NDP, Tories question whether PM's new Senate picks can be truly independent
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is recommending the appointment of seven new senators -- the first additions to the upper chamber in three years.
Although they will sit as independents and not Liberals, opposition MPs are questioning whether the move can really redeem an upper chamber plagued by partisan scandal.
Retired senior bureaucrat Peter Harder, who worked on Trudeau’s transition team, will act as the government’s representative in the Senate, charged with facilitating “the introduction and consideration of government legislation,” according to the Prime Minister's Office.
Harder previously worked in a political role for Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark, and also spent 29 years in the non-partisan public service.
Harder told CTV’s Power Play that he cannot say whether he would ever vote against Liberal legislation, calling it “a hypothetical question I’m not going to comment on.”
However, Harder said he has “no doubt” that he will be able to “navigate the waters coming forward in a fashion that allows me to both represent the government’s interests in the Senate and reflect my own personal points of view, as appropriate.”
CTV News political analyst Scott Reid said earlier Friday that since senators will no longer be caucus members, the government's representative position is needed to keep legislation moving through the chamber.
Reid added that he had the opportunity to work with Harder during the time Harder was deputy minister of foreign affairs and government “sherpa” for G8 trips.
“He’s an extraordinarily capable guy. He’s been around Parliament Hill for literally 35 years. You’re not going to see a lot of detractors when it comes to Peter’s talents and capabilities,” Reid told CTV News Channel.
Retired judge Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is perhaps the most high-profile potential appointee.
Sinclair told Power Play he will proudly represent Manitoba, although he initially questioned the nomination, “considering the reputation the senate has had in the public eye.”
“But I realized, after looking into it a little more closely, that the process of appointments of senators is really what people are quite upset about,” he said,” in addition to the allegations that have been made.”
Sinclair said his legal background puts him in a good position to help reform the red chamber, adding that reform will be a top priority, in addition to implementing the recommendations of the TRC.
Sinclair said he doubts he will always vote along Liberal party lines, adding “I think that it will be more in keeping about my own thinking.”
Both NDP and Conservative MPs are questioning whether it is possible to make the Senate less partisan.
Saskatchewan New Democrat Erin Weir told Power Play he thinks the government should follow the lead of the provinces and abolish the upper chamber.
“It doesn’t make sense in a democracy to have appointees able to overrule or obstruct democratic decisions made by elected officials,” he said, offering the example of NDP climate change legislation that passed in the House of Commons but was killed in the Senate.
“I think we should also be talking about the cost of this new process,” Weir added. “The advisory board for senate appointments is going to cost $1-million a year, on top of the $90-million we’re already spending on the senate.”
Although one of the appointees, Frances Lankin, is a former Ontario NDP minister, Weir said he’s not sure she even counts as a New Democrat after having worked for Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Ontario Conservative MP John Brassard called the appointments “fresh paint on an undemocratic process.”
“You’ve got an unelected board advising the prime minister and, at the end of the day, it’s the prime minister making the final decision,” he said.
“That is not real change,” Brassard added. “This is more of the same.”
“People either want to abolish the Senate or they want an elected Senate,” he said.
Ontario Liberal MP Marco Mendicino defended the appointments, and pointed out that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made 57 nominations after saying he would make none.
“The series of appointments that were made today were made in a less partisan, more independent, more transparent way,” Mendicino said.
The Liberal added that he believes the appointees will “give voice … to those regional and minority interests that have not historically had as much representation in the upper chamber.”
The other four nominees are:
- Raymonde Gagné, former president of Manitoba’s Université de Saint-Boniface
- Ratna Omidvar, the executive director at Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange and an expert on migration and diversity
- André Pratte, an award-winning editorial writer and federalist thinker from Quebec
- Chantal Petitclerc, a Paralympic wheelchair racer and chef de mission for the Rio Paralympics
Sen. Claude Carignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate, welcomed the newcomers but said the new process led to appointments that are not much different from previous nominees.
"I note that this process yielded the same type of appointments as it has previously -- former judges, provincial ministers, journalists, Olympians -- have all been appointed to the Senate before," he said.
Conservative MPs Scott Reid and Blake Richards also criticized the appointment process, saying regardless of the appointees’ merits, they were still appointed from secret short lists from an unelected, unaccountable board.
“Despite the flowery words from the Prime Minister, today’s announcement shows that business continues largely as usual,” they said in a joint statement.
Appointments to the upper chamber came to a halt in 2013, when the Senate spending scandal began to emerge.
In December, the Liberals created an arm's-length advisory board to recommend potential nominees for the Senate based not on partisanship but “a demonstrated record of service to the community, the public, or their chosen field of expertise.”
Over the last three months, the board conducted consultations in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec to draft a list of recommendations. The prime minister selected the seven new senators from that pool.
Even after today's appointment recommendations, there are still 17 vacancies in the Senate.
As part of the second phase process of filling those vacancies by the end of the year, the advisory board will refine its selection process, including accepting applications from ordinary Canadians.
Senators are appointed on the advice of the prime minister, but under the Constitution, they are officially appointed by the Governor General.