Re: Trudeau’s Senate gambit a tactical masterstroke

Re: Trudeau’s Senate gambit a tactical masterstroke
Posted on January 31, 2014 | James Anderson | Written on January 30, 2014
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The reason I like Justin Trudeau's move is that it takes a step in the direction of making the Senate less partisan. I don't think there's anyone who argues that it hasn't become a sad, less relevant reflection of an overly partisan House of Commons. Many honourable, smart, dedicated people (and a few more questionable choices) have been appointed to the Senate but, once installed in the Red Chamber, they have then been expected to toe their party’s line. I've always tended to have greater respect for those who occasionally have voted against their party’s position (this goes for MPs and Senators). That's what independence is and that's what we need from a chamber that's supposed to offer sober second thought. So, by removing the Senators from the Liberal caucus, Justin Trudeau is unleashing them to vote, speak and operate as they see fit. Sure, they may still be Liberal party members – that’s a matter of choice -- but, so what? The point is they are free to vote and speak out on issues as they wish.

Most people – and the majority of pundits - feel it would improve democracy if there were more free votes in the House of Commons. Despite that, the media (and many partisans) overhype it whenever a single MP or a handful of independent-minded MPs vote – or even consider voting -- against their party position. (As an aside, I would question the judgement of any MP or partisan who indicated they would always be in full and unequivocal agreement with every position their party or leader espoused. In my view, that's a clear sign of someone handing over the keys to their brain.) It doesn’t make for good television or great newspaper headlines when the news is that people are thinking independently, but it’s far better for democracy.

As Trudeau said, this isn’t the extent of the improvements required when it comes to the Senate. It is, however, a useful, immediately do-able and commendable step. The Conservative government’s Supreme Court reference may lead to some useful reform. And NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s Senate abolition plan may win some favour – even though it would require a constitutional amendment – which is a long-shot. But, let’s face it: even if one supports either of those plans, the reality is that it would be years before either proposal would provoke any real change. If you’re a cynic – which I am not -- one might conclude they are simply stalling tactics.

I think all the party leaders should acknowledge that less partisanship – even achieved in small doses such as Justin Trudeau’s announcement -- is a good step. Instead, partisan instincts provoked those who responded to yesterday's announcement to go into attack mode. It's unfortunate, because a little reflection would have been more in order. (Kudos, however, to long-time Senate reform activist Preston Manning for acknowledging Trudeau's move as a step in the right direction -- even though Manning then echoed some of Pierre Poilievre’s approach and questioned the motivation behind the move.)

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Good assessment Jim. I agree, this signals a move in the right direction. I really like the idea of independent Senators who are accountable to Canadians rather than a Party leader. Partisan politics is getting way out of hand and this move by Trudeau is a way of addressing it. I like it. I think the Conservatives would be wise to follow suit.

What Manning and Poilievre, my MP, are concerned about is that this move really cuts the legs out from under their desire to force a Yes-No vote in the next election on an Elected Senate.

Thank god for that! Even Sir John A. Macdonald (, founder of the Conservative Party in Canada, knew that having two elected bodies would create conflict and bring about legislative impasses. How did he know? Because 1867 was just two years after a very bloody and divisive American Civil War that was caused, in part, by stark divisions between the House of Representatives and the Senate over slavery.

Macdonald was right to stay clear of an elected senate and I hope Canadians will realize from watching what is happening south of the border right now with the Tea Party Republicans, as he did in his time, just how bad the idea of elected Senate really is.

Whether we reform it or abolish it, it is not a good idea, in my opinion, to have two elected houses. In theory it may sound nice, but in practice its proven to be a nightmare.

Ron Benn

After this tactical masterstroke, the individuals at issue remain Liberals and Senators, but somehow they are no longer Liberal Senators. When you listen to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, he claims the only real change will be that they no longer attend the Liberal caucus meeting.

The proof of the pudding will be when it comes time to vote in the Senate. Will any of these 32 "independent" Senators vote in favour of a government motion? Will any of them speak out against proposals put forward by the Liberal caucus? Until that happens with some degree of regularity, as contrasted with the odd anomaly, I don't think anything more substantial has happened than an illusionist's gambit of a puff of smoke, with a handful of glitter thrown in the air, to distract us from what is actually occurring, which in this case, is nothing.

I agree it would be better if they sat as real independents. It looks like they were taken off-guard by Trudeau's announcement and were attempting to show their loyalty by re-committing to the Liberal cause, after they were cut loose.

If all Senators sat as independents, representing their provincial constituents instead of being beholden to a political party, despite the obvious biases on both sides at the beginning, I think we'd find there would be more useful debate. What role the Senate plays from this point forward, remains to be seen.