OTTAWA — Andrew Scheer is standing by his vow to resume making partisan, patronage appointments to the Senate should the Conservatives form government after Oct. 21.
That would put an end to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s attempt over the past four years to transform the upper house into a less partisan, more independent chamber of sober second thought.
Shortly after he was chosen Conservative leader in 2017, Scheer told the CBC his choices for the Senate “would be Conservative senators who would help implement a Conservative vision for Canada that would improve the quality of life for Canadians.”
He’s said little on the subject since then, but a Conservative campaign spokesman said Scheer’s position remains unchanged.
“Mr. Scheer’s comments on this matter still stand,” Simon Jefferies said in an email, including a link to the 2017 CBC interview.
In that interview, Scheer also said he’s always supported an elected Senate and “would hope to achieve aspects of Senate reform.” But he acknowledged that the Supreme Court of Canada “has set the bar pretty high to make any fundamental changes.”
The top court has advised that reforms, such as consultative elections or imposing term limits, would require a constitutional amendment approved by Parliament and at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the Canadian population. Abolition would require unanimous provincial approval.
Trudeau’s reforms were designed to make changes that could be accomplished without re-opening the constitutional can of worms.
Independent Senators Group
He kicked senators out of the Liberal caucus in 2014 and, once in power, created an arm’s-length advisory board to recommend nominees from which the prime minister could choose to fill Senate vacancies. Canadians can apply to the board to become a senator, or nominate other individuals.
Through this process, Trudeau has appointed 50 senators, all of whom sit as part of the Independent Senators Group or as unaffiliated senators. The ISG, which has picked up the odd senator who used to be affiliated with the Conservatives or Liberals, now commands a majority in the 105-seat chamber, with 58 members. The Conservatives, which operate the last remaining, openly partisan caucus in the Senate, have 29 senators. There are also nine independent Liberals, seven non-affiliated senators and two vacancies.
The Liberals boast that the process has led to a much more diverse Senate, with 12 Indigenous senators and an almost equal number of women and men. And while it’s slowed down the pace at which bills are passed, Liberals maintain the more independent Senate has improved the quality of legislation: 33 of the 88 government bills passed by Parliament over the past four years included amendments proposed by senators, compared to just one bill during Stephen Harper’s last mandate.
Tories say independent senators are basically Liberals
Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan, who served in Trudeau’s cabinet, said he can’t understand why Scheer would want to go back to the days when the prime minister alone picked people who were commonly derided as “party hacks, flacks and bagmen” to sit in the Senate and vote entirely along party lines.
“I don’t get it,” O’Regan said in an interview. “Why? What constituency is asking for that again, except for the most hardened partisan Conservatives? I mean, who looks at it now and thinks that Lynn Beyak was an inspired choice? And where does it leave us (in future) — Sen. Ezra Levant?”
Beyak was booted out of the Conservative caucus last year after she refused to remove letters from her website that the Senate’s ethics officer subsequently ruled contained racist content about Indigenous Peoples. In May, senators voted to suspend her without pay for the remainder of the parliamentary session.
Levant is the founder of the extreme-right Rebel Media, for which Scheer’s campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, once worked.
Conservatives argue that independent senators are Liberals in all but name. They point to the fact that whenever the Trudeau government has rejected Senate amendments, the independents have backed off, deferring to the will of the elected House of Commons. They say Scheer is simply being more honest in saying he’d appoint openly partisan Conservatives.
Independents more likely to ‘stand on principle’: advocate
Longtime Senate reform advocate Roger Gibbins, former head of the Canada West Foundation, sees no reason why Scheer should stick with the Trudeau appointment process, effectively condoning “a partisan Senate with a veneer of non-partisanship.”
But Tom Flanagan, another longtime Senate reform advocate and former Conservative national campaign manager, suggests Scheer would be wise to avoid needless “grief” over unpalatable patronage appointments and simply adhere to Trudeau’s process. He says Scheer could appoint more conservative-minded independent senators to balance the Trudeau appointees, whom he sees as ideological liberals, if not outright partisan Liberals.
Still, it would take at least four years for Scheer appointees to outnumber the Trudeau appointees and Flanagan predicts that somewhere along the line, the Trudeau independents would cease being so deferential to the elected government and begin obstructing legislation, particularly if it involved repealing large chunks of the Trudeau agenda.
Because they are driven more by ideology than partisanship, Flanagan suspects the independents would be more likely to “stand on principle and not budge.”
Watch: Trudeau says less partisan Senate is better for democracy. Story continues below.
University of Waterloo political scientist Emmett Macfarlane, who advised Trudeau on the kind of Senate reforms he could implement without reopening the Constitution, agrees that’s a risk. But he says resuming patronage appointments could actually antagonize independents into being more obstructionist if they thought Scheer was “not taking the Senate seriously as a complementary body.”
“I think returning to the old system encourages the risk of that happening, at least in the short term when they still have numerical superiority,” Macfarlane says.
Where the other parties stand on the Senate:
— If the NDP formed government, the party says leader Jagmeet Singh would open constitutional negotiations with the provinces to abolish the Senate. He would not appoint any new senators. Until abolition was achieved, he would “take concrete steps to make the Senate fairer and more accountable,” including “insisting that the Senate adopt new rules” to prevent it from blocking legislation passed by the elected House of Commons. (How he would do that is unclear. The Senate is master of its own rules, and its power to pass or defeat legislation is enshrined in the Constitution).
— The Green party believes that “as long as there is an appointed Senate, an open process that invites qualified applicants is superior to the appointment of party cronies.”
— The People’s Party of Canada believes Trudeau’s appointment process is “mostly window-dressing.” A better approach would be to name openly partisan senators chosen through “a process that does not only depend on the wishes of the prime minister.” There could, for example, be an advisory panel that recommends qualified candidates.
— The Bloc Quebecois did not provide its position on the Senate.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2019.