Liberal Senate reform all for show, says MP

Justin Trudeau swept all 32 Liberal senators out of his party
Justin Trudeau swept all 32 Liberal senators out of his party's caucus, rendering them independents with no formal ties to the party.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra file photo

A move by the federal Liberal leader to expel senators from his party's caucus to fix a "broken" senate is all for show, charged Delta-Richmond East MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay this week.

In a surprise announcement Wednesday, Justin Trudeau swept all 32 Liberal senators out of his party's caucus, rendering them independents with no formal ties to the party. Trudeau, who challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do the same, said senators who must answer to a political party makes a place of sober second thought redundant. Trudeau pledged, if elected prime minister, to institute an "open, transparent, non-partisan public process for appointing and confirming senators."

But Findlay told The Richmond Review senators would still be appointed—and unaccountable—under the Liberal proposal.

"He confirmed in doing that that he, and the Liberal Party of Canada, continue to support an unelected, unaccountable Senate that could ultimately prevent democratically elected MPs from doing the work that we're elected to do," she said from Ottawa.

Since a minimum of five senators of the same party are needed to be recognized in the chamber as having party status, Findlay said booted senators quickly came together this week under the name Liberal Senate Caucus.

"Basically the only change he announced is that unelected Liberal senators will now become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal," she said.

The lawyer and first-term Conservative MP said her government doesn't believe an unelected body should be able to override legislation, adding that real Senate reform includes elected senators.

"In a modern democracy like ours, I don't think that them being unelected and unaccountable is right," she said. "Although we have appointed senators just like the Liberal government before us did, and the Conservative governments before us, at the end of the day that's not the ideal system."

The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to soon rule on just how far the House of Commons can go in reforming the Senate, and what changes would require constitutional change.

Challenges of opening up the constitution are well known to Findlay, who served as chair of the national Constitutional Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association during discussions of the Meech Lake Accord, an unsuccessful 1987 proposal to amend Canada's constitution.

"If the Senate cannot be reformed in a meaningful way, we believe it should be abolished," said Findlay. "If it can't be an elected, accountable body, then we don't think it should exist."


Justin Trudeau's statement on 'ending partisanship and patronage in the Senate'

Canadians want their leaders to be open and straight with them, to tell them the truth. They expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly.

The Senate has become one of those problems. That, I have heard clearly from Canadians. The Senate is broken, and needs to be fixed.

At the same time, Canadians do not want to re-open the Constitution. They don’t want a long, rancorous, and likely pointless debate with the provinces that would distract us from focusing on more important problems.

They want leaders who’ll help build an economy that works for all of us, in which everyone has a real and fair chance to succeed. They want us focused on their jobs, their pensions, and a good future for their kids.

So today, I propose an immediate remedy that will not only quell many of the distractions that the current senate is causing, but actually improve its capacity to serve all Canadians.

You see, the Senate is suffering from two central problems: partisanship and patronage.

Let us begin with partisanship.

The Senate was once referred to as a place of sober, second thought. A place that allows for reflective deliberation on legislation, in-depth studies into issues of import to the country, and, to a certain extent, provide a check and balance on the politically-driven House of Commons.

It has become obvious that the party structure within the Senate interferes with these responsibilities.

Instead of being separate from political, or electoral concerns, Senators now must consider not just what’s best for their country, or their regions, but what’s best for their party.

At best, this renders the Senate redundant. At worst — and under Mr Harper we have seen it at its worst — it amplifies the Prime Minister’s power.

That is why I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan. Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.

And since I believe that real leadership is not just about making campaign promises, I’m taking immediate action, today.

As of this morning, only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team.

Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.

Further, I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.

And by ending partisanship now, we can also end patronage, going forward.

The Senate of Canada is a public institution. It should not be run like the Prime Minister’s private club.

Here’s what I’m going to do about it.

I’m committing today that, if I earn the privilege of serving Canadians as their Prime Minister, I will put in place an open, transparent, non-partisan public process for appointing and confirming Senators.

No more closed doors. No more secretive deliberations. No more announcements the week before Christmas, under the cover of darkness.

We are all poorly served by the way in which Senators are appointed. Canadians especially, yes, but also Members of the House of Commons, even Senators themselves are discredited by the antiquated convention that sees Senators appointed by one person, and one person only.

Eight years ago, Mr Harper railed against this convention as Leader of the Opposition, and committed to change it.

As we know all too well: he didn’t. In fact, he embraced this archaic process.

As Prime Minister, he has made 59 appointments, despite his promise to appoint zero. In fact, Mr Harper is the only Prime Minister in our country’s 147 year history to appoint the same two people to the Senate twice.

All of these people share one characteristic. The Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister alone, judged them to be useful to himself, and to his party. Mike Duffy, Pam Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Irving Gerstein are particularly egregious examples of where that leads.

It shows that Mr Harper and the Conservatives have been in power so long that they can no longer tell the difference between their party’s interest, and the public interest.

That’s poor judgment. More than that, it’s just plain wrong.

That is why I call upon the Prime Minister to publicly commit, as I have today, to be guided in all future Senate appointments by an open, transparent, non-partisan process, and once appointed, have senators sit independent from the political parties that serve in the House of Commons.

And in so doing, we will remove partisanship and patronage from the Senate, reforming it and improving it in a deep and meaningful way, without ever having to touch the Constitution of Canada.

Which brings me to my final point.

As an unelected body, there are — and ought to be — limits on the Senate’s power. These limits have expanded over time and have become conventions. These proposals are in keeping with that direction.

As you all know, the Supreme Court of Canada will rule sometime soon on the exact limits of the House of Commons power as it relates to Senate Reform. Let me be clear on this point: these proposals, while bold and concrete, are not the final word. They represent our judgment of how far we can go in the absence of guidance from the Supreme Court.

In other words, I believe this is the most meaningful action possible without opening up the Constitution. If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more.

In closing, let me say that there has been a lot of loose rhetoric from the other parties about Senate Reform.

Mr Harper would still have you believe that he is a reformer at heart, despite 8 years of hard evidence to the contrary. Canadians elected his party to bring change to this place. Instead, they got a more virulent version of the status quo: a hyper-political, hyper-partisan Senate that is, more than ever, the Prime Minister’s private plaything.

As for Mr Mulcair, his promise to abolish the Senate, as if he had a magic wand, is either deliberately and cynically misleading, or empty and foolish. He knows, or ought to know, that his promise would require the most significant amendment to the Constitution since the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr Mulcair may want to spend the next decade arguing about the Constitution. I prefer to spend it helping Canadians solve their problems.

At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers. When public institutions fail to serve the public interest, we take bold steps to change them.

We want to build public institutions that Canadians can trust, and that serve Canadians. This requires real, positive change. These proposals are the next step in our Open Parliament plan to do just that.

They won’t be the last.

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