The senate of Canada takes up office space in the Centre Block, the East Block and the Victoria Building (the last of which is just off Parliament Hill). And in the lobbies of those three buildings, you can see something that used to be uncommon before Justin Trudeau became prime minister – lobbyists on their way to meet senators.
That’s because the long-maligned Senate is no longer a rubber-stamping chamber dominated by the patronage appointees of whatever party is controlling the government. The Senate now has power and influence. Hence the presence of lobbyists.
These days, a suddenly independent Senate may be depicted in the media as a pain in the prime minister’s posterior. But those accounts don’t really do justice to what is going on these days in the chamber of sober second thought.
Perhaps one day, Trudeau will reveal whether his decision in 2015 to kick Liberal senators out of the government caucus and appoint independents on merit was just a political manoeuvre to avoid being pulled into scandal or a legitimate reform initiative.
Whatever the intention, Trudeau has done something a century of constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces have failed to do. We have a reformed Senate.
For one thing, the Senate has emerged as a second official opposition. When the Liberals larded legislation for the Canada Infrastructure Bank into one giant budget omnibus bill – something they often faulted the Tories for – independent Senator André Pratte embarrassed them, likely enough to not do that again.
Senators may not have the power to vote down a government money bill. But a vocal Senate can be a major headache if the government does not hold the balance of power in the upper chamber.
Even Conservative senators are getting into the spirit of things. Conservative Senator Claude Carignan recently did something successive governments have been loath to do. He introduced legislation in the Senate to provide journalists with legal protection of their sources.
His private member’s bill passed in the Senate in April and gained approval in principle in the House of Commons with the government’s blessing just before summer recess in June. The Journalistic Sources Protection Act is highly likely to become law in the autumn.
A key reason private members’ bills in the Senate or the House of Commons rarely make it into law is because governments’ legislative priorities are heavily influenced by the Privy Council. Journalistic protection has never been a priority of the civil service’s mandarins.
Carignan’s bill is a case in which a Conservative senator forced the government’s hand. Expect more of that.
All this Senate reform may not be permanent. Andrew Scheer, the new Conservative leader, said he would revert to appointing party members to the upper house on the basis of party loyalty. That could turn the Senate back into what it was.
But the genie may be out of the bottle for good. Canadians may not tolerate a return to what former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent once called a “happy hunting ground for political hacks.”
Scheer also would take some time to gain the upper hand in the Senate. Of the 99 sitting senators at the summer break, there were 39 Conservatives; 34 from the independent senators group; 18 “independent” Liberals; and eight unaffiliated.
The senators seem to be enjoying their freedom, and the idea that our upper chamber will continue to become as feisty as its Australian or American counterparts is a good bet – with one exception. Canadian senators are not elected, something that is likely to set off another debate in the future.
Canadians may be willing to tolerate a chamber of silent apparatchiks fine-tuning legislation and voting as they are told. But, at some point, Canadian voters will wonder why vocal, independent-minded senators in a democracy are not elected.
In other words, Trudeau’s actions in 2015 on the Senate will have a second, unplanned outcome – an elected Senate. And that certainly would introduce a new dynamic into Canadian politics.
But that is a topic for the future. In the meantime, a body that had lost the moral authority to govern Canadians has been, at least partially, rehabilitated.
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