By Dan Walton
With ongoing scandals continuing to taint the image of the Canadian Senate, federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has removed all Liberal senators from his caucus.
But its a move thats bound to backfire on the country, says Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks.
A Senate full of independents will create a system similar or close to what the United States has, in which they cannot get anything done, he said. With 105 voting senators, you need 57 of them to vote together that could be a challenge.
Patronage and partisanship has made the Senate an institution that poorly serves the interests of Canadians, said Mr. Trudeau on his partys website, as he explained his rationale for removing the partys 32 senators from the Liberal caucus, allowing them to remain as independents in the Senate.
With less than a third of the chambers population, the Liberal Partys action does not affect the balance of power, but the party leader said he hopes the Conservatives will follow suit.
The Conservative Party didnt anticipate Mr. Trudeaus decision, said Mr. Wilks, but the Harper Government has its own initiative to reform Senate, and the Liberal Partys move last week wont affect how the Tories move forward, he added.
We have a request in with the Supreme Court of Canada asking what we can or cannot do (without opening the Constitution) in the Senate with regards to making changes in it and possibly abolishing it, he said.
Despite the Conservative Party holding a majority in the Senate, the actions of the Liberal Party have caused Mr. Wilks some concern as to whether or not the Senate will function properly.
Senate must have an official opposition; without one, its very difficult to do business in the Senate, he said, explaining that the official opposition, which was the Liberal Party, reviews all bills and provides crucial input. Its unclear how procedure will continue in the Senate, as there must be an official opposition, but as of Wednesday there was no opposition, he said.
Arnold Malone, who served as the MP for Albertas Crowfoot riding between 1974 and 1993, disagrees that having a Senate full of non-partisan members would improve the system.
Banding together to make group decisions is a normal thing to do, he said, adding the scrutiny the Senate chamber is under is prompting a knee-jerk reaction. I dont think that approach merits the consideration that is being given.
With the negative publicity the Senate has undergone in the past year, theres a notion far and wide that its got to be a bad organization, Mr. Malone said, before making mention of Senates constructive contributions.
Weve gone through about three recessions in the past 15 years, and the main credit for Canada coming through them better than any of the other G8 countries has been Canadas regulatory process to the Bank Act, which is a series of 20 massive documents almost entirely written by the Senate, he said. The Senate has done very many positive things for Canada.
According to The Hill Times newspaper in Ottawa,
former members of the Liberal Senate will remain united to serve as the official opposition until the new order is better understood. The interim process will continue under the existing leadership of Senator James Cowan.
But no matter how the dissolution of the Liberal Senators plays out, Mr. Wilks doesnt see Senate issues playing a role in the 2015 federal election. He said that the Supreme Court is expected to respond to the Conservatives request within three or four months, but doesnt think substantial changes will be possible without opening the constitution, which no major party appears willing to do.
You may never close the constitution once you open it, he said.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has imposed term limits on Senators, but that action has not yet been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, though Mr. Wilks expects that will happen.
Last year, Senator Pamela Wallin was turfed from the Conservative caucus amid the ongoing spending scandal, and sat as an independent until her colleagues voted to suspend her and two other Senators last November. Asked by The Pioneer in an email if she would remain a Senator until forced retirement at age 75, she replied, I actually agreed to an eight year term limit – just for the record.
But Mr. Wilks said that unless the Supreme Court approves the term limit condition, Senators arent legally obliged to step down when their time is up.
Mr. Wilks also emphasized the importance of the Senate.
Any party with a majority wields a lot of power, he said. Without sober second thought, something could go through that should not.
The Harper Government currently has a majority both in the House of Commons and the Senate, but formed government in 2006 with a minority in both. The party won a majority in the House after the 2011 federal election, and then earned control in the Senate after seven appointments early in 2012.
Appointing Senators is a duty reserved for the Prime Minister, who will logically appoint like-minded politicians.
The party in power will always stack the deck, so to speak, Mr. Wilks said, recalling Senators appointed under former Prime Ministers Paul Martin, Jean Chretien, and Brian Mulroney. Its the way its set up.
Mr. Trudeau, who hopes to become Prime Minister
after the 2015 federal election, pledged that if elected, hell implement an open, transparent, and non-partisan
appointment process for the Senate.
This process will be developed working with experts and informed by other non-partisan appointment processes, such as that of the Supreme Court Justices and Order of Canada recipients, reads his press release.