The Senate straitjacket
“There are no more Liberal senators.”
With that wake-up call on a dreary Ottawa morning, Justin Trudeau won the early news cycle in the capital in any number of categories — drama, decisiveness, some would even say daring.
But the Liberal leader merely won the day, nothing more, because this game of political poker over the disgraced Senate has many more hands to be played and Trudeau just laid down his best cards.
Trudeau boldly broke out of his Senate straitjacket, and he sought to remove the stains on his lapel that go by the names of Raymond Lavigne or Mac Harb or Colin Kenny, Liberal problems both past and present. The latter was appointed by the leader’s father.
This is a man who had been stuck in the middle as the face of the Senate status quo in a nation that no longer wanted the status quo, with Conservatives waiting for guidance from the Supreme Court on one side and the NDP under Tom Mulcair, blissfully senator-free, campaigning to abolish the Upper House. But the timing of this sudden declaration of Senate Independence Day is curious.
Trudeau is a leader who once suggested Harb would be happily welcomed back into the Liberal fold as long as he wasn’t in handcuffs, serenely watched his Liberal senators drag out debate on Senate expulsions last autumn to the government’s discomfort, and voted against an NDP motion that would have essentially done what Trudeau announced himself Wednesday.
The other two parties hinted broadly that Trudeau was trying to cynically get ahead of an imminent report on Senate expenses by auditor general Michael Ferguson that may have some bad news regarding sitting Liberal senators.
There is no doubt that both the New Democrats and Conservatives were counting on that, the NDP so Mulcair could ramp up his anti-Senate attack by wrapping both parties in the same cloak of corruption and Stephen Harper so it would at least remove a line of attack from his Liberal opponent. The Liberals deny any advance word, any signal, even any foyer gossip about whom Ferguson may have in his sights, despite well-known nervousness in the ranks, but the argument misses the mark anyway.
Should Ferguson finger any senator now known officially as a former Liberal senator, Wednesday’s cleansing was not going to somehow magically stop any critic from pointing out that the abuse happened while they were representing the Liberal party. Trudeau said he was acting now, rather than making a campaign promise later, but one can’t reform the Senate by performing an exorcism.
If elected prime minister, he says he would only appoint independent senators nominated in a non-partisan process with public input.
Trudeau says he wants to avoid 10 years of constitutional wrangling that would be necessary before real reform or abolition can happen, something for which he believes Canadians have no stomach.
He tried to smoke out Mulcair, who has really not been challenged on the intricacies of his Roll Up the Red Carpet campaign.
So Mulcair emerged from his caucus room to challenge Trudeau to roll up his sleeves and do the hard work necessary, instead of trying to change things with a lazy snap of the fingers.
In the meantime, the NDP leader accused the Liberals of stealing his idea, a lament likely first heard around here while they were building the Peace Tower.
Harper mocked Trudeau’s reforms, saying the country now has “unelected senators who just happen to be Liberals.”
This game of one-upmanship on the future of the Senate is fascinating for political observers, but the last card will still be played by the Conservatives.
Harper has built his own cell by asking the court if he can impose term limits, set up “consultative elections” for the Senate or abolish the place on his own. The majority of the provinces maintain that any such overhaul would need the permission of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population. Even Trudeau concedes he has gone as far as he could pending the court guidance.
Harper the reformer has lost credibility on the Senate issue, but as a majority prime minister, that will be forgotten once he hears from the court.
Only when that court guidance comes back will we really be in the realm of Senate reform, and, in the meantime, there are still 32 unelected, unaccountable senators roaming the red-carpeted chamber, whether they call themselves independents, independent Liberals, Liberal independents or the Marx Brothers.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.