Trudeau's new Senate approach: Supporters, critics and commentators weigh in
Published Sunday, February 2, 2014 11:13AM EST
Last Updated Sunday, February 2, 2014 11:46AM EST
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s sudden announcement on Wednesday to expel Liberal senators from the party’s caucus had Ottawa abuzz all week.
Confusion ensued almost immediately after the announcement, however, when the senators -- who publicly supported Trudeau’s effort to try to increase the independence of the Senate -- kept referring to themselves as “Liberals.”
Now questions are being asked about what real difference, if any, the political move will actually have.
If the Senate is to be more independent, will there be an alternative appointment process? And perhaps of greater concern to political observers, what does the move do for Trudeau in the eyes of the Canadian public?
James Cowan, one of the senators expelled, again referred to his caucus as “Liberal” when speaking with Robert Fife on CTV’s Question Period.
“I’m the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the Leader of the Senate Liberal caucus,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Fife was left scratching his head -- and he subsequently asked what immediate effect Trudeau’s change will have.
“What Mr. Trudeau has decided -- and I support the decision -- is Liberal senators will no longer be part of the national caucus of the Liberal Party of Canada,” Cowan said.
“That caucus will consist entirely of elected members of Parliament, and the senators will be completely independent … The Senate is an independent body ... and it should act more independently and senators should act more independently.”
Political observers, however, say there’s more to it than this.
Craig Oliver, chief political correspondent for CTV News, told Question Period that the move shows Trudeau is jumping on an opportunity that was there for the taking.
Oliver said Prime Minister Stephen Harper had eight years to make changes to the Senate but ultimately did nothing.
“After fulminating against the Senate, promising Senate reform and change, he (Harper) appointed 59 senators, 18 in one day -- the worst kind of partisanship, and caused a scandal that is doing great damage to his reputation,” Oliver said, referring to the Senate expense scandal that saw three Conservative senators suspended for the remainder of the parliamentary session.
“And so it was for Justin Trudeau to step forward and look decisive, to look like he was actually a leader. And it may have changed his image in ways that may be damaging to the Conservatives.”
Tonda MacCharles, a reporter in the Toronto Star’s Ottawa Bureau, questioned what impact the move would have on the Liberal Party’s political structure, saying senators are often called upon to campaign during elections. But she, too, said Trudeau’s move could be highly beneficial to the Liberals, suggesting the leader could now be seen as a “man of action.”
“Several Conservatives said to me that this showed a ruthless streak he would need in any campaign. And a lot of people have dismissed him as not having that,” she told Question Period.
John Ivison, a political columnist with the National Post, said the move has recast Trudeau from a “defender of the status quo, defending an unelected uncountable Senate,” to someone with a “bold reform plan … that has outflanked both rival leaders.”
But Ivison said what’s lacking from Trudeau’s plan is how he would nominate senators to ensure the independence he’s seeking, if elected Prime Minister.
Would he, Ivison asks, hand over the appointment process to an expert panel consisting of non-partisan member as well as representatives from major parties, similar to how members of Britain’s House of Lords are appointed?
“It remains to be seen how it will turn out,” Ivison said.
Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative Minister for State for Democratic Reform, told Question Period the lack of specifics in Trudeau's plan is a huge problem.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s been done. If you boil it down, Mr. Trudeau has transformed the Liberal Senate caucus into the Senate Liberal office and asked his senators to skip one meeting a week,” Polievre said.
Poilievre said Trudeau’s decision to expel the senators was a clear attempt to depoliticize the Senate, which he suggested makes no sense in a political system predicated on political parties.
“I don’t know where we’re going to find apolitical politicians to do apolitical work in a political institution,” he said.
Poilievre also questioned whether the timing of Trudeau’s announcement had anything to do with the upcoming release of an auditor general’s report on Senate spending, an assertion he had also made earlier in the week.
The Conservatives have said they too want to change the upper chamber, but are awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court decision on the topic.
Poilivere says the Conservatives would like to see the Alberta “prototype” -- where residents vote for federal senators, with the Prime Minister respecting the outcome by nominating the winner to the Senate -- instituted across Canada.
“The solution is not to have a Senate of elites who are accountable to no one; the solution is to transform the senate into a democratic and elected body accountable to Canadians,” Poilievre said.
Gloria Galloway, a Parliament Hill reporter with The Globe and Mail, perhaps best summed up Trudeau’s plan -- and the reaction to it.
“There are a lot of unknowns to this (and) there are obviously a lot of things they (the Liberals) have to fine tune and work out,” she told Question Period. “But I think he’s created a problem for the other parties.
“We’ve have had this guy (Trudeau) who has soared in the polls despite being seen as all hair and no substance, and now he’s come out with substance.”