that afternoon wasn't sitting so well.

After two hours of that debate I knew how she felt.


*The Quebec law that bars people from wearing religious headwear, like a turban or a hijab, from public service jobs.

Photo Credit: National Post

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.