In the Senate, a little freedom would go a very long way
by Hugh Segal
November 21, 2016
Change is rarely easy in longstanding institutions, especially those created by the Fathers of Confederation. It is human nature to slow down and moderate change. The creation of an upper chamber, modelled on the House of Lords at Westminster, was about ensuring that the less populace regions could balance the power of high-populace Ontario. No agreement on a Senate in 1867 would have meant no Confederation.
With the Justin Trudeau government having won a clear mandate to change the Senate in terms of how appointees are vetted, reducing partisan dominance of the chamber and modernizing procedures and resource allocation, it should not be surprising that traditional partisan forces, which held unlimited sway over all decisions that mattered in the Senate, are deeply resistant to the required changes.
Senate Liberals, not formally related to the government caucus in the Commons, and Conservative senators, jealous of the powers they are losing as the Independent senators go from minority to plurality to majority, are not embracing even the notion of change, let alone doing so with even modest urgency. But how can distinguished new senators, with compelling backgrounds in the judiciary, business, policing, human rights, journalism, municipal government, provincial and charitable service, be expected to have only half the rights, privileges or research capacity of their partisan predecessors or partisan colleagues?
The issue is not that one group of senators is better than the other – but that they are all equal. By what logic should a non-partisan academic from B.C. be told that his or her ability to sit on committees, vote, speak or get research done, should be seriously more limited than that of another B.C. senator who was appointed years ago as a Conservative or Liberal?
The partisan powers argue for patience as the rules slowly evolve. Really? How wildly disengaged from reality!
The notion that regional groupings of senators, including partisans and Independents, would choose facilitators in order to establish operational principles around rules, equality of committee membership rights or research budget allocations at the beginning of every Parliament in no way diminishes or eliminates any role partisans might wish to play. But it does means that partisan caucuses do not get to run the Senate as if the Independent senators, now the largest group, are marginal, or worse, non-existent.
The government representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, has shown surprising and remarkable patience to date while surrounded by partisan excess. He is attempting to implement the mandated plan, as promised by the government, while the Privy Council Office has inexplicably underfunded his operations. Sen. Harder is being asked to oversee all of the changes in the Senate with less than half the money previously given the leader of the Conservative caucus. Perhaps this has something to do with the makeup of the powerful Board of Internal Economy, which comprises a majority of partisan senators eager to retard any change.
The notion that a balanced chamber, where all senators have equal rights, is somehow an attack on partisan differences or options is a classic Hail Mary pass from the more extreme end of the partisan gene pool. Sen. Harder has been charged with ensuring that the business of Parliament gets done in the Senate: the introduction, debate and committee hearings of bills, and a final vote by the Senate that will determine the bill’s fate. Someone has to do it. He does not guarantee the passage of bills without amendment nor does he whip or count votes amongst his Independent colleagues, nor should he. He exhibits no apparent power grab; he does appear to favour a change to more open processes and deliberations.
Those who have thrived on institutional unfairness for decades find the actual reality of fairness hard to accept. Yet Canadians have the absolute right to expect fairness to prevail in an upper chamber where partisan preference no longer runs the entire show. A full 92 per cent of Canadians have never held a party membership. The Senate, at its best, should speak for them as well.
If the prime minister, who deserves immense credit for keeping his promise on Senate reform, is to see it through, he may well consider, after enough legislation has reached first reading in the Senate from the Commons, proroguing Parliament for a day so that under the rubric of a new Parliament, the Independent plurality in the Senate can actually change some rules.
Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College. The Public Policy Forum recently published a paper on Senate reform by former senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal.