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Just political gimmickry? Doesn't matter right now

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks about the Senate and Liberal senators during an announcement in the Foyer of the House of Commons Wednesday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Trudeau is sweeping Liberal senators out of his party's caucus in a bid to show he's serious about cleaning up the scandal-plagued upper house.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks about the Senate and Liberal senators during an announcement in the Foyer of the House of Commons Wednesday on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Trudeau is sweeping Liberal senators out of his party's caucus in a bid to show he's serious about cleaning up the scandal-plagued upper house.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is often accused of being unfamiliar with political tradition. Wednesday's remarkable, unexpected decision to release all Liberal senators to sit as independents will do little to dispel that theory.

Without warning, Trudeau jettisoned 32 Liberal senators from his caucus, freeing them to sit as independents, whether they wanted to or not. And many definitely did not want to go.

Confusion reigned in the Senate, with some former Liberal senators asserting they still were and would continue to be loyal to the party that appointed them.

Trudeau was resolute, however, that an independent, appointed Senate would best serve Canadians. As such, he decided to forgoe the typical trial balloons and take action to back up his theory about how to fix the Senate.

Is this some sort of strategic gimmick, as Trudeau's critics asserted, or is it a brave, bold move to move the debate over the Senate forward in a more constructive way, as Liberals claim?

It's important to note Trudeau is not the first person to float the idea of an independently appointed Senate. The theory is that, freed from the choke collar of party discipline, senators would be free to ruminate, debate and vote on federal legislation without fear or favour. An independent Senate, proponents argue, would allow it to fulfil its principal mandate, which is to be a chamber of sober second thought that holds any majority in the House of Commons to account.

However, it's not clear an independent Senate is even possible. With no tradition of independence in the Senate to fall back on, and partisanship still so pervasive on Parliament Hill, it may simply be too much to ask of our federal political system.

And that's not the only reason Trudeau's Senate proposal is problematic.

Although caucus composition is a matter dictated by the party's constitution, Trudeau acted unilaterally and, some will argue, without the authority of his caucus and party membership. This demonstration of raw, unmitigated power runs contrary to Trudeau's stated goal of enhancing democracy.

Missing, as well, from Trudeau's plan are details about exactly how an independent Senate would be appointed. Who would sit in judgment of potential senators? Would citizens apply for the job or, like the Nobel Prize, would they have to be nominated? Would the premiers get any say in the matter?

Notwithstanding the impractical or missing details of Trudeau's Senate policy, this is still fascinating stuff, if only for the fact that, once again, Trudeau has thrown out the old playbook and introduced an entirely new tack.

This is a pretty serious blow to the long-standing culture of political patronage in this country. It was hard to imagine any party divorcing itself from its senators, because so many of the people who sustain the party machinery are exactly the people who expect Senate appointments. Trudeau is biting the hand that feeds him, a gesture that is fraught with peril.

This is not the first time Trudeau has taken stands that contradict or betray standard political strategy.

This tendency was first revealed when, last summer, Trudeau suddenly suggested marijuana should be legalized. Although his party has been pro-legalization for some time, no Liberal leader had dared translate that into a campaign or government policy. Tradition suggested this was an issue to avoid; Trudeau dove right in.

The NDP yawned at Trudeau's gall. The Tories, adopting the tone of 1960s public health films, portrayed Trudeau as a dangerous, pro-drug demon. But citizens reacted much more positively.

Even with all the unanswered questions, Trudeau created a compelling story that earned substantial public interest. Trudeau left an impression a good many people estranged from federal politics had, for a moment if nothing else, turned their attention to a federal politician.

Whether this is political gimmickry or bona fide policy is really not the point. At least not yet. Should Trudeau find himself leading a government, there will be several moments of reckoning where we'll see if these unusual, sudden policies become law.

For now, we should be happy we're seeing more and more contrast between the style and, on some points, substance of the three main political parties and their leaders.

Love his policies or hate him for his melodramatic proclivities, Trudeau has shown once again he is not married to the old methods. At a time when so few people are interested in politics, that alone is a promising sign.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Trudeau’s move a stunt? Or a genuine step toward senate reform? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 A4

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Updated on Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 6:58 AM CST: Adds photo, adds question for discussion

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