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Major Announcement: Ending partisanship and patronage in the Senate

Posted by Justin Trudeau on January 29, 2014 | No Comments

justin-trudeauCheck against delivery

Good morning.

Canadians want their leaders to be open and straight with them, to tell them the truth. They expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly.

The Senate has become one of those problems. That, I have heard clearly from Canadians. The Senate is broken, and needs to be fixed.

At the same time, Canadians do not want to re-open the Constitution. They don’t want a long, rancorous, and likely pointless debate with the provinces that would distract us from focusing on more important problems.

They want leaders who’ll help build an economy that works for all of us, in which everyone has a real and fair chance to succeed. They want us focused on their jobs, their pensions, and a good future for their kids.

So today, I propose an immediate remedy that will not only quell many of the distractions that the current senate is causing, but actually improve its capacity to serve all Canadians.

You see, the Senate is suffering from two central problems: partisanship and patronage.

Let us begin with partisanship.

The Senate was once referred to as a place of sober, second thought. A place that allows for reflective deliberation on legislation, in-depth studies into issues of import to the country, and, to a certain extent, provide a check and balance on the politically-driven House of Commons.

It has become obvious that the party structure within the Senate interferes with these responsibilities.

Instead of being separate from political, or electoral concerns, Senators now must consider not just what’s best for their country, or their regions, but what’s best for their party.

At best, this renders the Senate redundant. At worst — and under Mr Harper we have seen it at its worst — it amplifies the Prime Minister’s power.

That is why I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan. Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.

And since I believe that real leadership is not just about making campaign promises, I’m taking immediate action, today.

As of this morning, only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team.

Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.

Further, I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.

And by ending partisanship now, we can also end patronage, going forward.

The Senate of Canada is a public institution. It should not be run like the Prime Minister’s private club.

Here’s what I’m going to do about it.

I’m committing today that, if I earn the privilege of serving Canadians as their Prime Minister, I will put in place an open, transparent, non-partisan public process for appointing and confirming Senators.

No more closed doors. No more secretive deliberations. No more announcements the week before Christmas, under the cover of darkness.

We are all poorly served by the way in which Senators are appointed. Canadians especially, yes, but also Members of the House of Commons, even Senators themselves are discredited by the antiquated convention that sees Senators appointed by one person, and one person only.

Eight years ago, Mr Harper railed against this convention as Leader of the Opposition, and committed to change it.

As we know all too well: he didn’t. In fact, he embraced this archaic process.

As Prime Minister, he has made 59 appointments, despite his promise to appoint zero. In fact, Mr Harper is the only Prime Minister in our country’s 147 year history to appoint the same two people to the Senate twice.

All of these people share one characteristic. The Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister alone, judged them to be useful to himself, and to his party. Mike Duffy, Pam Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Irving Gerstein are particularly egregious examples of where that leads.

It shows that Mr Harper and the Conservatives have been in power so long that they can no longer tell the difference between their party’s interest, and the public interest.

That’s poor judgment. More than that, it’s just plain wrong.

That is why I call upon the Prime Minister to publicly commit, as I have today, to be guided in all future Senate appointments by an open, transparent, non-partisan process, and once appointed, have senators sit independent from the political parties that serve in the House of Commons.

And in so doing, we will remove partisanship and patronage from the Senate, reforming it and improving it in a deep and meaningful way, without ever having to touch the Constitution of Canada.

Which brings me to my final point.

As an unelected body, there are — and ought to be — limits on the Senate’s power. These limits have expanded over time and have become conventions. These proposals are in keeping with that direction.

As you all know, the Supreme Court of Canada will rule sometime soon on the exact limits of the House of Commons power as it relates to Senate Reform. Let me be clear on this point: these proposals, while bold and concrete, are not the final word. They represent our judgment of how far we can go in the absence of guidance from the Supreme Court.

In other words, I believe this is the most meaningful action possible without opening up the Constitution. If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more.

In closing, let me say that there has been a lot of loose rhetoric from the other parties about Senate Reform.

Mr Harper would still have you believe that he is a reformer at heart, despite 8 years of hard evidence to the contrary. Canadians elected his party to bring change to this place. Instead, they got a more virulent version of the status quo: a hyper-political, hyper-partisan Senate that is, more than ever, the Prime Minister’s private plaything.

