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The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - John Capobianco, Joe Cressy and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.

In The ONW Salon today, Justin Trudeau recently expelled 32 Liberal Senators from the party's parliamentary caucus. He's proposing any future Senators be appointed by an independent group of Canadian citizens rather than the Prime Minister. The Salon welcomes former CPC candidate John Capobianco as the voice from the right.

Joe Cressy:

On the heels of the recent scandals involving Liberal and Conservative Senators, Justin Trudeau was clearly in a tight corner as a result his ongoing support for the increasingly unpopular and toxic institution.

And, with rumours of more senate scandals and bad news from the Auditor General coming down the pipeline, it seems he decided the best course of action was a 'bold' act of Senate window dressing.

Listen, it was a stunt and we shouldn't be fooled. Trudeau’s announcement turned 32 Liberal Senators into 32 Senate Liberals, who now get to sleep-in on Wednesday caucus mornings.

The central problem with Trudeau's move is this: he's trying to legitimize an illegitimate institution.

It won't work. The Senate is and remains fundamentally undemocratic and unaccountable institution.

Richard Mahoney


On Joe's comments, I am reminded of that famous British expression: "he would say that, wouldn't he?"   Both Conservatives and New Democrats have been scrambling to try to discredit Justin Trudeau's move, but without success.

The situation is this: the Conservative Government has talked about Senate reform, but Mr. Harper has made more partisan appointments than any PM in recent history. His appointments have faced scandal and criminal investigation. The attempted cover-up of the scandal has gone right to the Prime Minister himself.

So while both the NDP and the Conservatives have talked about Senate reform, Justin Trudeau has actually done something significant. He removed all Senators from the Liberal caucus, and proposed a sensible, achievable method of appointment. Not bad for someone who is not even in government.


John Capobianco:


We didn't have to scramble to discredit Justin's Senate move, the media have done a pretty good job of that. However, I will give Justin credit for at least making a policy statement, given that the last one on legalizing marijuana didn't play so well.

The decision, albeit bold, is politically smart for the short-term but has significant challenges in the long-term, especially his idea of having non-elected folks appointing non-elected folks.

It's easy for the NDP to trash this idea since they don't have any Senators and likely will never be in a position to appoint Senators.

To Joe's point, though, the Liberals were put in a corner on this and had to react - many wish that they would have had the policy fortitude to support the Conservatives (and NDP's) push to reform the Senate when it was being debated years ago.

Joe Cressy:

I’m afraid that no amount of window dressing will change the facts about the Senate. Let’s get into them.

The Senate is undemocratic. Senators are not elected and Trudeau’s proposed reforms won’t change this. Under Trudeau’s proposals, Senators would still be appointed, only this time (as John noted) they wouldn't even be appointed by elected officials.

The Senate is unaccountable. Trudeau’s proposals won’t make it more accountable to the people of Canada. And they certainly won’t end the culture of entitlement where senators like Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb, Mike Duffy and too many others have abused their position for personal gain.

The Senate is a colossal waste of money. The Senate costs Canadians $92 million a year. Money that easily could be spent on things Canadians actually need like healthcare or infrastructure investments, as opposed to a body for ‘sober second thought’ and committee work. It’s not worth it and Trudeau’s proposals won’t change the basic outdated functions of the Senate.

Given the facts, it’s no wonder more and more Canadians are questioning why we even have a Senate. Count me among them. It’s time to abolish it.

Richard Mahoney:


The country has been talking about electing Senators forever. Mr. Harper has had 8 years to do it, and has not. In fact, he has appointed the very people who were the subjects of scandal.

Justin Trudeau isn't saying never elect a Senator. But what he is saying is: let's change this now. He has already made a significant change, by removing Senators from the Liberal caucus. They are free to vote as they wish.

That move in and of itself allows Senators the independence to provide the kind of "sober second thought" that the place is supposed to provide.

If Mr. Harper were even remotely serious about reform, he would do the same thing tomorrow. Instead his partisanship and pride apparently prevent him from doing so.

