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Trudeau’s next smart moves on Senate reform should include House and elections reform

This op-ed by Democracy Watch Board member Duff Conacher was published on February 17, 2014 by and on February 20, 2014 by

Justin Trudeau’s recent smart initiative to reform the Senate came with vague promises of future changes.  The promises were almost obscured by his first move of kicking Liberal senators out of the party’s caucus and prohibiting them from being “organizers, fundraisers or activists in any form” for the Liberal Party.

Should he have consulted widely before making this move?  Of course — it is always best to make democratic reforms using democratic processes.  But my guess is Trudeau was hoping some senators would protest the sudden loss of their “entitlements” as that would highlight how necessary it was to take away the privileges senators have abused since the country was created.

And if he had consulted with the senators he would have given them legitimacy that they simply don’t have given their patronage jobs and roles as party “bagmen” fundraisers as well as inside government lobbyists for the big businesses many of them serve as board directors.

In addition, he turned the tables on the NDP by stealing their proposal from last fall to make senators non-partisan and prohibit them from campaigning, and on the Conservatives by changing the Senate more in one day than they have in eight years.  As well, he distanced himself a bit from any senators found guilty in the next year by the Auditor General of violating Senate spending rules.

Still, Trudeau’s promises of future Senate reform are far more important than kicking out the senators as they will still be Liberals, and they will still attend meetings of party members and make donations and be members of party riding associations.

If Trudeau wants to avoid allowing obvious, pointed questions to fester and undermine the momentum he has captured on Senate reform, he should now do four things to clarify the decidedly vague promises he has made to establish a new appointment process, and to make at least some of the other Senate changes that the Supreme Court of Canada rules Parliament can do alone.

First, Trudeau should clarify what he meant when he said that, if the Liberals win the next election, he “will put in place an open, transparent and non-partisan appointment process for Senators.”

He should expand that promise and commit to establishing the independent Public Appointments Commission that the Conservatives promised in the 2006 election to conduct merit-based, public searches for all Cabinet appointments, not just Senate appointments.  That would neutralize criticism by the Conservatives.

He should also make it clear that at least a majority of federal party leaders with MPs in the House (or all of them) will be empowered to approve the members of the Commission to ensure it is fully non-partisan and independent.  As well, he should clarify that the Commission will come up with a short list of nominees for every appointed position but that he and Cabinet will retain the power to choose from the short list.  That would neutralize almost all the other criticisms of his promise.

And if he sets out these details now, Trudeau will be able to say that he is establishing an appointment system that matches best-practice international standards for restricting partisanship, patronage and cronyism.

Secondly, Trudeau should acknowledge that while he may believe that Canadians have no desire to re-open the Constitution, surveys show that a majority of voters want some changes.  True, most of the changes voters want are to unwritten constitutional conventions – a February 2013 survey found (55%) want a democratically chosen head of state, and a December 2012 survey found that 84% want restrictions on key powers of the Prime Minister and provincial premiers with clear written rules that can be enforced.

However, some of the changes voters want very likely require changes to the written Constitution – for example recent survey showed that more than 70% of Canadians want the Senate reformed or abolished, and that a majority support changes so that Quebec will ratify Canada’s Constitution as the federal government and other provinces did in 1982.

Thirdly, given the above survey results about the Senate, Trudeau should retract the statement he made in his interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that it is “irresponsible” to propose abolishing the Senate.  Not only is abolition supported by as many voters as reform is, there are also many good reasons for it.

The Senate is unelected, unaccountable, unrepresentative, secretive, unethical, undemocratic and redundant.  Most senators have their jobs only because they did favours for a Prime Minister or ruling party, and they have it (with the public paying their salary) until age 75 even if they do little or nothing.

Yes Senate committees do some good studies, and a few senators are good advocates on various issues, but they almost always simply echo reports produced by privately funded think-tanks or NGOs, or by political parties, House Committees, the Library of Parliament etc.  If the Senate is abolished, those few good senators can continue their advocacy by joining one of those other organizations.

Democratizing the Senate also causes all sorts of difficult problems, most importantly how will disputes with the House be resolved without the gridlock so common in the U.S. Congress.  If it is abolished, everything people want from the Senate could be done by MPs if the House of Commons is reformed to add more seats from the regions (so that a majority can’t be won with seats only from Ontario and Quebec), to free and empower MPs, and to empower opposition parties.

As well, even if elections or a new Senate appointment system was implemented tomorrow it would take 10 years before a majority of senators would be selected through the system (some may retire early, but 31 senators are required to retire by the end of 2019, and 31 more between 2020 and the end of 2024).  The pace of required retirements slows after 2024 to a few each year on average, and as a result it will take until the end of 2049 before all the current senators will be gone.

In addition, the Supreme Court of Canada will very likely rule this year that changing the selection process for senators in any significant way can only be done by amending the written Constitution.  As a result, reforms that make the Senate fully democratic will likely be just as difficult, and take just as long, as abolishing the Senate.

So overall, shutting down the Senate is the easiest, least costly, and best solution – much better than continuing to try reforms for decades more that have all failed in the past 147 years.

As a result, while he has made one quick strategically smart change to the Senate (without consulting broadly), and committed to changing the Senate appointments process if he becomes Prime Minister (a change he should clarify very soon), Trudeau should keep an open mind on future Senate reforms, and an open mind on related House of Commons and elections reforms.

That House reform process has already begun.  Trudeau himself made promises during his leadership campaign to act differently as a political leader, and Conservative MP Michael Chong has put the pressure on with his bill proposing to empower MPs and restrict the powers of party leaders.

So the fourth and final smart thing Trudeau should do now is begin to develop proposals to change the rules not only for all political leaders and politicians, but also for all parties and the voters who support them.

After all, of the total population of about 34 million Canadians, about nine million are age 15-34 (not old enough to vote in the 1990s referendums) and another five million have immigrated to Canada in the past 20 years.  As a result, about 14 million Canadians (41% of the total population) have never been asked by the federal government what they think of Canada’s Constitution or Senate or House of Commons, or elections.

Trudeau would be smart to ask them, and all Canadians, what they want before making his final decisions about further reforms vs. abolishing the Senate, and about reforming the House of Commons and elections and other related parts of Canada’s Constitution.  And he should follow their lead to make it clear he is committed to fully democratic reforms, not just his own ideas.

Duff Conacher is a founding director of Democracy Watch, Canada’s leading democratic reform organization

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