Editorial — Trudeau positions Liberals nicely on Senate reform

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau took the debate over the Senate to a new level last week, by announcing on Wednesday that the 32 members of the Senate who were part of the Liberal caucus would henceforth be independents.

Trudeau, who has been very cautious in coming up with policy moves since becoming party leader last April, was bold and maybe even a bit reckless. But he has positioned his party very nicely. Anger over the entitlements within the Senate has grown across Canada, and the governing Conservatives struggle to come up with a consistent position on the upper chamber.

The Liberals, who have been in power most often, have been the party to benefit the most from the cushy patronage arrangements within the Senate. More than any other party, the Liberals have installed bagmen, former candidates and mid-level functionaries in the Senate. Among the current 32 (former) Liberal senators, there are two former premiers, two former press aides to prime ministers, a former Alberta Liberal leader, several former MPs and a number of former candidates.

Trudeau says his decision shows that his party is serious about Senate reform. He is proposing that all future Senators be appointed by the prime minister in consultation with a prominent group of Canadians, and be non-partisan while doing Senate work. He points out that this can be done without reopening the constitution, which is the perennial challenge when discussing Senate reform.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried to operate outside the constitution as well. He has appointed one  senator who was elected in Alberta, and has asked his appointees to accept limited terms in the Senate. However, he has no way to force them to resign, because once they are appointed, they are there until age 75 unless they choose to resign. Several of his appointees, notably Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, have been embarrassments.

The Liberals have had their own share of embarrassments, notably Senator Andrew Thompson, who was living in Mexico and rarely attended the Senate.

What Trudeau has done is take the conversation about the Senate to another level, and that is worthwhile. However, there are problems with a completely non-partisan Senate, given that the government’s bills must be passed by the Senate and an unelected  body can only delay and amend those bills so much, Appointed Senators simply have no accountability to taxpayers.

There are also problems with having a panel of prominent Canadians vet potential appointees. Such a panel will almost certainly be tilted towards the establishment, largely from Ontario and Quebec, and will not have the ability to make courageous recommendations from outside their spheres of interest.

Nonetheless, it is better to take a step towards Senate reform while waiting for a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on how the Senate can be changed, and Trudeau has done just that.

However, he has no way to force them to resign, because once they are appointed, they are there until age 75 unless they choose to resign.

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