Senate Redux

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The Senate of Canada was not much discussed during the recent election – despite Tom Mulcair’s impossible pledge to abolish it if he won. As it turns out, he didn’t and neither did Stephen Harper, who had become positively pouty about the future of the Senate given the ruling of the Supreme Court and his own self-made scandals in the Red Chamber. Only the newly elected PM Justin Trudeau seemed to have a positive approach to reforming the place – though what that approach may be is still a mystery.

This morning, Senator Jim Munson was on the Ottawa radio talking about the possibilities. He has no more insight into Trudeau’s thinking than anyone else but he was sure that changes could be made that would return the Senate to its original purpose as a largely non-partisan house of ‘sober second thought.’ Although the Senate has long had partisan elements – it has never quite been what the media portrayed: a place of reward for past party service and a den for party bagmen. The radio host seemed dubious and suggested that Senator Munson was being overly optimistic that the current Senate could be made to work. His response was: why not? People clearly voted for optimism and ultimately politics is the art of the possible.

In fact, having worked in the Senate for the past 14 years, I can attest to the ability of most Senators to transcend partisan lines, as least on some issues. My boss, a Liberal from the Northwest Territories was able to find plenty of common ground on aboriginal issues with Senator Gerry St. Germain, a Conservative from BC and one of the key architects of the merger of the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. There are few men more partisan than St. Germain, yet common ground could be found and positive work was done across party lines.

My own observation is that a lot of Senators arrive in the Senate with sharply honed fighting instincts – ready to take on the enemy, only to discover that those across the floor are not enemies but colleagues or as Trudeau put it in the election campaign, not enemies but neighbours.

Still, there is much to be done. Not all the Conservatives may be willing to give up their partisan ways – though the decidedly less partisan approach of the ‘liberated’ Liberal senators suggests that there is hope that many of them will be willing to work collaboratively with the new government. I certainly can’t see the Senate blocking significant amounts of legislation in the face of the mandate Trudeau received from the public just 10 days ago.

I also suspect that some Conservatives will welcome the opportunity to be less partisan. While a few relish the fight, others have seemed frustrated and even embarrassed by the imposition of party talking points. With the substantial reduction of the central party apparatus (no ministers’ staff, no PMO), many may take the opportunity to become more statesmanlike, more Senatorial in their approach. Some may even declare themselves to be independent or to hive off into separate caucuses. I suspect some may even chose to resign and do something else.

Meanwhile, the hard work of creating a new appointment process that further reduces the partisan nature of the Senate will be an early priority of the new PM. And in the Senate a serious discussion of the rules – started this week in a bi-partisan meeting of Senators – will be needed to make the relationship to government clearer and ensure that the Senate committees can function and the Chamber’s legislative functions can proceed.

Who knows? If our Senate can get over its partisan wrangling, maybe it will be a model for other dysfunctional upper chambers elsewhere in the world (I’m looking at you, Washington) but more of that later.

Because that’s ten minutes. (P.S. 10 minutes may – or may not – take a two day break while attending a SF convention In Ottawa this weekend, but I’ll definitely be back on Monday).

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