A Senate back at full strength

Canadian Sentate Chambre


With four more appointments announced this week, it looks like the Senate will be at full strength for the first time in eight years.  Never mind that it’s shameful that successive prime ministers have thought it perfectly acceptable to deny Canadians their due representation in the Upper Chamber, whether out of a preening sense of fiscal probity, ideological intransigence, or a fit of pique, the fact that the chamber is not only back up to its full complement of 105 senators, the majority of them sitting as independents, means some more changes on the horizon, not necessarily for the better.

Of the four new appointments made this week, two of them had Liberal Party pasts – one a former Liberal candidate, another the former Liberal premier of Yukon.  And this should actually be something that should be treated as just fine – it’s important to have Canadians with political experience in the Senate, not only because of the institutional memory function of the Senate, but also to keep a sense of grounding among its membership as to the realities of electoral politics.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, one of the biggest dangers that the Senate faces right now, with the kinds of appointments that have been made, and with the “leadership” being provided by the likes of the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, is that there is a desire to see it operating like a debating society than a legislative chamber.  We’re already getting some inklings of this with the fact that with many of the bills on the Order Paper, there is less of a focused attention to the needs of speaking to a bill’s strengths and flaws than there is of giving self-congratulatory speeches, often about how it’s great that the senators rising to speak are independent and not whipped (overplaying how much whipping was an actual occurrence in the Senate beforehand), but the substance is not always addressed.  Read enough of these speeches while researching a bill, and you start to get a picture formed as to where things may end up.

Of course, where this turns into a bit of a sideshow is where people see the partisan backgrounds of these appointees – backgrounds which are not mentioned in the bios provided by the PMO when the appointment is announced – and the peanut gallery immediately starts with the snide remarks about how “independent” these senators really will be.  They have a point – the prime minister did a big song and dance about how independent he wanted the Senate to be, and it does look mighty suspicious that former Liberals are still being appointed (though a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister, Frances Lankin, was among the first appointees under Trudeau, and former PEI PC candidate Diane Griffin was another early appointee).  That almost no one else with a Conservative past has made the grade does start to look like a problem if the door is open to former partisans.

Granted, the fact that he’s a prime minister looking to get his agenda through Parliament means that he’s likely to appoint more ideological fellow travellers, even if they’re not declared partisans, should be a given, but it should at least be stated openly.  But this runs into the phenomenon that Paul Wells likes to point out – that Liberals don’t think that they’re partisan, hence why more of their own past partisans will wind up winning spots in their arm’s length, “non-partisan” processes.  Of course, it would be even better if Justin Trudeau actually appointed a number of actual Liberals to the Senate to better balance the numbers, along with a strong crossbench contingent, but that would go against his current branding exercise.

As for these new appointees, if they do join the Independent Senators Group (as they are likely to), their charter forbids any kind of partisan activity beyond holding a party membership (which must be declared in writing to the group), so that brand identity of independence is maintained with a level of control that exceeds that of actual partisan caucuses.  But the dynamics within the ISG are, by all accounts, strange, and it remains to see how long the group can remain coherent – at least, once they get the rule changes they’re looking for through.

Those rule changes are considered the ISG’s highest priority, and they have started agitating the government for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to get them through, and there is a great deal of concern that the government may try to put them through as part of a budget implementation bill without sufficient consultation with the Senate (though there is also some trepidation as to whether these changes would even be constitutional without the input of the provinces).  But now that the ISG has an absolute majority in the chamber, they can start the process of rewriting other Senate rules to their benefit which could do lasting damage to the Chamber and its operations for a generation to come, particularly because they don’t know enough about how the Chamber is supposed to function – and some of that is a wilful ignorance because they frequently reject that advice as being “partisan” and therefore bad because of where it comes from.

Trudeau’s appointees now have enough clout, and insufficient experience, that they can turn this great experiment of a “non-partisan” chamber into a legislative nightmare for this government and future ones.  Already the lack of proper leadership by those who wield what levers of power there are in the Senate means that the Order Paper is at crisis levels because bills can’t get passed with reasonably negotiated timelines.  Clout and insufficient experience can also mean that the ISG might be willing to entertain Senator Harder’s terrible idea of a business committee, which would simply time allocate all business – and possibly reshape the way debates are managed in order to make them “TV-friendly,” as is now being discussed, which is an idea that would start turning the Senate into another House of Commons full of scripted inanities instead of thoughtful discourse.  Now that the ISG has the majority, they need to be very careful not to do harm out of ignorance – but that depends on them being willing to listen to advice.

More from Dale Smith     @journo_dale

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