A few thoughts here on today’s announcement by Justin Trudeau that Liberal Senators will no longer be part of the Liberal caucus and are now to sit independently.
One of Trudeau’s lines that stood out for me was this one: “At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers.” Recently, on the death of Jim Coutts, an opinion piece he wrote in 2004 was circulated, and in it, we found this:
“The current policy markers of the Liberal party have evolved over time and are fairly familiar to many Canadians. The most crucial Liberal markers are these:
- Reform, which is so central to Liberal identity that it was the party’s name up to and during the leadership of George Brown. The marker has stood for political reform, ranging from the introduc- tion of responsible government under Baldwin and Lafontaine, to battling ruling-class power and patronage abuse at the time of Brown, Mackenzie and Blake, to entrenching a constitutional Charter of Rights under Trudeau. Since the 1920s, the Liberal reform marker has most importantly sig- nified social reform, or the cre- ation and improvement of a modern welfare state.”
Today we saw a big bout of reform in the form of a Senate that would be independent, in Trudeau’s words:
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.
Trudeau’s reform will likely come off as reasonable to many Canadians. It is not the radical abolitionist approach of the NDP which would require constitutional reform. It is not the Conservative supposed pro-reform approach that has gone nowhere for their seven years in power and that would also likely require constitutional reform.
Trudeau’s reform looks at the Senate, and proposes an approach that will not tear it down, but make fair use of a second chamber. In the Westminster system, it would be anomalous not to have a second chamber. The direction suggested, a more merit-based approach is a good one that speaks to the times. This reform, as Trudeau is suggesting, could be infused with principles of merit, competency, and transparency, to bolster the credibility of the Liberal proposals. And this Liberal would suggest ensuring that the appointment process be free from an elite-based orientation.
To be sure, there will be wrinkles to iron out. Senator Campbell spoke to some of these today: He also questioned how the Senate will function in terms of their role in scrutinizing government legislation. He questioned, for instance, who will sit on committees and who will be named critics of which bills.
Ensuring that the elected representatives’ will is carried out and without blockage, is another consideration to be grappled with. And perhaps with that consideration in mind, note Trudeau’s last line in his remarks today:
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.
This may be a nod to the democratic reform resolution that the federal Liberal MP caucus has proposed as one of its priority resolutions to be voted upon at the upcoming February biennial policy convention in Montreal, less than a month away now. That resolution, Bolstering Canada’s Democracy, contains this operative proposal:
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, the Liberal Party of Canada institute an all-Party process, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with analysis and recommendations for an electoral system including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent all Canadians more fairly and to allow Parliament to serve Canada better.
Senate reform without reform of our House of Commons would be incongruent. The above proposed resolution would be the beginning of addressing the imbalance that would result if the Senate were reformed without a similar effort being made in respect of the House of Commons. As bad as some of the practices and appointments connected to the Senate have been, the pressing need for reform lies in the House of Commons. Electoral reform to change the system in which we operate is one route. Michael Chong’s reform which accepts the system yet changes the rules is another. The good news is that reform in a big way is on the agenda for Canada.
Liberals are re-embracing reform as a mantle. All in all, a positive development today.