No one in Canada wants a round of constitutional negotiations on this. Chances are almost certain that they would fail. So instead of using that as an excuse, Justin Trudeau has made the biggest step yet in reforming the Senate, and he has done so while in Opposition.


John Capobianco:


It isn't the Prime Minister's "partisanship and pride" that prevents him from supporting Justin's Senate move; it is just bad policy that prevents him from doing so. I have always believed in the Senate and believed that it should be a chamber of sober second thought, but that concept has gone horribly wrong and the Senate needs reform - not abolishment.

Electing Senators can and should work and it was this Prime Minister who encouraged provinces to elected Senators, and those elected Senators would be appointed, as was the case for Alberta.

All this is fraught with the prospect of constitutional change and no one will want to go down that road.  That is why the Prime Minister is seeking guidance from the Supreme Court on how best to handle the changes that need to be done to make the Senate work.


Joe Cressy:


Separate from the scandals, perhaps some specific and concrete recent examples of the Senate’s (in)actions will help demonstrate the ‘sober second thought’.

First, in the lead-up to the 2011 election the unelected Senate was used to stop two pieces of legislation that had both been PASSED by a coalition of MPs from different parties in the elected House of Commons. First, in a truly undemocratic manner, the Senate over-ruled the Climate Change Accountability Act – a forward-thinking piece of legislation that attached targets and timelines to reducing carbon emissions.

Secondly, in the lead-up to the 2011 Federal election the Senate delayed the passage of the Canadian Access to Medical Regimes (CAMR) bill to the point that the 2011 election killed it. Had it passed, CAMR would have brought much needed access to emergency drugs for developing countries, in particular HIV and AIDS medication in Africa.

These are but two of many examples that show why the Senate has got to go.

It is time to finally abolish the Senate. And for those who say that this is simply too hard, too complicated, and too dangerous, I’ll simply quote an old saying: “those who say it can’t be done, should get out of the way of those doing it."


Richard Mahoney:

John, the Prime Minister can still try to reform the Senate. That will take years and history suggests it won't happen. Meanwhile he continues to appoint the Duffys, Brazeaus, Wallins and so on. We don't have to wait for progress, as Mr. Trudeau has demonstrated.

It's not democratic and it's not right that Prime Ministers appoint people to the Senate and then direct them how to vote. That is what Mr. Harper does, and we all saw him do it in his speech to your Calgary convention.

Joe also points to some good examples. Tomorrow, he could take one step and remove his control over the Conservative senators.

The Prime Minister has appointed 57 Senators so far. He isn't just part of the problem. He is the problem, and the same could be said for any future Prime Minister in his position.

Why not at least start on reform? Why not do as Mr. Trudeau has done, and remove his ability to direct these appointees? It would go a long way to restoring some faith in a broken system.

Mr. Trudeau has done something smart. In one move, he has done more to reform the Senate than anyone. It's up to Mr. Harper to take the next step.


John Capobianco:


Joe, I hear you about the shenanigans that have gone on in the Senate over the years - it goes on in the House as well unfortunately, but at least the MP's are accountable to the voters back home. If Senators were elected, it would be different since having to go back to their ridings and explain themselves makes for better behaviour - at least sometimes!

It is time for all of us to engage in sober second thought concerning Senate reform - it is an institution that can and should have a purpose.

Richard, what Justin did by kicking the Liberal Senators from caucus has no real effect outside of the Hill where it matters. In fact, the same day he booted them out, the Liberal Senators themselves basically formed their own 'Liberal caucus' with the same leader! That is not change - it is, as Joe says, window-dressing.

I do hope we can have a real debate and fix the Senate. It would benefit all of us.




About The Salon

John Capobianco is a former CPC candidate and long-time party activist in both the federal and Ontario Conservative parties; Richard Mahoney is a former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin; Joe Cressy sits as on the NDP federal council and has chaired numerous NDP campaigns at all government levels.
Posted date : February 05, 2014

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