Central Nova MP, St. FX prof weigh in on Liberal leader’s senate move
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s latest political move involving the senate has elicited a wave of both negative and positive reaction. In a surprise announcement, he released all Liberal senators from the national caucus stating they are now independent and non-partisan.
In the style of his flamboyant father’s ‘third way’ to foreign affairs during the Cold War, Trudeau’s latest announcement fell somewhere in between NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s calls to abolish the senate and the government’s desire for elected senators with term limits.
In a jab at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Trudeau said that the senate is broken and needs to be fixed.
“Canadians are especially disenchanted with the antiquated convention that sees Senators appointed by one person: the Prime Minister,” Trudeau noted. “The Senate is a public institution. It should not continue to be run like the Prime Minister’s private club.”
Any changes to the senate would require altering the constitution, but Trudeau’s approach, in contrast to Mulcair and Harper’s avoids this. But by avoiding the constitution issue, the changes may be all political.
James Bickerton is professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University. His research has been in the areas of regional development, federalism, party and electoral politics and Nova Scotia politics. He noted that with this move, the Liberal party might be back in the debate on the senate.
“I think [Trudeau’s move] has some political significance in that the Liberal Party essentially had a position on the senate that was status quo,” he said. “That was becoming untenable because of scandals and this is a way to bring Liberals into a more defensible position.”
But for Justice Minister and Central Nova MP Peter MacKay, Trudeau’s position is hardly defensible.
“My response was mainly laughter,” he said. “Given how ridiculous a ruse this is, absolutely nothing changes.”
The transition from partisan Liberal senators to non-partisan hasn’t been as smooth as Trudeau planned. Some, such as Senator George Furey, told the National Post that Trudeau has no authority or authorization to determine his status in the chamber. MacKay cites this as evidence of the non-effect of Trudeau’s announcement.
“Look at what those senators are saying, such as the leader of the opposition in the senate Jim Cowan, he said, ‘I suspect that a not a great deal will change’.”
On paper, however Trudeau’s move stands to place Atlantic Canada’s regional interests on the table. Of the 32 former Liberal senators, 13 represent Atlantic Canada
“The senate’s role in regional representation has always been a problem because members have been partisans,” said Bickerton. “The potential is there for the senate to be much more non-partisan and independent, but will those senators exercise that potential? It’s too early to know.”
So, if the prime minister shouldn’t be the be all end all for senate appointees, who should?
To MacKay, appointing a special body to appoint senators does nothing to change their legitimacy.
“With the formula that he’s using, to suggest he would put this to an arms length body is a Monty Python exercise. It’s insulting to the people.”
Bickerton noted that Trudeau’s approach is within the limits of the senate and wouldn’t merit constitutional change.
“[Trudeau] wants a less partisan senate. But if you really want to change the senate, you’ve got to change the constitution,” he said.
It’s a point of which Trudeau is proud.
“These changes take effect right away, without opening up the Constitution,” Trudeau noted. “They avoid a long, rancorous and likely pointless constitutional debate that would distract us from solving more important problems.”
MacKay believes that Trudeau’s piecemeal approach is just stalling an eventual need to take a serious look at the constitution.
“The truth is we’re focusing on meaningful senate reform and that’s why we’re going to the Supreme Court,” said MacKay. “The prime minister has been clear on this: the senate has to change or go.”
The Supreme Court is looking at several questions posed by the government regarding the senate, namely, the senate term limits, the senate appointment process, property qualifications and senate abolition.
The government’s democratic reform site notes that the Supreme Court will take all the time it needs to come to a decision.
“The Supreme Court of Canada will determine the schedule for the conduct of the reference,” it read. “That said, there could be an opinion of the Supreme Court within 10 to 24 months of filing the notice of reference. This estimate is based on past references before the Court.”
Trudeau noted that his actions represent the most significant and concrete actions to reform the Senate in its history.
“These proposals are the next step to create real, positive change, but they will not be our last,” he said.
MacKay is skeptical that Trudeau’s so-called ‘significant’ actions will have any affect at all.
“We’re the only party that has appointed elected senators and holding a democratic vote goes a considerable distance in providing legitimacy,” he said. “What the NDP are promising can’t be done and the Liberal’s plan is like slapping a coat a paint on a bike - it does nothing for its operation.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn