Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being told to not even think about appointing an independent senator to fill the regional hole at the cabinet table created by Monday’s election.
The time-honoured tradition, dating back decades, has been for prime ministers to pluck potential ministers from the Senate when the need arises — usually to give voice to parts of the country shut out of government in the House of Commons.
That was before Trudeau started stacking the Senate with independently-selected appointees, whose job is to take the partisan taint out of the Red Chamber.
In the aftermath of Monday’s vote, which shut the Liberals out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, there has been a great deal of speculation about how those provinces could be represented at the cabinet table.
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, head of the Independent Senators Group, said that tapping a member of the Senate would be counterproductive.
“That would be a departure from what the prime minister has said was his plan for the Senate, i.e., that senators are independent, that they do represent the government, [that] they are not part of the government,” he said Tuesday.
“To appoint a senator as a member of the cabinet would run counter to that intention.”
In the last Parliament, cabinet communicated its thoughts to the Senate through the office of the government representative, Sen. Peter Harder — who has never taken a seat at the cabinet table and has only been called upon to brief ministers in the past.
There are other ways, Woo argued, to deliver regional viewpoints and concerns to cabinet.
“If the idea is that there needs to be regional representation, a better balance of regional representation because of the election results, well, there is already regional representation in the Senate,” said Woo. “That’s how we’re organized. You can count on them to stand up for their region in a way they see is consistent with the national interest.”
The Trudeau government’s delicate overhaul of the Senate, which has skirted the need to reopen the Constitution, has not gone far enough, he added.
A push for more independence
In the lead-up to the election, Woo said, independent senators “discussed the need to press ahead vigorously with [continued] modernization and reform of the Senate.”
Further legislative changes are needed, he said, particularly in the Parliament of Canada Act, and independent senators want to see the minority Liberal government take up the challenge during its new mandate.
Many current senators and observers of federal politics were speculating Tuesday about how independent-minded senators could play spoiler and generally make life miserable for the new minority Liberal government.
In the former era of partisan appointments, the Senate was a political afterthought. A Liberal-dominated Senate was expected to support a Liberal government in the House of Commons — or oppose the government if the Conservatives were in power — and vice versa.
The independent appointment process has made the business of passing legislation through the Senate less predictable, and more time-consuming.
During the last Parliament, under a Liberal majority, the Senate sometimes unexpectedly flexed its legislative muscles. It proposed 46 amendments to the Cannabis Act and cast shadows over a series of bills — impaired driving legislation, labour relations law, even the 2017 budget implementation bill. The pushback came from a variety of senators — from Conservatives, from those who still call themselves Liberals, and from the independents.
A ‘less adventuresome’ Senate?
One expert said he expects the new Liberal minority to tread very carefully with the Senate.
“Everything will be quite nervously handled,” said David Zussman, a former senior public servant and now an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria.
Sen. Harder, he said, does not have the same pull with the government that a Liberal Senate leader would and “can’t direct anybody to think about things the way he thinks about it.”
Zussman said he wonders whether the Senate also will act cautiously in opposing or questioning the policies of the new minority government. “They may feel less adventuresome knowing the House is in such an uncertain circumstance,” he added.
Woo said there were occasions when the House of Commons rejected the Senate’s amendments and the Upper Chamber bowed to the will of the elected representatives.
Conservative Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais said Canadians will likely not see a major disruption of the minority government’s agenda, as long as the legislation coming from the House of Commons is reasonable and in the interests of the entire country.
He said that, in his experience, independent senators have tended to vote with the Liberal government on important measures, such as budgets.
“It’s not a real independence,” Dagenais said. “These people have a new title, but I’m sure their real title is Liberal.”
He noted Trudeau will have the opportunity to add more independent representatives in the coming year with the planned retirement of at least four Conservatives.
Ian Brodie, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said he doesn’t expect the Senate will be much of a factor for the minority government, at least in the near term, because the Commons is the elected body.
“Trudeau is in a strong position to govern and to get at least the acquiescence of the NDP and the Greens. This means there’s not much room for the Senate to flex its muscles,” said Brodie, who also served as chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper early in his mandate.