Wells: Fallout from Senate revamp takes time

Senators are not in the habit of rushing

Wells: Fallout from Senate revamp takes time

It is only fair to let you know there are rumblings from the Senate.

“I think that what you’re seeing here is a transformation,” Sen. Thomas Johnson McInnis told a roomful of reporters on Tuesday.

“What you have here are independent thinkers.”

Sen. McInnis is a former minister of this and that in the interminable Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative government of John Buchanan, who retired in 1990, and in the less durable administration of Buchanan’s successor, Roland Thornhill. He ran federally in Dartmouth in 2000, in what would turn out to be the last election the Progressive Conservatives ever contested, and the result for him was not better than the result for most candidates from his party that year.

Stephen Harper put McInnis in the Senate in September of 2012. Two months later, the Ottawa Citizen started asking questions about Mike Duffy’s housing expenses and life just hasn’t been very fun in the red chamber ever since.

But perhaps that is changing. Duffy was acquitted on all charges. Charges against Patrick Brazeau were dropped and none will be pressed against Pamela Wallin. But most importantly, the very composition of the Senate is –maybe! Arguably! – changing under Justin Trudeau.

In January 2014, without a day’s warning, Trudeau kicked every Liberal senator out of the party’s national caucus in Ottawa. The move was widely dismissed as rookie theatrics from a man who didn’t understand Parliament. In March of this year, freshly in office as prime minister, Trudeau appointed seven new senators and told them they could vote and speak as they pleased. He will soon name 20 more. Suddenly, for the first time, these nominal independents will outnumber Conservatives and the remaining Liberals-without-a-caucus.

What does it all mean? You’ll be relieved to know a special Senate committee has been on the case. It’s had “passionate discussion, if not outright argument and debate,” McInnis said.

Oh, you scamps. Its conclusions?

Well, on the big questions, you’ll just have to wait. Senators are not in the habit of rushing. They released only the first of two reports on Tuesday and it’s the second that will answer the crucial question facing a post-Trudeau Senate: If nobody in the place is beholden to a Liberal government, what’s the nature of its obligation to pass legislation passed by the elected House of Commons?

Tuesday’s interim recommendations addressed less fundamental questions in ways that still managed to be entertaining. The Senate’s proceedings should at last be televised and webcast, they said. If the Commons sends up an omnibus bill to change a few dozen disparate laws at once, senators should be able to chop it into bits and consider them separately. And, finally, any decent-sized group of senators (nine or more) who want to sit in any durable combination should be recognized as a “caucus,” with a budget and staffing to match.

These changes are likely to make Trudeau’s 2014 changes permanent. There might be groups with internal cohesion in the Senate, but they need bear no particular relation to the makeup of the Commons. The very thought of it is making some old-time senators frisky. Serge Joyal, who was a Liberal for decades but is now, well, a Liberal – terminology is tricky up there – said that from the moment he was no longer welcome in Trudeau’s caucus room, “Ben, il y a, comme on dit en anglais, ‘No strings attached.’ ”

Elaine McCoy, appointed as a Progressive Conservative by Paul Martin after the federal Progressive party had voted to abolish itself, pronounced herself chuffed to have so many colleagues, on deck and coming soon, who feel no particular party affiliation.

How will laws get passed? There used to be room for quiet trade-offs in government caucus meetings, Joyal said. Now, there’ll have to be open bargaining between Liberals and … these people.

“It’s about power,” Joyal said. “As my mother would say to me, don’t try to show to an old monkey how to make faces.” I felt a sudden pang of regret that I never met Serge Joyal’s mother.

Justin Trudeau’s Senate upheaval foreshadowed, as we are now seeing, his management style in general. He may take a long time to decide, but when he does, you sure notice the decision. If there are noses out of joint, let them be out of joint. It’s how he replaced one Clerk of the Privy Council with another. It’s how he made climate policy this week. The announcement takes only a minute. The consequences take years to play out.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.