As for Mr Mulcair, his promise to abolish the Senate, as if he had a magic wand, is either deliberately and cynically misleading, or empty and foolish. He knows, or ought to know, that his promise would require the most significant amendment to the Constitution since the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr Mulcair may want to spend the next decade arguing about the Constitution. I prefer to spend it helping Canadians solve their problems.

At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers. When public institutions fail to serve the public interest, we take bold steps to change them.

We want to build public institutions that Canadians can trust, and that serve Canadians. This requires real, positive change. These proposals are the next step in our Open Parliament plan to do just that.

They won’t be the last.

Thank you.

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  1. Avatar of Dale Walde Dale Walde said on

    Excellent! This is precisely the approach we need to begin reforming and reorganizing the Senate. And a superb display of decisive, effective leadership.

  2. Avatar of Cynthia Lagueux Cynthia Lagueux said on

    All right Justin! Thank you for finally taking decisive action to back up your words. I know this is difficult in the parties’ position these days, but you found a way with this important move. I do not believe the Senate should be abolished, but is in desperate need of reformation as you state. I look forward to seeing more of these types of decisions so all Canadians will see the type of Prime Minister you can be.

  3. Avatar of christopher-jackson-2 said on

    Justin, this is a brilliant move – and one that is very badly needed. Way to go!

  4. Avatar of Marcelle Marion Marcelle Marion said on

    Fantastic move Trudeau. Far from distancing yourself from your father or previous Liberal PMs who did make non partisan appointments more often than not, this announcement is a big step closer to what the core purpose the Senate was created for at Conderation. Fundamental to the Senate as an institution is to remove its ties to political manipulation and creating divied loyalties. Prime Minister Harper used the Senate as an extension of his brand and treated Conservative Senators as quasi elected MPs.It is disingenous for him and Mnning to propose they be elected or God forbid abolished. Unfortunately by Harper shackling his Senators in this way, Senators were no longer free to be a body of sober reflection on legislation and safeguarding minority rights or the public interest. More than any other Prime Minister in Canada, Harper tried to normalize in the Senate, an instrument that only elected officials should hold. By espousing Senate abolition, PMs would increase the concentration of power to the PMO. An independent Senate as now advanced by Trudeau is restoring the institution to its purpose sans political abuse by the governing government. That is Canadian and that is what the Senate needs. Thanks Justin for taing this on.

  5. Avatar of said on

    Thank you for taking this first step in reforming the senate of Canada. I hope you will understand that the purpose of the senate is not being met in its present form. while abolishing the senate is an option many people I have spoken with consider prudent and just, this is not the only option. to restore faith in the senate senators need to be elected to the senate. this will reduce the cost of maintaining the senate if each province and territory had the same number of senators and the savings could go towards our debt or programs to help Canadians secure a better life.

  6. Avatar of Jeff Bishop Jeff Bishop said on

    Well done Justin. So far, all the responses have been feeble-minded or have missed the point. As others have said, great move!

    I agree with comments above about other solutions. How about Senate renewal, turning it into an instrument of importance and utility?

  7. Avatar of Mary Hopkins Mary Hopkins said on

    Yes! Good move! Senators should be independent.

    Now do something for Veterans? I believe that hidden in one of the Omnibus Budgets there was a Bill to change pay and benefits for Veterans families when the Veteran dies. It has always been that benefits are paid until the end of the month in which the Veteran dies. Now, in the news, the husband of a Veteran who died in December had to repay the benefits. Is this how the Finance Minister thinks this will help balance the budget in 2015? What a sad, sad time for Canada.

  8. Avatar of Brad Carroll Brad Carroll said on

    What is this “official opposition in the Senate” all about? If there is no party identification, there is no need for an official opposition. Can someone please tell the Senators this so they can work out how work as true independents. working for their regions?

  9. Avatar of Dawna Knowles Dawna Knowles said on

    I have joined in support of the National Liberal Party. I only have one constructive comment to make to Justin Trudeau regarding his speaking habit of using “uh…” too frequently. The most recent example was on CBC The National interview with Peter Mansbridge regarding his Senate proposal on Jan.29. Excellent otherwise!

