Shaking up the Senate

With independent senators now making up the largest group in the Red Chamber, our experts explain why this move is healthy for democracy.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 21 new appointments to the Senate over the past two weeks may not be as independent as he claims, but they do reflect an improved chamber “for sober second thought” in the long run, say two U of A political observers.

Critics slammed Trudeau this week for appointing what they called “closeted Liberals” after he promised to appoint senators on merit rather than party affiliation.

In 2014 while he was in opposition, Trudeau declared all Liberal senators independent. After he was elected prime minister last fall, he introduced a new, non-partisan model to appoint senators. Earlier this year, the Liberal government set up an advisory board (which included former U of A President Indira Samarasekera) to submit recommendations for senate appointments to the prime minister based on merit-only criteria. The job of senator was thrown open to anyone who felt qualified to apply for the job.

After this week’s appointments, there are now 44 independent senators, the largest cohort in the Red Chamber.

"It's clear these new senators have ties with the Liberals—not necessarily partisan ties, but with ideological, ‘small l’ liberalism,” said Frédéric Boily, who studies Canadian political ideologies at Campus Saint-Jean.

With backgrounds as academics and lawyers, many tend to lean left, he said. André Pratt, for example—former editor of La Presse appointed last Friday—has clearly adopted liberal positions in the past as a journalist, said Boily.

On the whole, however, Boily likes the new Senate model for its emphasis on the knowledge, experience and diversity of applicants as opposed to simply replicating the hyper-partisan divisions of the House of Commons.

Canada has come a long way since the Senate’s inception 150 years ago, he said, and definitions of diversity and representation have changed enormously.

"I was very surprised when Trudeau introduced it at first,” said Boily. “But in the long term it's probably the most interesting solution for changing the dynamics of the senate—the CVs of these people are very good.”

Boily also prefers the independent Senate to an elected body that has been proposed by some. According to the constitution, the latter would require approval from all provinces and territories—an uphill battle if ever there was one.

“And remember, we’ve had Senate elections in Alberta, and people don't seem to be all that interested.” Alberta is the only province to elect nominees for Senate appointments, which are not binding on the Prime Minister when he submits his choices to the Governor General.

One potential problem Boily does see with the new model, however, is elitism in its merit-based search for what it calls “highly qualified people.”

“It's not just the simple Joe Canadian who can be appointed any more. And I think it’s important to have a balance between people with credentials and those who represent ordinary people."

Eric Adams, a constitutional expert in the U of A’s law faculty, also favours the new senate so far, as long as senators don’t misinterpret their independence as license to defy Parliament.

In the past, party discipline has been useful in preventing senators from challenging the democratic will of the House of Commons, he argued. But it has also constrained them at times from expressing valid reservations.

“What's the point of a Senate that simply re-creates the political wrangling and partisan jockeying of the House of Commons?” said Adams. “A Senate comprised of Senators exercising independent judgment free from constraints of party ideology and discipline can contribute meaningfully to ensuring our laws receive rigorous, objective, and thoughtful assessment and debate.

“The best Senate for Canadians will be one of independence, reflection and integrity, but also one which is prepared to defer to the House of Commons when push comes to shove,” he said.

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