Thursday, January 30, 2014

Trudeau's Risky Gamble

A Red Chamber without any reds

Its been a month since I last wrote on this blog, and if there are any regular readers out there that missed my often wonderful and whimsical writings (I hope they exist, anyways), I apologize for that. Its been something of a hectic month personally, and the lack of interesting polling for the various federal and provincial races, the House being on break until this week, and a general malaise that set in as I freeze daily has just kept me from writing.

That was until yesterday. Since I work overnight Wednesdays, I only found out about Trudeau’s surprisingly brilliant/catastrophically bad move (depending on your point of view) at 8PM, which quite quickly woke me up. Alarm clocks are ineffective, just tell me that we’ve lost half of our federal caucus in one quick stroke and I’ll definitely be awake.

I’ve pretty much had all night to think about this, but the fact is that from the outset I liked the idea. I have been a constant supporter of reform for the Senate in some capacity, because the status quo simply isn’t working. Its too partisan, its too illegitimate in the eyes of Canadians, and its just too damn easy to abuse, as our current Prime Minister has demonstrated.

While elections and selection committees and all that are great ideas, in the back of my mind I always wondered why the hell there even was partisan affiliation in the chamber of supposed “sober second thought.” I mean, with an appellation like that you would expect the Senate to be full of independent men and women without a care for the partisan squabbles of the House – doctors, generals, intellectuals, even long-serving politicians who aren’t interested in the House any more and wish to contribute another way. People that are not tied to the whims of party leaders and machinations of backroom operatives. How could you have sober second thought otherwise?

That is generally why I found the past Liberal ideas on reform – the idea of independent selection committees which can “call up” people and ask them to serve in this new capacity, or something like that – really good, but only if we could get rid of the partisan affiliation as well. Obviously, I was not alone in this thought.

Let us call Trudeau’s move for what it is – ballsy. To get rid of your entire Senate caucus is a risky gamble for us. It means we’ve become a true “third party” in Parliament, where we no longer serve as the Official Opposition in either house., We’ve lost influence, research capacity, and simply put, we've lost a boatload of money. It also means that if the NDP or Conservatives ever need to use our Senate caucus for their own machinations, they don’t really have to talk to the Liberals, they’ll just talk to the independent members of the Senate. In a way, one of our arms was just cut off and can now be used by the other parties to extend their reach.

The other major concern is whether or not the Conservatives would follow through. I don’t think Harper would, and I’m not convinced you’d see some mass exodus of Conservative senators seeking to join with the independents, or even a trickle. Hell, it seems like many of the former Liberal senators can barely stand the idea of being independents.

There is no real way to walk this back, either. If this becomes an awful decision, we could probably ask still-loyal-Liberal senators to rejoin the caucus, but there’s no guarantee they would, and we’d be mocked off the national stage. There are just so many risks involved, and while I know Justin, his advisors, and the others involved in this decision did plan it out, they have to know it could crumble quickly.

And while I know I will sound critical for saying this, I am slightly worried this decision was made for short-term, rather than long-term, reasons. This Senate audit issue seems more than just a bit plausible, and this is an obvious easy out for the Liberals. But there is also the fact that by doing this, Justin and the Liberals clearly hope to stoke the Senate issue and put pressure on Harper, and take the wind out of Mulcair’s sails some. However, there is no guarantee that the Senate will remain at the forefront, or if Canadians will even remember this down the line – they didn’t seem interested in the issues with the Senate before the expenses scandal, who is to say that a year and a bit from now they won’t go back to disinterested tolerance of the Senate? Did we really just gamble almost half of our caucus on that assumption!?

But of course, this move could pay dividends, which is what I expect everyone is betting on. Justin has shown he’s serious about doing right by the Senate, much more than Harper, who keeps talking but clearly no one is listening. Justin also provided an answer that also makes sense to the people he has to sell it to, unlike Mulcair’s unconstitutional ramblings that may have a lot of persuasiveness to the “pox on all ye houses” kind of people, but zero weight behind them.

Most importantly, in my view, it turns the Liberal’s losing position on the Senate argument – we’re generally for the “status quo” – into a winner. The Conservatives want populism and demagougery, the NDP just don’t want it, but the Liberals? We want to make it better. We want to utilizie it so it can be benificial to Canada, and not simply to a political party’s agenda.

Its flashy, but its measurable. Its a compromise, but its understandable. Its reform, but its not an upheaval. Its everything a mushy liberal like myself could ask for.

Its also the gamble of a political lifetime. Here's to it paying off.

While you wait for our political rise/doom, here's a hilarious take on this from Graeme MacKay for today's Hamilton Spectator.


