The problem with political neophytes

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As part of his exit interview with the CBC as he resigns as Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Peter Harder said that the prime minister should consider appointing more people with parliamentary or legislative experience to the Senate, given that the bulk of the appointments to date have been complete political neophytes, and the steep learning curve has had an effect.  Of course, Harder seems to exclude himself from that particular consideration, even though the rest of the interview was riddled with particular statements that are wrong, and in fact damaging to the exercise of parliamentary democracy – so there’s an object lesson right there.

The quest for a more “independent” senate has been of fairly dubious provenance, started when newly selected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau decided to oust the senators from his caucus with no consultation – merely a conversation with a political science professor who assured him there were no constitutional barriers to the move.  The real purpose had been for Trudeau to inoculate himself from any possible damning revelations of spending that might have emerged from the problematic Auditor General’s report on the Senate, and while Stephen Harper’s government was wounded by the ClusterDuff scandal, Trudeau made the calculation to pre-emptively distance himself from the Liberal senators, damn the long-term consequences, but he would do it by dressing it up in the language of a more independent upper chamber – never mind that the Senate Liberals were already pretty independent and not subject to the imagined whip of the leaders’ office (so much so that on one occasion where Trudeau’s office communicated with the Senate Liberal leadership that they would prefer them to vote a certain way on an upcoming piece of business, many Senators voted the other way as a sign that the weren’t to be told what to do).

When Trudeau formed government, the notion of a more “Independent” Senate started to take root, with Harder’s appointment as an Independent, and his taking on the role of Government Leader while trying to assert that he was not really a member of the government, and certainly not a partisan, no sir.  The half-pregnant farce of Harder’s time as “government representative,” as he liked to style himself, was fraught with attempts to reform the Senate’s rules to conform to the new reality of “independence” as more and more senators were appointed as Independents.  Harder himself tried to bigfoot the organizational attempts of the nascent Independent Senators Group on more than one occasion, claiming credit for work they did on other occasions, but the lack of political experience quickly became apparent.

While it was not always that senators in the days of old would be appointed with political experience – some of the best appointments were from those who had none, and would never have considered public office had they not been tapped by the prime minister of the day – there was nevertheless a core of senators who were appointed who had been former MPs, provincial representatives, and premiers.  They understood the legislative process that they could pass along to other newly appointed Senators who had not come from a political background, and there was mentorship within the Senate caucuses.  That too has come to something of an end, given that not only are there not enough senators with experience within the ISG to mentor the new appointees, there is also an unwillingness among some of them to actually take the lessons.

Part of this has to do with the way in which Trudeau is appointing Senators – by resorting to self-application that are vetted by the advisory committee rather than having the committee seek out nominations, Trudeau has created a body that behaves very differently than one for whom they largely would never consider the position but were honoured to be asked.  This isn’t to say that the new appointees aren’t of high caliber, because they are – but the manner in which they have been appointed only serves to fuel big egos in the room in a way that was far less the norm before.  Those egos have translated into a kind of self-righteousness in ignoring the norms of the Senate as a political body because they feel that in order to be “independent,” they need to throw away the rule book, which is a mistake.

Which brings us back to Harder, and the fact that there is a refusal to acknowledge that the Senate is a political body, whether or not its members identify with a political party.  By misunderstanding what “independence” should mean – which is institutional independence – we are now facing competing visions from Trudeau, Harder, and members of the ISG, who seem to view the Senate as some kind of august chamber of elders (Trudeau), a government department (Harder), or the varsity debate club (ISG “facilitator” Senator Yuen Pau Woo).  Because there are so many academics, artists, and activists in the current Senate, there is an expectation that they can be some kind of technocratic body for which the government should always be accepting their amendments – as though there were no political considerations to rejecting them – to the point that we’ve already had one senator leave in something of a huff after getting the vapours that there are politics in the institution.

It becomes all the more absurd when Harder says things in his interview like “senators ultimately have to defer to the government of the day,” which is false (they mostly need to defer to the democratically elected chamber, which is not the government of the day) – in other words, espousing that independence somehow means even greater deference to the executive.  The quest for “independence,” begun on a false premise, has already decimated the Senate’s role when it comes to institutional memory, and now threatens long-term damage to the chamber’s effectiveness in any other capacity.  So yes, Trudeau should have been appointing fewer political neophytes to the chamber, but that’s just one of the many problems he’s created for himself, and which future generations will have to contend with in order to undo the damage that is being done.

Photo Credit: Senate of Canada

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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