I had a very interesting conversation with a friend yesterday. He was asking for advice on how to approach the Senate now that he needs to convince more than just 2 political leaders to support his members’ issues. Then he said “many of my PR pals are equally puzzled.” So much so, apparently, that they’re actually advising their clients to hold tight for the moment until they can figure out what to do.
In the meantime, some pundits are fussing over the fact that a couple of Independent Senators are going to sponsor government bills next week, and others (including backbiters in the political caucuses) are spitting out the notion that one vote in favour of a government bill will for everafter bind that senator to the government’s cause. Good grief. We’re more than just a vote. Can’t we all get past such simplistic, uni-dimensional indicators of independence? Whatever happened to fundamental Canadian values, things like individual rights, freedoms of belief and speech, and diversty?
Here’s the advice I gave my friend. Life will not be that much different from what you’ve already been doing over the past several years. You end up knowing which senators are strong on social issues, who are expert on financial matters, and who the ‘go-to’ people are for constitutional questions, and so on. That’s because individual senators are consistently active on committees, in the Chamber, and often outside the Senate as well. So you get a clear sense of their values and views, especially over the long run.
One difference will emerge, however, and this is the good news. After you’ve talked to an individual senator and gained his or her support, you can walk away in the sure and certain knowledge that no interfering political boss will later upset your apple cart. The merits of your case will not be undermined by irrelevant factors. Now, how can that be bad? I’d have thought it would be a cause of considerable satisfaction for Canadians who want us to make a real, unbiased difference.
Canadians have little patience with partisan politics in the Senate or anywhere else – or so says a recent national survey I commissioned by Nik Nanos. It’s likely no surprise that Canadians want to see Senators conduct themselves differently, given recent audit findings and headline grabbing legal battles – and justifiably so. We can do better; much better. But what may be surprising to many is the extent to which Canadians want change. And the kind of change they’d like to see.
For starters – Canadians care about the Senate, and about federal politics generally. Almost 9 out of 10 Canadians say they follow federal politics closely or somewhat closely. A whopping 70% of Canadians say that Senate reform is an urgent or somewhat urgent priority.
Pundits and politicos are often fond of saying Canadians don’t know what the Senate does or how it works, but that turns out not to be the case, at least according to Canadians. 83% say they are familiar or somewhat familiar with the role of the Senate in the federation. So far so good.
But it gets even better. When asked how they’d like to see the Senate function, Canadians signaled they're ready for a sea change. Almost no-one supports Senators belonging to a political caucus and voting along party lines – that's so yesterday. Instead, there's a wave of support for an independent Senate.
74% of Canadians want to see Senators sitting outside a political caucus and voting independently. Their message is loud and clear: the partisan status quo will no longer do in the Senate. As Pink almost said, it’s time to get this non-partisan party started.
One of the best lines in last week’s debates was delivered on Tuesday by Senator Batters (MB). In the midst of severely criticizing Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to appoint non-partisan senators, claiming we’ll still end up with liberals, she said “Could it be, honourable senators, that sunny ways are giving way to foggy days?”
Very nice … I love a cryptic bon mot even when I don’t agree with the debater’s arguments. But as the week progressed, I began to think her clever phrase might actually be a signal of future behaviour rather than just a rhetorical device.
On Wednesday, a newly minted independent, Senator Wallace (NB), kicked off a debate on the inherent unfairness of previous Selection Committees which determine who sits on which committees. Dissatisfaction with this process is widespread amongst senators. At a Modernization Workshop held in the last week of October, a unanimous resolution was passed to change the practice. It was attended by about half the current senators. One of the main changes we proposed was that all senators should vote (by secret ballot) on committee membership. I’m told that the Liberal caucus subsequently voted to adopt all the Workshop’s resolutions.
Nevertheless, the Selection Committee (5 Conservatives, 4 Liberals) went ahead as if nothing has changed. On Thursday, they asked the Senate to adopt their committee assignments. Altogether, 5 senators were entirely left out of committee assignments (all were former members of the Conservative caucus). Only two independent senators (myself and Senator Cools (ON)), were assigned and then only to one main committee each, notwithstanding that most senators are members of at least two committees. And to top it off, the long-standing practice of matching standings in the Chamber with the number of seats assigned to each group on a committee was flagrantly abused. Instead of 8 members on a 15 member committee, for example, the Conservatives were assigned 10 seats. Independents, on the other hand, should arguably occupy at least one seat on every committee given current standings. They were, as I said, largely ignored.
Talk about foggy days! Is this how the Senate’s leaders intend to manipulate procedures in the future? Is that why, on Thursday, when I moved to send the report back to committee for reconsideration, the motion was defeated by a count of 35 to 17? I wasn’t surprised that all but 2 Conservatives voted against my motion. What did startle me was that 6 Liberals joined the Conservatives in their opposition. You can see the list of how everybody voted here (just scroll down to the 1700 mark).
Well, it’s early days yet. At least the Senate agreed Friday to form a Special Committee on Senate Modernization. I will persist in remaining optimistic, and hope that it won’t be yet another exercise in obfuscation.
Like most progressives, I'm looking forward to the first Throne Speech in a decade that promotes a Canadian agenda based on generosity and hope. Even the Peace Tower carillon is catching that vibe. As I sit here typing, she's playing the Beatle's song, Here Comes the Sun. Very fitting! (Incidentally, she played Can't Buy Me Love on election day - we have a keyboard player with a well-developed sense of humour). Mind you, I'm not expecting any surprises in the Throne Speech. No doubt it will stick closely to Mr. Trudeau's campaign promises. The more interesting question at this stage is what order of priority he will assign in assembling his legislative agenda.
