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Truly independent, non-partisan upper chamber will require leap of faith

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/1/2016 (1708 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


If all goes well, we could be mere weeks away from seeing the first independently appointed senators in Canadian history.

And yet, even as we approach this historic moment, we still have very little idea of exactly who among us will be tapped to serve in the upper chamber.

To date, most of the focus has been on process, namely the creation of an advisory panel to recommend citizens for appointment to the Senate. That process took a major step forward on Tuesday, when Huguette Labelle was named as the chair of the panel that is expected to nominate its first candidates sometime in February.

Labelle, a former senior civil servant who is currently the chancellor of the University of Ottawa, will be joined by Dr. Indira Samarasekera, former president of the University of Alberta, and Prof. Daniel Jutras from the McGill University faculty of law. There is also a separate ad-hoc committee to immediately fill five of 22 vacancies, including two in Manitoba. Susan Lewis, a former president of the United Way of Winnipeg, and Manitoba singer-songwriter Heather Bishop, are on that committee.

That is progress, but it does not help define the nebulous concept of the "independent senator."

By its terms of reference, the advisory panel will be looking to achieve a gender balance in new senators, while giving priority to aboriginals and visible minorities, all desperately under-represented now.

You will need to be a resident and own property with a net value of $4,000 in the province for which you are appointed. You must also demonstrate a "solid knowledge of the legislative process" including the Constitution and the role of the Senate. Experience in either the legislative process or "recognized service to one’s community" is a definite plus. Finally, you must also be able to demonstrate outstanding personal qualities including a commitment to the principles of "public life, ethics, and integrity."

However, there are also demands on nominees to demonstrate an "ability to bring a perspective and contribution to the work of the Senate that is independent and non-partisan. They will also have to disclose any political involvement and activities. Past political activities would not disqualify a nominee."

This last qualification seems a bit strained. Although political involvement will not disqualify someone, it certainly will be a consideration. Can someone with a long history of work for a political party suddenly operate as a non-partisan senator? The Liberal government certainly thinks so.

It’s also not clear what an independent, non-partisan senator is supposed to look like in action. If a new senator finds philosophical or ideological affinity with a particular party or government, and works to support their agenda, is that partisan?

Moreover, when it comes time to vote on legislation, are we to believe that independent senators will simply vote as individuals? What happens if a group of senators bands together to support to reject legislation — is that partisan?

It is also important to note that work done in the service of a registered political party is still, in a very real sense, public service. It’s easy to dismiss work on behalf of a candidate or party as self-serving, but the fact is that party politics is an important building block of democracy.

Let us never forget that the innovation here is not necessarily the criteria for selection of new senators, or their designation as independent; it is the fact that the prime minister alone will not determine who is admitted to the upper chamber. That is not an insignificant advance on the previous tradition of appointments. The new process is more inclusive and more transparent.

However, it’s not clear the advisory panel will do a significantly better job at identifying candidates than past prime ministers. Again, although there were some notable triumphs of partisan appointments over competency appointments, it is simply wrong to assume that all of the senators appointed under the previous tradition were flawed.

Consider the last senator appointed by prime minister Stephen Harper in March of 2013.

Scott Tannas was the owner of Western Financial Group, a successful insurance and banking company in Alberta, who also established a charitable foundation that provides community-level support for public health, housing, education and recreation. Tannas also has a long association with the Alberta Progressive Conservative party, including as a candidate in Alberta’s 2012 senator-in-waiting elections.

Although his political affiliation was no doubt a deciding factor, it is quite likely Tannas would qualify under most of the new nomination criteria.

It seems that Prime Minister Trudeau’s dream of a truly independent, non-partisan upper chamber will require us all to take a leap of faith.

We can’t be entirely sure the advisory panel will find a better class of candidate. And we can’t be sure of exactly how a non-partisan Senate will function in the partisan context of the federal political system. Or that senators will be able to maintain their true independence when it comes time to consider legislation.

All we can be sure about at this point is that — with a new process and advisory committee in place — those 22 Senate vacancies will at long last be filled.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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