  1. I don't like the move. But... it's still better than what we had. I explained this to my roommate by saying that it's like the difference between being kicked in the groin and being kicked in the shins.

  2. The more I dig, the more I find senator after senator saying they'll be part of the LSC (Liberal Senate Caucus). In fact it was easier to just find the ones who seemed unhappy. Senator Campbell (BC) seems very unhappy, and says he will refuse to work with caucus; meaning that he's effectively if not officially not part of the LSC. Senator Massicotte (QC) basically said he is extremely tempted to also not join the LSC but will for now (IMO this also means he will not be part of the LSC in the long term)

    Senators Lovelace (NB) and Merchant (SK) had nothing at all to say, leaving me to think they also want to be full on independent and not part of the LSC. This leaves the following as the smallest LSC that we will see will have 28 members. Graphic:

  3. If there is still a Liberal Senate Caucus that holds "Liberal values" then I fail to see what has changed other than semantics.

    The idea of a house of "independents" works on paper but, not in practice. Presumably, if Trudeau became PM he would need a "government caucus" in the Senate to introduce legislation if nothing else but, if they were independent of the party and the leader he would not be able to count on their vote. How then will legislation get passed? In Australia and the United Kingdom limitations exist for how long the upper house may delay legislation and mechanisms to circumvent. In Canada legislation must be passed by both houses to become law.

    We have the very real possibility that if the Liberals should come to power again their party policy will disclude them from ever holding a majority in the Senate and that could be problematic. The Crown appoints the Government and the Crown's main interest in this endeavour is to find an individual and party that can guarantee supply. If the Government can not pass supply their commission may legitimately be terminated as Sir John Kerr demonstrated in Australia. It doesn't just stop there of course Government make all sorts of promises and guarantees, will the Liberal party be able to guarantee an election promise ever again? If "their" senators have agency outside the Liberal party if they are independent of the party whip and not accountable to it then legislation may be amended at will by the Government caucus in the Senate or any other senator. Traditionally the Senate follows the will of the elected House but, if senators are appointed for their independence will they still need to follow this convention? Trudeau argues no because he envisions a true house of sober second thought, he may live to regret that action once that sober second thought disagrees with his own.

    The solution of course is that the Government of the day must convince 53 senators to vote for their legislation. The outcome may be similar to what we see in the United States where all sorts of pork barreling are added to bills in order to guarantee passage. On top of bad policy this is often a laborious and cumbersome process that takes a long time to accomplish. This is why parties came to exist in the first place to streamline the legislative process. There is nothing wrong with reverting to 16th century parliamentary norms but, my suspicion is that it will be messy.

    1. I find that situation no more likely than for yesterday's senate to up and start voting down government bills. An appointed senate will never be a powerful institution unless it has an institutional death-wish, given that the notion that the senate can and could be abolished isn't a rare or academic one.

    2. Brendan,

      That is fine but, the logical conclusion from your argument is Trudeau's "reform" is impotent and meaningless and Liberal senators are not "independent" either in party affiliation or agency. I would also point out that during Harper's premiership Conservative senators have voted down bills passed by the Commons. There is also the other side of the coin-where would Trudueau find the votes needed in the Senate to pass legislation? If he sets up a transparent and non-partisan appointment process he could not expect it would result in a majority of Liberal senators.

    3. I personally gather that Trudeau and other Liberals have recognised that fact, and concluded it would be better to have a nonpartisan Senate they can negotiate with, versus a partisan Senate they may never gain control of.

    4. If Trudeau was elected PM he would be able to appoint a majority of senators in about 8 years give or take a year. The problem with negotiation in Trudeau's plan is you need 53 consecutive negotiations occurring at the same time. As above bills may become unrecognisable due to the changes and pork barreling and deadlock I think are the likely outcomes.

    5. I know you keep saying "pork" but I fail to see where this pork is - in the actions and legislation of Senators who are not accountable to an electorate? What pork are they exactly going to ask for?

      Anyways, what you're saying could happen now - the only reason it doesn't is because their is a friendly majority in the Senate that is whipped so hard I think the Senator's children can feel it. If Trudeau becomes PM, he would face the same deadlock, and arguably a more determined one, from a partisan Senate that would take two terms or more to turn in his favour. Not buying the argument here.

    6. It really depends on the senator and legislation a senator may ask for an increase in specific program funding or another interest close to their heart. Or they may ask for legislative amendments that suit their own or their provinces interests.

      The point is that if Trudeau's "reform" is meaningful then senators should act in a way that promotes their independence. Since, senators are legislators the obvious avenue for this independence is senators' effect on legislation to suit their own interests or causes that are meaningful to them.

      The counter argument essentially means that Trudeau's "reform" is semantics and that nothing has changed because senators are not willing or not able to exercise their legislative power.