Friday, January 31, 2014

Senators are already independent (At least they are supposed to be)

So Mr. Trudeau's words and actions to assert what is already supposed to be a reality is remarkable.

When I read my copy of the Canadian Constitution it is plain to see that the Senate of Canada is an independent Chamber of the Canadian Parliament.  It is not an extension of the House of Commons.  It does not answer to the House of Commons and it certainly does not answer to the government of the day.  It has its own rules and conventions.  The House of Commons cannot interfere with how the Senate is run and vice versa.

Of course almost a century of Parliamentary Convention has blurred those lines somewhat as successive Prime Ministers have used the Chamber as a place to reward loyal foot soldiers for their respective political parties who in turn looked out for the interests of those political parties while sitting in the Red Chamber.  As well, the Parliamentary Caucuses for the Conservatives and Liberals have included the Senators of the day and in several cases Senators have been appointed to substantive Cabinet Posts.  However, despite that the fundamental relationship between the two Chamber has not changed and Senators are still independent of their colleagues in the House.

Of course with the Conservative government those lines seems to have been blurred some more.

What really struck me about the Senate Expense Scandal was the level of involvement of the PMO in it.  If the available documentation is to be believed the PMO was actually involved with the minutiae of a Senator's expense claims and the audit called to investigate them.  As well, the PMOs fingerprints were all over the efforts to suspend Senators Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin.  It is remarkable that senior aides to the Prime Minister immersed themselves so deeply into the details of this whole affair.

As well, I was surprised that the Conservative leadership of the Senate allowed this to happen.  Why they did not politely but firmly tell the PMO staff to get bent the first time they attempted to interfere with Senate business is beyond me.  Incidentally, if they had done so Mr. Wright might still have a job in the PMO and Mr. Harper might not have had such a gruesome 2013 and probably an equally gruesome 2014.

As for the announcement itself the spin has been interesting.

Claims that it has been done because of an AG Report is deeply cynical because they assume that Canadians are idiots.  This report is probably going to be bloody for both the Liberals and the Conservatives and Canadians are not going to forget that just a short time ago many of these Liberal Senators were members of the Liberal Caucus.  This action will not insulate the Liberals from any political fallout of that report.

Then there is the claim that Mr. Trudeau's actions did not change anything.  The obvious response to that is of course it did not change anything.  In order to actually change the Senate a constitutional amendment would be needed and leaving aside the lack of appetite for such actions the last time I looked the Leader of the Third Party cannot initiate actions to bring about that amendment.  He is just doing what is in his power to do, which is not really that much in the grand scheme of things.

Related to that is the accusation that former Liberal Senators are still Senators that are Liberals and that they are still forming a Liberal Caucus.  Of course they are.  They were appointed as Liberals and they are members of the Liberal Party.  Cutting ties with the Commons Liberal Caucus will not change that.  As well, Senators are allowed to form any kinds of groups they want.  If the wanted they could form all sorts of Caucuses.  A Maritimes Caucus, a Western Caucus, a women's Caucus, whatever.  Now Parliament has two Liberal Caucuses independent of each other.  One in the House the other in the Senate.  Big deal.

Then there is the claim that Mr. Trudeau's plan to change how to select Senators will lead to gridlock.  This claim is usually made by the same people who claim that Mr. Trudeau did not really change anything.  Which just goes to show that in politics you can suck and blow at the same time.  As stated earlier the fundamental relationship between the two Chambers has not changed and that means unelected Senators will not break with Parliamentary convention and defy the will of the elected House of Commons.  They will do their job but in the end they will approve Commons bills.  A new way of appointing unelected Senators will not change that.

Mr. Trudeau's actions are only extraordinary in the fact that he felt compelled to do them. 


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