BLACK: Trudeau’s Senate panel worth a try
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ideas for Senate appointments have the potential to represent useful progress. Many critics seem to prefer perpetually postponed perfection.
The proposal is that a panel made up of three federal members and two ad hoc members from the provinces will recommend appointments to the prime minister. The candidates will need to have a record of achievement and public service, show integrity, be non-partisan and understand the role of the Senate.
Of course, this has the potential to work poorly if the panelists show a distinctly partisan bias or the prime minister ignores their recommendations and makes his own choices. Either of these outcomes would represent a wasted opportunity, but would not be worse than the status quo.
At present, the Senate membership consists of 45 Conservatives, 29 Liberals, nine Independents and 22 vacancies. Political affiliation has been the prime determinant in past appointments. Some senators are conscientious and competent; others are neither. Several have embarrassed themselves and the institution by dubious expense claims and other misdeeds.
The Senate reviews legislation passed by the House of Commons and proposes amendments, which are often adopted. The Senate will defer to the House if a difference cannot be resolved, but this is by convention rather than being a constitutional requirement.
The large number of vacancies is scheduled to grow. There will be 29 retirements, 15 of them Liberals, during the government’s four-year mandate. Trudeau’s opportunity to make 51 appointments — almost half the chamber — could bring considerable change to the makeup of an institution that needs it.
So what is the reaction?
The NDP and the Conservatives complain that the Senate will still be undemocratic — arguing for elected senators or abolition. But they know that neither can happen without constitutional amendments needing provincial support — unlikely for the first and a no-hoper for the second.
Nor have they addressed concerns that an elected Senate, operating with the same electoral legitimacy as the House of Commons, may result in American-style legislative gridlock.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls it “nothing more than the proverbial lipstick on the pig.” They want a referendum on abolition, which is quite likely to produce a Yes vote. There is no reason to believe that the Supreme Court would recognize that as a valid method for constitutional amendment.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark says she will not participate by providing provincial members to the appointment panel. She is entirely right in her complaints about the distribution of Senate seats. B.C., with more than twice the population of the Maritime provinces, gets six seats while the Maritimes get 24.
But staying out of the process will not solve that problem. A redistribution of seats also requires a constitutional amendment that is unlikely to get the necessary support.
The Globe and Mail sniffs that Trudeau “could appoint highly qualified people without a cumbersome, decorative process, if he wanted to.”
More consequentially, it worries that appointing worthy non-partisan senators risks “creating an overreaching monster that challenges the will of our elected representatives” by no longer observing the convention that the Senate defers to the House if there is an impasse. Of course, the existing Senate (currently with a Conservative majority) could do the same thing.
The Globe complains that this change, because it is easy to make, could be as easily reversed. That is not a bad thing — maybe the proposal will have unanticipated problems.
Each of these critics is implicitly endorsing the thoroughly loathed status quo. If their idea for change is not to be adopted, they prefer no change at all. The Globe provides the tepid defence that not all of the partisan appointments are bad.
Clark’s position may be good political posturing, but it will not advance B.C.’s interests. Those favouring abolition, to which all of the provinces must agree, know that the chances are negligible.
If well executed, Trudeau’s idea represents real change in an institution that needs it. If execution is poor, it may add impetus to efforts that require constitutional amendment. Either way, it is a worthwhile experiment.
Bill Black is a former CEO of Maritime Life. He ran as a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia. He blogs at newstartns.ca. Mr. Black has given permission for the reproduction of his article on this Facebook page.
As a Reform Party candidate in Nova Scotia in 1993, we believed in a ‘Triple E’ Senate, that is, one in which there would be an equal number of elected Senators from each province.
Unfortunately, this never took place because we were never elected as government. There was intransigence in Quebec and some provincial leaders failed to understand the benefits.
When Prime Minister Harper, an architect of Triple E, tried to enact substantial changes to the Senate, he was shot down by Quebec, the opposition parties and the ever wise and all knowing Supreme Court. The unelected and mystical court held that democratic changes to the Senate would require a constitutional amendment under the current rules. To abolish the Senate, the federal government and ALL the provinces would need to be onside.
Under this history and experience, the best that can be hoped for to make meaningful change would be the Trudeau government proposals. Let’s hope that the appointments don’t deteriorate into partisan politics.
This is a distinct possibility when Liberals are in charge of the government.
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