It was a busy time in Ottawa this week. Members of Parliament scurried to find their seats in the House of Commons. On Thursday, they elected their Speaker and on Friday they all marched over to the Senate Chamber to hear the Speech from the Throne, delivered by the Governor General Canada. There was much ceremony and history. Sunny days indeed!
On Monday however, the rubber hits the road, if only for a week! Question Period will kick things off when the Opposition Parties get an opportunity to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on promises they made and legislation they plan to introduce. Question Period is an important part of our Canadian Parliamentary process, where tough questions are asked of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet and they are called upon to be accountable for their actions. It was a bit of a worry therefore, to hear the Government House Leader on Friday, following the Throne Speech, suggest in an interview, that Question Period may be changed in a manner that would effectively allow the Prime Minister to be in the House less often and to be subjected to fewer questions from members of Parliament.
It is important that members of Parliament have every opportunity to question government policy and to separate substance from rhetoric. One such example is Senate reform, a much vaunted initiative by the Liberal Party during the election campaign and one that was also highlighted in the Government’s Speech from the Throne. In substance, however, there is little in the plans announced by the Government that will result in meaningful reform of the Senate.
While Senate scandals and improprieties have been part of its character almost since Confederation, events in the last decade or so, perpetrated by both Conservative and Liberal Senators, has made many Canadians question the role of the Senate in the our Parliamentary system. Polls have shown that they don’t want band aid solutions. They want genuine reform or many, notwithstanding the constitutional niceties, simply want to get rid of it.
Under our present system, legislation passed in Parliament must also be approved by the Senate before it can be proclaimed by the Governor General and become law. Senators are unelected and appointed by the Prime Minister of the Day. Every Prime Minister from the beginning of time, has tried to ensure a majority of partisan members in the Senate to ensure that their legislative priorities are approved.
Our present Prime Minister is promoting an independent Senate, but in reality there can be no such thing. By its nature the Senate is a partisan establishment and always will be. The new Government’s proposal for appointing Senators, while different in style to what has happened in the past, in practical terms, changes very little.
A committee of “independent” individuals will be appointed by the Government to select candidates for the Senate. For each vacancy, they will identify 5 candidates from which a Senator will be appointed by the Prime Minister. At the end of the day this remains a partisan process where the Government appoints people of their choice to the Senate. They will expect loyalty and they will get it.
This process does little to change the character of the Senate or to enhance their accountability to Canadians. It is simply window dressing and does not address the hard question of how to reform the Upper Chamber. If the Prime Minister really wanted to promote an independent Senate, why then, in one of his first moves, did he replace the current Speaker of the Senate with a member of his own political party? Not an unusual practise but it does appear to fly in the face of his rhetoric.
My strong guess is that two years from now, the 22-odd Senate seats that are currently vacant, will be filled by individuals who vote consistently with the Government on all important matters. That is the nature of politics but why would anyone suggest it is an independent process that changes the way the Senate operates? It will still be good old boys and gals, with patronage appointments, dancing to the will of their respective political masters. There will still be scandals and among some, there will still be a sense of entitlement. So when you get right down to it, what is really different? It does raise the question for me, as to whether the Government actually prefers the status quo in the Senate, with just a few bells and whistles added or if they really want, as most Canadians do, real change.
The fact that the Senate has become somewhat dysfunctional cannot be fixed by simply changing the method through which the Prime Minister appoints its members. There is no easy fix. Genuine Senate reform will require the cooperation and agreement of the Provinces but our Prime Minister has pledged an effective relationship with provincial, territorial and indigenous leaders. As part of this initiative surely he could convene a panel of First Ministers to examine meaningful reforms to the Canadian Senate, which ensures accountability, effectiveness and legitimacy. Some Provinces and some Canadians believe that an elected Senate is the answer. Others disagree. Whatever the answer, it would be a great accomplishment to bring the decision makers, our elected leaders, together to forge an agreement on meaningful Senate reform, no matter how complicated. All it takes is leadership.
AND TWO MORE BRIEF COMMENTS
The first is about Nannygate! I do hope that the Opposition Parties, especially the Conservatives, do not make too big a deal of this. Sure, I understand the temptation, given Mr. Trudeau’s remarks during the election campaign that he didn’t need taxpayers to finance his children’s daycare needs. The reality however, is that all Prime Ministers are assisted with their household and family expenses. I can still remember pictures of Pierre Trudeau’s young children, including our current Prime Minister, being escorted and cared for by staff. It’s what happens and it’s no big deal. Best to get over it. There will be bigger fish to fry!
And last but not least, I fully appreciate the importance of the issues we all face with climate change and the significance of the Climate Change Conference in Paris this past week. But seriously, did we really have to send 300 delegates to this meeting from Canada, at taxpayer’s expense? I am told this is more than every other country that attended with the exception of France and possibly the USA. Was this all for show? What did they all do and what did they really accomplish that couldn’t be achieved by say 30 people? I honestly believe that the rest of the world will judge Canada on this and other international issues by what we actually do rather than how many people we send on a tax paid gig to Paris. Just sayin’!