Trudeau’s Senate move affirms winds of political change

There has been considerable cynical commentary leveled at federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in the aftermath of his surprise announcement in the middle of last week that the Liberals were excommunicating their Senate cousins from their caucus and that, as far as Mr. Trudeau was concerned, these senators, appointed to their jobs by previous Liberal administrations, would sit as independents.

Prime Minister Harper blustered that he could not see a great deal of difference between Liberal senators and senators who are Liberals. Official Opposition and NDP leader Thomas Mulcaire offered that perhaps Mr. Trudeau was distancing his caucus from the senators because the auditor general would be scrutinizing the spending habits of all senators (and members of the House of Commons) in the future and in light of the concerns raised because of questionable claims for housing and other expenses made by a variety of senate members last year, notably Senators Brazzeau, Harb, Wallin and Duffy.

If that was the best these political opponents of Mr. Trudeau can do on short notice, it’s easy to speculate that Mr. Harper, the only other political leader with caucus senators, was chafing that he’d been beaten to the punch by Mr. Trudeau’s clever move; that he hadn’t done this first and then dared the Liberals to follow suit, just as Mr. Trudeau now dares the Tories.

It’s a clever move because for thoughtful voters, Mr. Trudeau’s move should serve to inject the political process with a healthy dose of fresh air that will, hopefully, overcome the cynicism with which many view elected politics.

Mr. Trudeau further explained that, were he and his party to form the government, senators could be chosen by merit by a body independent of the adversarial political process which would go a long way towards ensuring that the brightest and best with skills and knowledge to bring to the red chamber would characterize future senators, all of whom would, eventually, be independent agents who would not sit on opposite sides of their chamber (as they now do) in mimicry of the House of Commons which is designed for and thrives on debate.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative makes a parliamentary change which would, in a fairly short period of time, be bound to offer Canadians the benefit of independent commentary on legislation. For senators not having to be concerned about supporting one political brand or another, it would give them much more opportunity to undertake independent white paper-style research and investigation into any number of issues that are of importance to Canadians.

Other proposals to amend the Senate (have them sit as elected party types, as was the prime minister’s battle cry in the days when he was a Reform Party heavyweight and on into the early days of the reconstructed Conservatives or abolish the Senate altogether as the NDP has as a perennial plank in its platform) would mean lengthy and, guaranteed rancourous, constitutional wrangling as not only Quebec but the fledgling territory of Nunavut, perhaps other regions too, would be vying for more representation, or to at least keep the representation they already have.

But Mr. Trudeau’s suggestion neatly skirts constitutional issues as the original notion of appointed senators didn’t contemplate particular political loyalties, and only made some guarantees as to regional representation (in particular to the maritime provinces whose Senate bench strength is out of proportion to their populations).

Mr. Trudeau’s suggestion, although it won’t change much just now, is a signal of affirming political changes and, in fact, he is the first political leader in a generation, since Prime Minister Mulroney tried by two separate means to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, to have made a call for systemic change and given it a framework, for the good of the nation.

Good for him.

It would look very good on Mr. Harper and his Conservatives if he simply took Mr. Trudeau’s ideas, made them the law of the land and set about implementing them.