A love, hate relationship with the Senate

Gary
Gary MacDougall
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Love it or hate it, we Prince Edward Islanders need to pay close attention when the Canadian Senate makes the news. So Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s controversial plan for reform is something we need to keep abreast of.

In spite of the foul odour coming out of the upper chamber in Ottawa over the past few months, as a result of financial shenanigans on the part of some of its inhabitants, notably P.E.I.’s Mike Duffy, the Senate remains a potentially important institution for Prince Edward Island, indeed for the entire East Coast.

It was created to help represent the country’s regions and ensure the nation is governed for the benefit of all Canadians, not just the areas with the might of money and political clout.

Because of the population growth in the country, and the expansion in the number of MPs to mirror that growth, Atlantic Canada is rapidly losing influence in the House of Commons.

As of now the good news is P.E.I. has more clout in the Senate.

P.E.I.’s four senators represent 3.8 per cent of the total 105 members, whereas our four MPs represent just 1.3 per cent of the number of 308 MPs. And the MP percentage is only going to get smaller in the future.

So as unpopular as the Senate may be — the NDP wants it abolished, the Conservatives want it reformed, the Liberals want it more effective and the public doesn’t care — it could play an important role in helping represent P.E.I. in the future. Any mechanism that gives this province more influence shouldn’t be thrown out on a whim or out of spite because some of its players are behaving badly.

The downside is the Senate is seen as an ineffective and expensive appendage to our democratic system.

Trudeau’s surprise move to boot the Liberal senators out of the Liberal national caucus and deem them independents is certainly a daring one. He says he wants to reduce partisanship and restore the Senate’s intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.

Trudeau said if he is elected he would only appoint independent senators after employing an open, transparent process, with public input, for nominating worthy candidates — much the way recipients of the Order of Canada are chosen.

The Liberal leader’s surprise announcement caught everyone off guard and is open to both praise and criticism.

His opponents say he did it to avoid having his party tainted by potential upcoming senator audits? Others criticism him for blindsiding and not better consulting the Liberal senators.

Still others question how democratic his future appointed senators would be since they would be both unelected and appointed by a non-elected body of people.

All the critiques are valid but, if nothing else, Trudeau deserves some credit for focussing national attention on an important issue. Whether his idea is a pipe dream and flighty or it proves to be a positive step forward, remains to be seen. And, of course, before Trudeau gets an opportunity to usher in his new era of kinder, less partisan senators, he and his party must win power.

The ideal way forward for Senate reform is some form of multi-party agreement on making progressive changes. Of course, the idea of waiting around for that to happen may be what caused Trudeau to show his hand and float his idea.

Gary MacDougall is managing editor of The Guardian. He can be reached by telephone at (902) 629-6039; by email at gmacdougall@theguardian.pe.ca; or on Twitter @GaryGuardian.

Organizations: Canadian Senate, House of Commons, NDP Conservatives The Guardian

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Atlantic Canada, Ottawa East Coast

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