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The Canadian Senate faces a defining period

By Alec Wheeler

Two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, made the decision to eject all 32 appointed senators from his caucus in an attempt to end bipartisanship in the Senate.

The ejected 32 will remain senators but are not allowed to caucus with the Liberals; from this point on, their affairs and decisions are their own to make, with no party to influence them. This leaves the upper chamber with 39 independent senators, 9 vacant seats and 57 Conservative Party senators.

Like many Westminster-style governments in the 21st century, finding a use for members of an unelected body is an issue that is getting pushed more and more to the front. Governments have long tried to find a purpose for the chamber as a means to keep it, rather than abolish it.

The Senate was created as a chamber of ‘sober second thought’ from the chaos that is the House of Commons. However, in its entire existence in Canada, the Senate has rarely ever been anything more than a rubber stamp of approval, a place to confirm what the members of Parliament have already agreed upon. No concrete changes have ever been created besides putting an age limit on Senators (75) and deciding on an amount of senators a province/territory can have. While major overhauls have been attempted and talk of reform being a constant topic of discussion, since 1992 the rules and guidelines have remained virtually the same.

Today the three main parties, the Liberal, Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, all have their own positions on the Senate:

  • The Liberals want the chamber reformed, with better selection put on those chosen to serve in the Senate and no partisanship.
  • The Conservatives favour a ‘Triple E’ Senate, an elected, equal and effective Senate, with senators being chosen and elected in the same way MPs are, with more input from citizens.
  • The NDP wants to outright abolish the Senate and, as they put it, ‘roll up the red carpet’.

All three positions have their strengths: a Senate full of the brightest minds, all with their own opinions and free to say as they wish for the cause of progression, almost like a think tank. An elected Senate would bring another area of control for citizens, as they would now be able to have their say as to who goes into the Senate, as well as having their own province on equal footing as the rest in terms of influence in the Chamber (for example, Alberta, with its 6 senators, would hold equal power and representation as Ontario, currently with 24, as each would have the same amount of senators in this ‘new’ chamber). Outright abolishment would save the taxpaying voter 92.5 million Canadian dollars a year in the costs for running the chamber.

However, each of these ideas has its problems: an elected Senate would likely make the passage of legislature slower, like the United States Senate currently is. Abolishing the Senate means re-opening the constitution of the country and re-writing parts of it and once you begin re-writing parts of your constitution, there’s no stopping it, never mind stirring up old battles and dreams long since put to bed, such as the Quebec sovereignty movement.

The Conservatives were elected in 2006 on the promise of reforming the Senate and they didn’t. The Liberals have been mostly silent on reform until recent, since most of the excess and corruption the Conservatives campaigned against was because of 13+ years of Liberal rule. It had been assumed that Liberals were against the idea of reforming the Senate and preferred to keep it as is.

The reaction from Trudeau’s move has been described as both ‘bold’ and ‘the first Senate reform in eight years’. It’s true that this is the first ACTION we’ve seen in regards to reforming the chamber despite Harper being elected on such an issue.

Trudeau deserves praise for this move, both as a leader and as a decision maker. Since being elected leader last April he has been called a man of no action, a man who is just an image or persona with no substance. With this, he strikes back and makes his position on the Senate known.

However, he’s being undermined not by those in the chamber he belongs, but by the senators he banished, who have all come out with the statement that they are all card-carrying Liberals and still have membership of the party. If this is a bit confusing and sends mixed messages, it stays true to character of the old Senate and stirs up some bipartisanship in the chamber, which was the very outcome that Mr. Trudeau hoped to avoid. In his future, senators won’t be allowed to be a member of a political party, to avoid bipartisanship and party preference in the chamber.

From now until the next federal election in Oct. 2015, the Senate will appear again and again in the news and more likely in the negative light then positive. Trudeau has cast the die and it landed in his favour; whether he can successfully follow-up on this will determine where reform and reforms of the Senate heads when he runs in 2015 .

The future of the  upper house across the globe could be determined by the course of action Trudeau takes. For his sake, he best make good on what he says or it will haunt him as it currently haunts this government.

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