  10. Avatar of David Fisher David Fisher said on

    The action on senators is probably a good move for democracy. That assumes that the pros and cons were carefully considered (which I have not done). My issue is with the process. As reported in the media (did they get it right?) it seems that Mr Trudeau dreamed up this “expulsion” on his own and dropped the decision on the senators with no warning. I expect that from Stephen Harper. But should we expect a Liberal government to also use this decision-making process? Will a Liberal PM decide yes or no on troop deployment, Northern Gateway, tax changes, etc without careful consultation?
    The right decision. Actions speak louder than words. But I see a communication failure. By not explaining the decision process, the media and the voters are left wondering how important decisions will be made.

  11. Avatar of David Fisher David Fisher said on

    Is Mr Mulcair correct when he says that Mr Trudeau acted contrary to the LPC’s constitution? Section 57 says senators are in the Caucus; Section 59(3) may relax this requirement, depending on how you interpret it. Either way, the announcement process handed Mr Mulcair an opportunity to shift the focus.

  12. Avatar of Akifa Habibulla Akifa Habibulla said on

    I think well done Justin, all responses are good with great move. In my opinion, renewal of senate would be a wonderful idea.

  13. Avatar of Peter Skipper Peter Skipper said on

    I have heard Justin’s initiative to be called naive or a mirage by various editorials. I think it warrants far higher praise than that. In the short term, these words may have some weight as people don’t change just because you told them to and Senate culture will not shift quickly. As recent polls show there is significant support for Trudeau’s initiative, it may have more legs over the longer term. Not being in caucus is more than symbolic or just technical change. It signifies a shift in how the Senate culture could be. It has potential.

    The NDP and Tory positions for abolition or an elected Senate are more of a mirage. I suspect the Supreme Court eventual ruling on this issue will provide clarity on this point. Most experts are of the view that substantial constitutional tinkering is not in the cards. Canadians do not want to go there if it renews the old federalist wars and expense. We have other priorities now as Justin has said. Re-culturing the Senate back to its sober second thought and geographic representation founding principles has more potential in Justin’s enterprise with some tweaks regarding Senate term limits and so on that may be easier to implement and be better received by the provinces.

    I personally favor Order of Canada members, provincial municipal associations, provincial Aboriginal associations, and provincial legislatures either voting for or appointing members of merit to be placed as candidates for selection to the Senate through some combination or permutation. The Prime Minister or a delegated body advising him would then select or recommend from these lists. Certainly municipalities which now contain most of Canada’s population and Aboriginals did not receive due consideration almost 150 years ago. Times change and we need to adjust to meet our growth and needs. These regional interests should be present in the Senate to consider House of Commons legislation through legitimate regional lenses and obviously introduce their own Senate bills based upon Senate priorities. They would bring important perspectives that MP’s do not necessarily have in representing electors in their ridings. They would not be owing to any political party as government or opposition. Certainly, allegiances over issues may come and go but no one whips their votes to match House of Commons or PMO thinking…then you have sober second thought. This would better represent the original founding intent of the Senate.

    Anyone who thinks an elected senate is a good idea needs to look no further than the U.S. model. Abolition may work in overcoming Senate problems but politically and constitutionally it likely would prove too difficult to do. Justin’s bold move seeks middle ground….a progressive Canadian Liberal tradition….to get the Senate reform job done.

  14. Avatar of C. Stuart C. Stuart said on

    It’s a very good start, but I’m afraid that I was disappointed to hear that the senators, many of whom have loyally served the Liberal party for many years, were not consulted ahead of time on this change. I don’t know if this was Justin’s idea or a strategist’s, but as a manager for over 25 years before retiring, I am concerned that this could cast a potential shadow over Justin’s leadership style. Perhaps there were concerns about a possible leak before the plan was announced or some other reason, but the net effect is, in my view, not a positive one because it implies that the “team” isn’t truly “all inclusive”. Just my thought on this aspect of the issue.

  15. Avatar of Peter Skipper Peter Skipper said on

    Further to my points above, fellow LPC members, we have support from interesting quarters…which to me means a broad spectrum of support…given the polls that past NDP voters like Justin’s initiative. Now a western think tank and Conrad Black are publicly acknowledging its promise. See links:

  16. Avatar of Audrey Goodman Audrey Goodman said on

    I think this was a good idea and he seems to have support coming from many directions .
    Justin should talk to the Senators and make his position totally clear to them as some of them seem a bit confused as to their role. I think Senators should be appointed similar to The Order of Canada appointments, and must be well educated and already hold some
    prominence in Canada.


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