OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau says his government hopes to make legal changes that will cement his transformation of the Senate into a more independent, non-partisan chamber, making it harder for a future prime minister to turn back the clock.
The prime minister says his government will amend the Parliament of Canada Act — the law that spells out the powers and privileges of MPs and senators — to better reflect the new reality in the upper house, where most senators now sit as independents unaffiliated with any political party.
“We’re going to try to make it fair” Trudeau said in a year-end roundtable interview with the Ottawa bureau of The Canadian Press. “We’re going to try to do it before the election.”
Doing it before next fall’s election is critically important for independent senators, who fear Trudeau’s reforms could be easily reversed should the Liberals fail to win re-election.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said that if becomes prime minister, he would revert to the previous practice of making overtly partisan appointments, naming only Conservatives to the upper house.
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Trudeau kicked senators out of the Liberal caucus in 2014. Since taking office in 2015, he’s named only senators recommended by an arm’s-length advisory body in a bid to return the Senate to its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
Of the 105 senators, 54 are now independents who have banded together for greater clout in the Independent Senators’ Group. Another 31 are Conservatives, 10 are Liberal-independents and 10 are unaffiliated. The Conservatives are the only remaining overtly partisan group in the chamber.
Yet the Parliament of Canada Act recognizes only two partisan caucuses in the Senate: the governing party caucus and the Opposition caucus, both of which are entitled to research funds, dedicated time to debate bills, memberships on committees and a role in the day-to-day decisions about Senate business, such as when to adjourn debate.
Senators have agreed on the fly to some accommodation of the growing ranks of independents, giving them some research funds and committee roles. But the leadership of the ISG has argued that their role must be explicitly spelled out and guaranteed in the Parliament of Canada Act. And, since the change would involve allocating financial resources, they say it can’t be initiated by the Senate, only by the government in the House of Commons.
Sen. Raymonde St. Germain, deputy leader of the ISG, said amending the act is the only way to give independent senators a “permanent voice” and to “secure this essential reform for an independent and non-partisan Senate.”
“The reform that Prime Minister Trudeau very courageously announced and implemented … has to be completed,” she said in an interview.”It won’t come from within the Senate. The only way to complete it, to have it finished, is to amend the Parliament of Canada Act.”
Trudeau said he’s pleased with the way the reformed Senate has operated, even though independent-minded senators are now more prone to amending government bills, which has slowed down the legislative process somewhat and occasionally sparked fears — unrealized thus far — that the Senate could defeat legislation outright.
“Canadians have been able to see the benefits and the thoughtful amendments and engagement they’ve had with bills in a way that I think has been very positive. I think removing partisanship in a significant way from the Senate has been good for our democracy, good for institutions,” he said.
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As for Scheer, Trudeau said: “If he really wants to go back to the kind of partisanship and patronage that we were able to do away with, well, that’s something that he’s going to have to explain.”
Just this week, however, Trudeau appointed two new senators with strong Liberal connections: a former Liberal premier of Yukon, Pat Duncan, and Nova Scotia mental-health expert Stanley Kutcher, who ran for the Liberals in the 2011 election and lost.
“I don’t think that membership in any given political party should ban them from being able to be thoughtful, independent senators who are not answerable to me but answerable to the values they have,” Trudeau said.
“I’m sure we have also appointed people who’ve donated to the NDP or donated to the Conservative party,” he added.
Conservatives have repeatedly questioned just how non-partisan the independent senators really are, noting that most seem to share Trudeau’s values — a charge Trudeau did not deny.
“I’m not going to pick people who are completely offline with where I think my values or many Canadians’ values are,” he said. “A future prime minister of a different political stripe will certainly be able to appoint people … who might have a slightly different ideological bent. I think that’s going to naturally happen in our system.”
Nevertheless, he said the institution is better for the fact that most senators are not answerable to the prime minister and don’t sit in partisan caucuses “to plot political strategy.”