How independent will Canada’s new senators be?
by Leslie Young (feat. Hugh Segal)
March 18, 2016
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that he will recommend seven Canadians be appointed to the Senate – and they will sit as independents, not as part of the Liberal caucus.
“We’re not going to be whipping votes in the Senate. There are no whipped votes. There is no government caucus in the Senate,” said government House leader Dominic LeBlanc.
“They are significantly more independent than any previous group of senators have ever been, and we expect them to exercise independent judgement and thoughtful judgement in a non-partisan way.”
The people being recommended for Senate appointments are:
- Raymonde Gagné (Manitoba)
- Justice Murray Sinclair (Manitoba)
- V. Peter Harder (Ontario)
- Frances Lankin (Ontario)
- Ratna Omidvar (Ontario)
- Chantal Petitclerc (Quebec)
- André Pratte (Quebec)
Of these, only Lankin has held elected political office: she was a cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario. Since then, she has served on various boards and government bodies, including the Security Intelligence Review Committee. She was appointed to that role under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Peter Harder was appointed in 2015 to lead the Trudeau government’s transition team. He had previously worked as a public servant and at one point as a staffer for a Mulroney-era cabinet minister.
“I think the appointments the prime minister made were superb,” said former Conservative senator Hugh Segal. He thinks they have impressive resumes, and doesn’t believe that they have any particularly partisan tendencies.
He thinks this is a good thing. During his tenure, the Senate was “excessively” partisan, he said. “That was part of why the institution’s reputation suffered in the way that it did, because the partisanship created a presumption that people could be brought into the Senate and perform essentially partisan duties: fundraising for a party, promoting the party or travelling to party events.”
A less partisan Senate, he said, allows the upper chamber to better perform its constitutional function “which is to consider legislation and reflect more deeply on issues that the more partisan House cannot.”
Others are more critical of the process.
“Anyone who is chosen by a Liberal prime minister after being nominated by an advisory board appointed by a Liberal prime minister is a Liberal appointee, not an independent senator,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.
The appointments are a “partisan façade,” he said.
“Abolition is the real solution and I think people will realize this after these seven senators vote with the Liberals every single time in the first 20 things they vote on.”
Ratna Omidvar, who is one of the people Trudeau will be recommending for senator, said her vote will not be swayed by party politics. “As an independent, I will vote my values, I will vote my conscience, I will vote my voice,” she said.
Although she will consult with others of all political stripes, “In the end, I will vote as I think right.”
Working in a non-partisan Senate
The 42 Conservative senators are still part of the party caucus, and can be generally (with some exceptions) expected to vote together, according to party wishes.
With these new senators though, there will be 46 independent senators, including several former Conservatives and Liberals. That will make the business of the Senate more complicated, according to Gary Levy, bell chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University.
“For the budget, there is a tradition of deferring to the House on anything related to money, finance, budget. I think whatever’s in the budget will go through,” he said. “The problem is when you get to more controversial policies, the legalization of marijuana, for example.”
“What happens when the Senate defeats the government’s bill?”
He and Segal both think that new rules will have to be struck to figure out how to deal with such issues, as the current ones work best for a partisan system.
Levy doesn’t think it will be too difficult though. “They should be able to work it out. It’s not rocket science.”