Trudeau’s Senate reform no big deal

Alan Holman
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The most surprising thing about Justin Trudeau’s banishing Liberal senators from the Liberal parliamentary caucus was the Harperesque manner in which he went about it.

One of the revelations to be unearthed as the senate expense scandal unfolded during the past year, was how people from the Prime Minister’s Office, the so-called ‘boys in short pants’, injected themselves into the operations of the senate.

As the details of how Mr. Trudeau arrived at his new policy on the senate became known Mr. Trudeau’s modus operandi turned out to be shockingly familiar. He did not consult with any of the 32 Liberal senators who would be affected by his new policy. Instead, he met with the young associates on his staff who are closest to him, and they, in turn, secretly consulted with a couple of academics.

On Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock Mr. Trudeau met with most of the 32 Liberals in the Senate, not all of them heeded their leader’s command, and he told them they were no longer Liberal senators. They were now independent senators, and they were no longer welcome in the Liberal parliamentary caucus.

More than a few of those present have been beavering way in the Liberal cause long before Justin Trudeau was even born. Some of them resented the fact he told them they were no longer Liberals. And when Mr. Trudeau met the media outside the Liberal Senate caucus room he made it clear that he didn’t want any senators involved in party work. No more fund raising. No more helping out in elections campaigns. The media certainly understood that he no longer welcomed them as Liberals, though he did acknowledge they could hold a Liberal party card.

None of which he mentioned in the meeting with his former Liberal senators.

Mr. Trudeau also wrote the Speaker of the Senate informing him that the former Liberal senators were no longer part of the Liberal National Parliamentary Caucus, and for some reason he copied this letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has nothing to do with the Senate.

Had the former Liberal senators, who Mr. Trudeau just declared independent non-Liberal senators, taken him literally and left the room as 32 individual, independent senators, the senate operations would have been thrown into chaos. There would have been no leader of the opposition, nor any other opposition officers in the senate. Who determines what senators, other than government senators, will sit on which committees?

Fortunately, after Mr. Trudeau left the room, the formerly Liberal senators stayed and among themselves decided to keep the positions they held before his declaration of their independence. They also decided to style themselves as Liberals in the Senate, rather than Liberal senators, a nuance presumably they understand.

And, of course, they will no longer attend the Liberal national parliamentary caucus, which was the point of the whole exercise, and this, Mr. Trudeau could have easily accomplished without declaring them non-Liberals.

If Mr. Trudeau was simply trying to liberate his Liberal senators from the strictures of party discipline it might have been a significant move in the reform of an institution badly in need of an overhaul. But, by seeking to highlight the removal of the party label from the Liberals in the senate, he fuels the speculation that the move was made with a eye to being disassociated with any future embarrassment that may occur when the auditor general completes his study of the expense accounts of individual senators.

As to Mr. Trudeau’s plan for using a committee, similar to the one that chooses members of the Order of Canada, to appoint future senators, we will have to wait until he is prime minister to see how that works. The wait maybe longer than he would like.

The announcement, and the manner in which it was made, was designed to portray Mr. Trudeau as an innovated thinker by coming up with a way to reform the senate that doesn’t require a change in the constitution, and all that that implies.

But, though he outlined how he might reform the appointment process, Mr. Trudeau didn’t suggest, as prime minister, he would pass up the opportunity to appoint the speaker and the government house leader in the senate. He hasn’t said that he’d step back and allow the senate to completely govern its own affairs. A reformed senate, free from government interference is a lot more than senators simply foregoing the pleasures of attending caucus meetings.

- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at:

Organizations: Liberal National Parliamentary Caucus, House of Commons

Geographic location: Canada, Charlottetown

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