The Red Chamber’s not so red anymore

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In question period on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau needn’t have uttered a word; the self-satisfied and supremely amused look on his face spoke volumes. It was the sort of expression one adopts when one has eaten somebody else’s lunch and gotten away with it.

The lunch, in this case, was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s who has been dancing around the complex and thorny issue of Senate reform for years; one tends to forget that overhauling the Red Chamber, making it more representative and democratic, was a signature plank in the Tory leader’s campaign for federal office.

But it was Mr. Trudeau who pounced, instead.

“As of this morning,” he said in a statement, “only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team. . . .Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.”

Furthermore, he said, “I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

Later, speaking with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he said his timing had nothing to do with an auditor-general’s investigation of Senate expenses, which could embarrass some federal Liberals, calling that a “separate problem from the excessive partisanship and patronage. . .which is what I have moved to eliminate today. . . It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

All of which left Ottawa reeling, including Grit senators.

“We are the Senate Liberal caucus and I will remain the leader of the opposition and we will remain the official opposition in the Senate,” the former Liberal Leader of the  Senate James Cowan said.

“I’m still and Liberal senator, not an independent,” Senator Mobina Jaffer piped up. “I’ve always been a Liberal.”

Meanwhile New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette called the move surprising, but not shocking, and a “giant step in the right direction. . .If we want to reform the Senate, senators need to be independent of groups and parties, and that’s what the leader has done today.”

In fact, with this move, the leader has done quite a few things.

For one, he’s grabbed the initiative and stamped the future of Senate reform with the Liberal brand. Even if the momentum shifts back to the Tories, they can never again claim that they lead the charge.

Paul Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform, questions the wisdom of freeing unelected senators from the influence and control of elected Members of Parliament (specifically, the prime minister and opposition leaders).That, however, is a point of process; how, exactly, the selection process will work is not yet clear.

What is clear is widespread, even overwhelming, public support for dramatic Senate reform, without which most Canadians would rather bid the institution a long overdue fare-thee-well.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative, they will say, may not be perfect. In the long run, it may not even be workable. But at least he’s doing something. And that, alone, stands him head and shoulders above the rest on the Hill.

The move has also upended the Prime Minister’s Office’s strategy of keeping the Senate, with all of its attendant scandals, out of the news as much as possible. According to polls, the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright affair has seriously damaged the government’s credibility.

“What the Liberal Party doesn’t understand is that Canadians are not looking for a better unelected Senate,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons.  “Canadians believe that for the Senate to be meaningful in the 21st century it must be elected. . .I gather the change announced by the Liberal Leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal.”

It was a good line. It’s too bad lunch was over when he delivered it.

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