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Trudeau's Senate worst of all options

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James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared Independent senators, speaks following the announcement they had been removed from the Liberal caucus.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared Independent senators, speaks following the announcement they had been removed from the Liberal caucus.

VANCOUVER -- Justin Trudeau is to be congratulated for his bold leap into the Senate reform debate and for promoting a reform option that does not require constitutional change, and need not await permission from the Supreme Court.

Trudeau has undoubtedly hit the political sweet spot in a very messy debate, winning kudos from across the board, including the dean of political journalists, Jeffrey Simpson, and the Canada West Foundation.

In the short term, of course, the expulsion of senators from the Liberal caucus will have no impact. The existing Liberal senators have been Liberals since they crawled out of the egg, and they will remain Liberals until they die. Although they will now be called independents, they will continue to support the Liberal party in every possible way and will oppose the Conservative government in every possible way.

If you think this assessment is too extreme, imagine the response if Prime Minister Stephen Harper were to follow Trudeau's lead and declare, from this point on, that Conservative senators would be independents. We would likely say "pull my other leg," concluding that dressing up Conservatives as independents would make them no less Conservative or conservative. Trudeau warrants no less cynicism.

The proof of the Trudeau pudding will rest on two points. The first is a firm commitment that if he wins the 2015 election, no new Senate appointments will be made until a new appointments process is in place, and that his role thereafter will be purely formal, taking advice from the new process as Harper has pledged to accept advice from provincial senatorial selection processes where they exist.

This commitment should be relatively easy for Trudeau, given that whatever he does, the Senate would remain firmly in Conservative hands for at least his first term of office.

The second is the truly daunting task of designing a selection process, and here Trudeau's initiative may lead us into the worst of all Senate reform options.

The selection mechanism that is most closely associated with Trudeau's proposal is the one used to select inductees to the Order of Canada. Sounds good, except the process is extremely secretive and operates with necessarily opaque criteria.

However, do we want senators, who would exercise real power, to be selected in secret through a star-chamber approach? And who will select the selectors? Presumably it will be the prime minister who will inevitably lean towards individuals who are ideologically aligned with his own priorities and agenda. They may not be big-L Liberals but they would certainly be small-l liberals who would seek out ideological soulmates as senators.

The litmus test in the selection process would not be partisanship, but it would be ideological, much as is the case with Supreme Court appointments in Canada and the United States.

The problem is compounded by the reality that true independents are very hard to find and, if found, may not be individuals we want exercising political power. People with a passion for the national interest are generally caught up in the fray of partisan politics. Do we want power exercised by individuals who are detached from the "real world" of party politics, who bring very idiosyncratic and personal agendas to the policy process?

Trudeau has brought new life to a gridlocked debate and Canadians should be grateful. He is now obligated, however, to convince Canadians they should put aside any commitment to democratic principles in favour of a secretive, unaccountable and ideologically charged process. I'm not convinced that we would be well-served in the long run.


Dr. Roger Gibbins is former president and CEO of Canada West Foundation.


--troymedia.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2014 A7

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