Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a career out of preying on Canadians’ ignorance of our democratic institutions, the Senate in particular.
He did so as far back as 2010 when, in an unprecedented move, he used his Senate majority to defeat the Commons-supported Climate Change Accountability Act. He did so throughout the tenure of his Parliamentary majority, as he allowed a culture of corruption and skullduggery to proliferate in the Upper House under the watch of his closest confidants. He did so just months ago, when he capitalized on growing public attention and dissatisfaction with Red Chamber to suspend three of his own Senators without due process in a move to score political points and move the focus from his own ineffective leadership.
Now, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is taking a page out of Stephen Harper’s book (No, not the hockey book).
Trudeau’s decision yesterday to expel 32 Liberal Senators from the Party’s National Caucus, condemning them to sit in the Red Chamber now as Senate Liberals, has very little to do with transparency, accountability, and Senate Reform. Indeed, much like the moves Harper has made on the Senate, Trudeau’s strategy seeks to transform misperceptions into votes by way of creating a false distance between party leaders and their embattled Senators, and a false perception of action on an issue for which most Canadians do, in fact, wish to see dramatic change.
Following the explosive Senate Expenses Scandal which unfolded over most of 2013, Canadians overwhelmingly wish to see change in the Senate. Polling shows that about 49% of Canadians – myself included – want to see some kind of reform in the Upper House, while about 41% are in favour of completely abolishing the Senate. Somewhere around 6% of Canadians want to leave the Senate as it is. The rest don’t know.
All of this taken together, combined with the fact that Canadians don’t generally understand or follow much what goes on with regards to the Red Chamber, means that just about any action taken by any party leader towards the Senate will be positively received by voters.
Many observers, most of whom are much smarter than me, have already pointed out the various procedural, constitutional, and political flaws – of which there are many – with Trudeau’s Senate plan. As a founding member of the Canadian Senate Reform Debate Club, I am most concerned with the extent to which Trudeau’s Senate plan represents any actual kind of reform. According to Trudeau,
Canadians expect their leaders to be open and honest with them, and they expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly… Taken together, these steps represent the most significant and concrete actions to reform the Senate in its history.
To be “perfectly clear” (now I’m channeling Harper), I do not believe the removal of 32 Senators from the Liberal Caucus does one single thing to reform the Senate. Here’s why:
First, in an attempt to be practical and direct, Trudeau has missed the point completely. Current dissatisfaction and anger towards the Canadian Senate has less to do with patronage and partisanship and more to do with a complete lack of leadership, accountability, and transparency in Senate Caucuses and the Prime Minister’s Office. A strong leader would have taken strong leadership on the Senate. All Trudeau is doing is looking to pass the buck. By forcing all his former Senators to sit as “Independent” Liberals, Trudeau has effectively decreased the level of leadership, accountability, and transparency on the Opposition side of the Senate.
Second, these steps are neither significant nor concrete. Last week, there was a Liberal Senate Caucus. This week, there is a Senate Liberal Caucus. Stop the presses!
Third, and most importantly, Trudeau’s attempt at reform is neither open nor honest. At the end of the day, Trudeau’s dramatic move yesterday was much more about Senators than it was about the Senate. The Senate, Caucus Liberal Caucus and all, will chug along pretty much exactly as it has for the past century and a half. Trudeau, like Harper, has sought to play on wide misperceptions about the Senate to create the image of change where none truly exists. This is a terrible kind of politics to play.
The only significant change Trudeau has affected has been to create a sizeable distance between himself and his former caucus colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, this was an important thing for Trudeau to do. Within weeks, the first of three Auditor General reports on the expenses of ALL Senators will be released. Everyone – Conservatives, Liberal Caucus, Caucus Liberals, Independents, “Independents” – is going to look bad. No one can blame Trudeau, or Harper for that matter, for wanting to appear as far away from this as possible.
But Trudeau’s misguided Senate plan does not change anything in the Senate, whatsoever. To suggest otherwise is deceptive, manipulative, and dishonest – chapters 1, 2, and 3 of Stephen Harper’s political playbook.