In the meantime, after the Throne Speech this afternoon, the Senate will vote to establish a Selection Committee. Membership on this committee has been negotiated behind closed doors. Nine senators -- 5 Conservatives and 4 Liberals -- will meet to determine who gets to sit on which Standing Committees. No independents were invited to participate. So much for a new approach. It's going to take more than the Prime Minister's sunny ways and a progressive's natural optimism to bring true change to the governance and practice in this Chamber.
... and one has to ask: Is this a good thing as far as the Senate goes? Are we back to the way it was, or are we on the threshold of something new? So far, it's a bit hard to tell. We're getting mixed signals.
First, the good news. Democratic Institutions Minister Monsef this morning announced that new senators will be appointed based on recommendations made by an independent group to be known as the Senate Advisory Committee. Excellent move ... I completely endorse this approach. Indeed, I recommended something very similar five long years ago. Mind you, I wish I could take credit for inspiring Prime Minister Trudeau on this point, but sadly cannot. Not one of his team has reached out to consult with me nor, for that matter, with any of any of the independents in the Senate.
And that brings me to my second point. If the Prime Minister is sincere about creating an independent, arms' length senior institution, why hasn’t his team consulted more broadly within the institution itself? Why has he appointed a Speaker before we had a chance to express our opinion as to whom we wanted in a collective and democratic fashion? Did he and his ministers not know that that's what a critical mass of Senators are saying we want to do?
In fact, almost half of our sitting Senators convened, just one week after the election, a two day Modernization Workshop. We spent the whole time addressing measures we could take to enhance the effectiveness of our institution in a non-partisan manner. One reform that received unanimous support is our desire to have an election to determine who we would like the PM to appoint as Speaker. Sadly, that approach seems to have been overlooked ... or maybe simply the PMO didn't know about it.
Well, it's early days yet. The next step is to see how committee members are appointed. It used to be done by way of a secret deal between leaders. We'll keep you posted.
In June, 2011, I posted this blog below. It is about a letter I received from an Albertan, who was expressing his concerns over the Senate reform proposals of the day..............
I received an email about Senate reform from a Mr. Robinson who lives in northern Alberta. He addressed it to all Alberta Senators, and has kindly given me permission to post it in full on Hullabaloos. His email reads as follows ….
I write you to express my opinion about Senate reforms.
- Senate reform may be needed, but it should be done to ensure that the Senate becomes more effective and less party dominated and represents the interests of Canada (please note I did not say the interests of Canadians as defined as being the interests of individual voters). The current proposed reforms appear to be designed to meet a 'populist interest as expressed by a political party'.
- Senate reforms need to follow the constitution. This 'plan' does not.
- My expectation is that the Senate be a 'sober chamber of second thought' and not subject to partisan politicking. I note that the Alberta members of the Senate come from diverse backgrounds and represent many differing points of view with some Senators being appointed by Prime Ministers of parties other than the party of the Senator. I believe that this is how the Senate should be constituted.
- While the current Government did campaign (loosely) to make changes to the Senate, there was never a plan expressed to proceed without consulting the Provinces as required by the constitution
I could go on, but will spare you this.
I do object to comments widely attributed to Senator Brown, particularly when he states “Every senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be.” Senator Brown is then reported to go on to state that their (Senators) loyalty should be to Stephen Harper. I strenuously object to these comments as being an affront to our legislative assemblies as I believe there are only two places a legislators loyalty should be given - either to their electorate (odd that only Mr Brown was elected) or to the good of the country. At no time should a legislator be loyal only to the leader of a political party, and at no time should a member of the Senate state that Senators should be loyal to the leader of a political party as the role of the senate to provide 'sober second thought' to the Government of Canada for Canadians. If Mr Brown's view is that held by the Senate majority then the only response is that the Senate has no function and should be abolished.
I want a Senate. But I want a Senate that is not a rubber stamp for the Government nor one that opposes just because the majority of Senators are from a different political party. Please send a message to the Government that the senate must be effective and not limited by the whims of the Government and or the Prime Minister.
Thank you for taking my comments into consideration.
I couldn’t have said it better myself!
UPDATE: Senator Colin Kenny published an Op-Ed today in the Ottawa Citizen called In defence of the Senate.
Below is a blog I posted in December of 2008.
Here's the scoop … we need more Senators. More specifically, the Conservative Senators need help. Being so few, they are stretched to the limit (and perhaps further). Committee work has suffered as a result. Delays and reduced participation in hearings are just two symptoms of the incredible load each of the Conservative Senators is carrying. Canadians deserve better. The Senate's committee reports have consistently served our country well. If anybody needed a reminder, today's story about airport security should be sufficient. Not to mention the Mental Health Commission, which is one of the Senate's gifts to the country.
So I look forward to Mr. Harper's appointments. I only hope he's mindful of the kind of Senators we need. Here are four criteria by which I will judge the quality of his appointments:
§ independence of mind
§ outstanding service to the country
§ reputation for fairness
§ commitment to a united Canada
You'll notice that party affiliation is not one of my criteria. I know many Conservatives who fulfil all the qualifications I've outlined. And the Senate will only get better if we have lively, intelligent debates fueled by healthy differences of opinion. I'll remain optimistic that the Prime Minister rises to the occasion.