In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Senate reform

Posted 6/22/2015 by Grant Mitchell


Several months ago, the Faculty of Law at University of Alberta held a weekend conference on Senate Reform. They attracted some of the country's foremost experts on Parliamentary institutions and the Senate. The rapporteur was Roger Gibbins, former head of the Canwest Foundation, and a strong advocate for Senate reform (I know this statement begs the question of who isn't?). 

Dr. Gibbins summarized the discussion very well and in a surprising fashion. He said given the constraints, the Senate will have to reform itself. Interestingly, there are all kinds of changes that can be made without changing the constitution. It is just hard to understand why the Conservatives had said we are stuck with the status quo. Have a look at this article:

I agree and there are a number of things that could be done right now with great effect. Here are what would be my priorities:

1. The Conservative senators should leave their national caucus where they meet alongside their MPs. The Senate Liberals already have at the direction of Mr. Trudeau. 

While I knew this was the right thing for Mr. Trudeau to do, coming from a party background and having been, among other things, the Leader of the provincial Liberals in Alberta and Leader of the Opposition there, I was not sure how I would react over time to his decision. In fact, I am entirely convinced now of the value of senators being independent of their national caucuses. The effect has been that I definitely view the public policy world in a less partisan manner. I feel far less compulsion to consider the political rather than just the policy implications of issues. That is what the Senate can bring to the public forum.

It is not that my liberal values have changed. I am a liberal; I simply cannot help it. These are my values. I happen also to be a Liberal party member. It is not even that I think that partisanship is bad - partisanship in the extreme where everything is subordinate to winning is bad. But, plain old partisanship is just another way of saying people have different views on issues. Being allowed to express them freely is the foundation of a democracy. And even without caucus affiliation, senators' positions will be informed by their deeply held values; some will be liberal and some will hold conservative and other value sets. Good.

The problem is that the Conservative senators still labour under the constraints we did up until January 2014. While Senate Conservatives are good and dedicated people, driven by their genuinely held views, there is inevitably a constraint and influence from the elected side, I can say now given my experience with independence.

Helen Forsey has just published an excellent book on Senate Reform, "A Peoples' Senate", that makes this point and many others about what the Senate can become and how it can be improved.

2. Televise the Senate. This will enhance openness, transparency and public awareness and inevitably involvement in the public debate. It will also enhance the Senate's credibility because people will be impressed by the level of debate and decorum in the Senate.

3. Publish all Senate expenses by each senator and for the Senate Administration every quarter and in detail. 

4. Set up a special commission to screen prospective senators and make recommendations for the Prime Minister's selection process. This could resemble the kind of processes used now for the selection of judges and Order of Canada recipients.

There are many other possibilities. These are a few that would represent a really good start. And, none of them require constitutional reform.


Please click here to read this blog in French / Veuillez appuyer ici pour lire ce blogue en français


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