Are we sure we want these reforms solidified?

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A few days ago, the diligent number-crunchers at the Hill Times calculated that over the course of the next parliament, some 24 senators will reach mandatory retirement, assuming that none decide to bow out earlier than that for health or other reasons.  That means that essentially one quarter of the Upper Chamber is due to turn over in the next four years, the plurality of those being Conservatives, which is a pretty big deal.  This also makes it a big deal for whoever happens to win this fall’s election, because it will essentially help determine whether or not prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “great experiment” in appointing Independents will solidify into something resembling a convention or not, which will have a very big impact on the institution going forward.  The problem is whether that impact is being confined just to the single chamber, or to Parliament as a whole, and if one isn’t a bigger consideration than the other.

Whether or not Trudeau maintains government after the election won’t change the dynamics of the Senate in the shorter term – there are now enough Independents to form a plurality for at least the life of the next parliament, presuming that nothing changes.  That means that we are likely to see a continuation of what has developed over the past three-and-a-half years, which is not nearly as positive as people like to portray.  While sure, more bills are getting amended than under the previous government, this is not inherently a dynamic of there being more Independents in the Chamber who are doing a better job of scrutinizing bills.  As with many things political, what’s on the surface and what lies beneath it are two very different things.

It has been noted that bills in this current parliament have largely spent twice as long in the Senate than they did under the Conservatives, but again, this is as a combination of factors.  Far more bills were time allocated under the Harper years, because that was the style of managing the business in both Chambers, and it wasn’t a good one.  The Conservatives had the numbers to ram more bills through, and that dynamic no longer exists in the Chamber.  But it’s not that they’re getting more scrutiny that they’re taking longer – rather, the new Independent senators don’t know what they’re doing, and a lot of time gets wasted either on unnecessary speeches that take away from the time the bills could be spent at committee, or they simply can’t manage the business of the Chamber because they refuse to negotiate timelines for bills as has been how the Senate has largely managed its business over the course of decades.  On the off-chance that they do manage to come up with an agreement, they have no means of holding their members to them, so when agreements get broken, there have been instances where the Independent Senators Group negotiators have lied to the other caucuses to cover up for the fact that their agreement was broken, which has not engendered any kind of trust.  This is not good for the institution.

It’s in this particular context that Senator Tony Dean’s quotes in the Hill Times piece are particularly alarming.  Dean says that a greater number of Independents, and the gradual shrinking of the Liberal and Conservative caucuses in the Senate over the next Parliament – assuming that the Liberals maintain government – would be a “greater opportunity to embed a different style of behaviour, a different way of doing business” over an eight-year period.  Given that the different style of behaviour and way of doing business has been largely chaos and a refusal by the new senators to adopt the norms of Parliament because of an overarching ethos that anything old is partisan and therefore bad, this is not a good thing.  This is a recipe for more paralysis and a diminution of the ability of the Senate to do the good work that it was used to doing beforehand.

Even if one were content with the state of play in the Senate – and no one should be, let’s be clear – the thing that everyone hasn’t wrapped their head around is how these changes are affecting Parliament as a whole.  So many of the boosters for these reforms continue to look at the Senate in isolation, but parliamentary democracy doesn’t work like that.  Each piece interacts with the other, and how they interact is of particular concern, even if nobody sees that.  In this particular case, these changes are inextricably tied to how Justin Trudeau has been hollowing out his party so that it is little more than his own personality cult.

It can’t be stated enough that the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament – not only because its membership has a longevity that the House of Commons is hard-pressed to match, particularly as Canada’s parliament is far more volatile and has a much lower incumbency rate than many comparable democracies, but it’s also the institutional memory for the party caucuses as well.  When you get a crop of new MPs who are extremely beholden to the leader, because they credit him or her with getting elected, it’s necessary to have older, more experienced voices in the room – who don’t depend on the leader signing their nomination papers – to provide a critical challenge function.  In booting out the senators from his caucus, Trudeau did away with those necessary voices, and centralized his own authority, while also ensuring that the party’s constitution was re-written to cement that centralized power in his office.

Changes like these are bad for parties and bad for democracy, but in any of the discussion about how this new, independent Senate is supposedly better, nobody acknowledges that the harms are wider-reaching.  Do we want to “solidify” this system where the institutional memory is locked out and the leaders’ powers are further entrenched, all in the name of a Senate that can’t manage its affairs and which launders government amendments to bills in order to pat itself on the back for a job well done?  It seems to me that the trade-off is not at all worth it.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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.

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