Audacious move by Liberal leader creates commotion

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Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau flies trial balloon to save Senate or his own future?

Justin Trudeau: newly minted statesman or lightweight political opportunist? Either way, the federal Liberal leader has people talking and assessing his bombshell Senate strategy announced Wednesday.

Mr. Trudeau has told his 32 Liberal Senate caucus colleagues they are now political independents and absolved from taking orders from him. They are free to act in the best interests of Canada where loyalty to country takes precedence over loyalty to party or its leader.

It caught the Conservatives and NDP flatfooted. They were not interested if the idea has any merit and what it might do in to move forward the debate on Senate reform. Prime Minister Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, probably like most Canadians, really don’t know themselves at this point.

The 32 Liberal senators who walked out of caucus in a slightly bewildered state were trying to analyze themselves what it meant.

Mr. Trudeau keeps saying he wants to bring a new consultative approach to politics, but failed with his former caucus members. There was no discussion, no exit strategy, no opportunity for the Liberal senators to discuss among themselves the implications of the measure or the best way to proceed. Without a script, the 32 senators provided 32 different answers to a barrage of media questions.

Mr. Trudeau’s plan can potentially reform the Senate without amending the Constitution and save the country a lot of grief and political turmoil. Can this brave new Senate get the job done? The 32 senators say they still consider themselves Liberals, the speaker of the Senate has ruled them Liberals and are still the official Opposition. So what has really changed?

Mr. Trudeau has been accused of trying to distance himself from his Senate colleagues, fearing  the auditor general will soon bring down a report indicting some of them with infractions equal to those of punted Conservative senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. The public reaction, if that happens, will be intense. We will fume at the hypocrisy of those senators who sat in judgment and voted those three guilty.

Or is Mr. Trudeau trying to distance himself from old guard Liberals who carry the stain of the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery commission, patronage and heavy baggage from Chretien and Martin governments? He wants to be seen as a fresh new leader for a new generation and not connected to Senate Liberal warhorses.

We believe the Senate can fulfil a valued function in the Canadian political process, and the chamber of sober second thought provides a safety buffer for a small province like P.E.I. which is guaranteed four senators by the Constitution. That is turn guarantees us four MPs.

Having an independent Senate is a good idea but care should be taken to ensure it remains accountable to the people. Mr. Trudeau’s suggestion that future senators be appointed by a non-partisan, non-political process is going too far. That would mean we would see non-elected senators appointed by a non-elected group. Mr. Harper’s idea of an elected Senate requires constitutional change where consensus is almost impossible. His government ran out of ideas to break the impasse so it referred the Senate question to the Supreme Court for guidance.

If Senate elections are out, it would make more sense if provincial legislatures provide the names of suitable Senate candidates and the prime minister should agree to accept those recommendations.

P.E.I. Senator Catherine Callbeck retires this summer. Perhaps we can be a test case. Let the provincial legislature select a list of three acceptable candidates for the vacant Island Senate seat and then let the PM make the final selection.

Organizations: Conservatives, Gomery commission, Supreme Court Island Senate

Geographic location: Canada

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