Appointing independent senators: Leave the skepticism behind

Posted on November 3, 2016 in Governance Debates – Opinion
Nov. 03, 2016.   PETER HARDER

Peter Harder is the Representative of the Government in the Senate

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that there are still a few skeptics left criticizing the appointment of 21 new independent senators who will soon be taking their seats in Canada’s Parliament. For the first time in our country’s history, a plurality of the Red Chamber’s membership will sit outside party-controlled caucuses, and some Canadians will understandably wonder how the Senate will function without them. Other harsher critics will ask whether the new senators are really non-partisan at all, even though they have been appointed under a new, arm’s-length and merit-based selection process.

But as the Government Representative in the Senate, I am encouraged by the positive reaction that the appointments have gathered. After many years of the Senate being treated as a national punching bag, I sense an unmistakable sympathy among Canadians for real reform, fuelled by the high quality of the appointees themselves, all of whom are leaders within their own communities.

Given this national expression of good faith, it is now crucial that all senators, regardless of affiliation, seize a historic opportunity to effect change from within. At the very least, this means that the new independent senators be provided the same rights and resources to do their jobs that are accorded other members who sit in political party caucuses. The momentum of these few weeks cannot be squandered.

Relinquishing influence to independent senators may require a leap for some party-affiliated members.

But Canadians ought not to be misled by those who argue that appointing independent senators is somehow an affront to the foundational principles of Canada’s parliamentary system. In removing partisanship from the appointment process, the Prime Minister has actually gone back to the basics of Confederation.

When first conceiving of the Senate, Canada’s founders envisioned it as an independent chamber of sober second thought. The Supreme Court itself has frequently identified independence as the lifeblood of Canada’s Senate. In 1979, the court wrote, for example, that the clear intention of the founders was to make the Senate an independent body that could review dispassionately the measures of the House of Commons. In 2014, Canada’s justices added that the original intent was to remove senators from a partisan political arena that requires unremitting consideration of short-term political objectives.

In short, the very purpose of a Senate composed of appointed members was to ensure that senators would consider the public policy issues of the day on their merits, not on the basis of preprogrammed positions dictated from above by party leadership.

Canadians have seen this ideal compromised through patronage appointments, excessive partisanship and executive interference by previous Prime Ministers’ Offices.

This is precisely why the government’s policy is to not exercise top-down partisan control over any member of the Senate. As both the leader of the third-place Liberal Party of Canada and now as the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau has voluntarily relinquished one of the traditional levers of power of his political party and of his office. Having made a significant down payment on his commitment to restore public trust in the Senate, the onus is on the Senate to continue the job.

Constructive but mild reform initiatives are under way from within, but they must progress at a faster pace.

And the Senate needs to treat independent senators fairly. Currently, there are two unequal classes of members in the Red Chamber: Party affiliated and independent. Independent senators are woefully underrepresented on committees and grossly underfunded compared to party-affiliated senators. I invite the leadership groups of the Conservative and Liberal-affiliated caucuses to work together with me and the independents to quickly fix these inequalities.

Canadians need to see their good faith repaid. Any obstructionists should give their plans sober second thought.

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