Canada’s Senate: Forced independence

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has just kicked out all Liberal Senators from the party caucus. They are now independents in a parliamentary sense. It just so happens most of them have collectively decided to form a caucus of their own – the Senate Liberals. It’s their choice after all – having (forcibly) left their previous caucus they are free to associate how they wish. The more important part of his statement was the one where he proposed that all new appointments be made essentially on merit. This likely means a method similar to that of honours like the Order of Canada – perhaps a hint that he may go down the House of Lords Appointments Commission route.

This does leave some big questions: In Justin Trudeau’s Senate, what happens to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate? If people are appointed regardless of political views, a formal opposition might potentially die out. Is the intention that this position fall into disuse or would people be appointed who are almost expected to be a Party representative? It is possible the Senate would have to adapt, in time, to the idea of a large group, if not a majority, of independent senators. Of course, the biggest problem with this would be the potential question of how many of the appointments should be for any particular party. That is the biggest question in the current House of Lords appointment system and constitutional experts are calling for some sort of agreement on a party balance in the House of Lords to stop the size ballooning (not a problem in the Senate but the partisan proportions would still be an important question). The problems only expand if you appoint without consideration of partisan leanings, allegations of bias in either direction would only bring the appointing body into disrepute.

In pure parliamentary terms, committee places would have to change – currently, they are appointed on the basis of party balance and independents don’t get a look-in. That would likely have to change, perhaps with elections by independent members to secure positions – since no whips would exist to nominate positions for the independent ‘caucus’.

The next speedbump in this plan is an eventual Liberal government – and how, exactly, the Senate will work with a Leader of the Government in the Senate (and deputy) who isn’t a member of the government nor even technically the governing party caucus. Currently, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Claude Carnigan, isn’t actually a member of the government and he, or members of his party, simply sponsor government bills without being a member of the government. In the same way, the Leader of the Government in the Senate answers questions the best he can on behalf of the government but he isn’t part of it. While it’s possible to simply extend this to the Liberal model Senate constitutionally it’s a bit dodgy and probably not sustainable.

All the leader could repeat would be talking points. Negotiation between the Senate and the government over bills would be severely hampered because the sponsor of the bill in the Senate couldn’t guarantee that the Government could accept any given amendment or potentially might go rogue and accept amendments contrary to government wishes. While that’s not necessarily wrong, it’s not helpful for the government or the opposition. I think it likely that the standing order in the Senate to allow ministers to speak before the Senate would be resurrected, and new standing orders formed to allow them to speak to and sponsor bills. At the very least, that would be my preferred solution if the senate were to become separated from national parties.

I’m sure there are further potential problems with this model that would need solving, but ultimately it’s a step in an interesting and potentially promising direction.

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One Response to Canada’s Senate: Forced independence

  1. Hon. J Watterson MHK says:

    Nations without parties do tend to wonder how the world can function without them! In the Isle of Man, there is no party system in either House, yet there is a system for the lower house to elect members to the upper house. There are eight members elected in this manner, and they serve five year terms. However, despite there being no parties, MLCs as they are called are junior ministers in Government Departments, take legislation through, and there are mechanisms for answering of parliamentary questions. Why can’t independents be Ministers? There are also provisions in Standing orders that Ministers can be requested to attend the “other place” with the consent of the Speaker (lower house) and President (upper house). Select Committee members are still selected without there ever being a whip on the Isle of Man. Surely that’s a practise that politicians and public alike should embrace rather than fear?

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