High noon at the Senate

The sleeping giant has only just started to twitch. If that giant is fully awake, the consequences for democracy could be disastrous

Is Justin Trudeau a pyromaniac? He set the match under Liberal senators in 2013 when he expelled them from his caucus and set the Senate alight. It is truly ablaze now.

Hell hath no fury like Liberal senators scorned.

Some observers hailed Trudeau’s action as bold and brave, but opponents saw it as a way to distance his party from Liberal senators who might have cheated on their expenses. Regardless of the motivation, his decision while he sat as the Opposition leader was not well conceived and the consequences are now playing out in the upper house.

Ironically, it’s not the new crop of senators who are revolting. It’s embittered Liberals who are transforming the Senate – and not necessarily in a good way.

Some senators are taking a principled stand on omnibus bills (which, admittedly, are an abomination). The Liberals howled when the former government of Conservative Stephen Harper used similar tactics. Now, they’re emulating what they once denounced.

Despite the merits of Senate opposition, blocking the will of democratically-elected lower house is a route senators have seldom taken. Lacking democratic legitimacy, they usually exercise self-restraint. And the new appointment process, while superior to the previous one, still doesn’t confer moral authority to thwart elected officials.

What we’re dealing with now is a group emboldened to go where the upper house has never gone before, routinely challenging bills, especially the budget.

As many have pointed out, the new relationship between the two houses is unprecedented and potentially problematic.

But this is only the half of it.

What’s mostly overlooked is the way that new relationships within the Senate will change it profoundly.

Our institutional structure rests on norms and values that support collective action, for example, how cabinet and party caucuses work as teams. (Some would argue that the vaunted teamwork is a fiction because the prime minister’s office reigns supreme, eclipsing even cabinet, and that the role of caucus is to dutifully vote on bills.) The system can’t cope with a covey of prima donnas.

American institutions reflect individualism, which is a dominant value in American political culture. Hence parties are looser entities that leave politicians free to pursue their own goals. In Congress, elected officials build a reputation as individuals, not as Republicans or Democrats. For example, some legislation is better known by the names of its authors (the Taft-Hartley Act or the Dodd-Frank Act, for example) than its official title. Personal ambition is the driving force for many in the American legislature.

In contrast, the parliamentary system fosters collegiality and requires disciplined parties. Absent discipline, the government would fall.

With a group of independent-minded senators in the mix, what lies ahead? In the short term, Conservatives in the House of Commons get a second bite at the apple as their counterparts in the Senate still toe the party line. Paradoxically, former Liberal senators have become their surrogates.

In the longer-term, dynamics in the upper house will evolve in a way that might mimic what happens in the U.S. Without the bonds that sustain caucus members with a common political purpose, the votes of independent senators will be grounded in personal convictions and advice from interested parties. Lobbyists and special interest groups will court them.

It would be much easier and more efficient to get a few senators on side to alter a bill than to approach members of Parliament, who are subject to party discipline. Senators will become political entrepreneurs, developing personal networks as they seek to enhance their reputations.

Should we be concerned about the trajectory of the upper house?

Yes, because it might have a destabilizing effect on Canadian democracy.

The Senate is self-regulating and some of its decisions, on ethics for example, are mystifying. The expenses scandal shone a light inside the upper house and it wasn’t pretty. And other questionable practices bear looking into – for example, senators can sit on corporate boards. With “independence,” there’s greater scope for conflicts of interest to arise. Unlike U.S. senators, who may sit on boards but not get paid for this work, Canadian senators can earn millions from moonlighting.

Will the Senate be the author of its own destruction?

Possibly.

The prime minister was looking for independence in the Senate and he has it in spades – at the expense of his legislative agenda. Curtailing the chamber’s powers will require a constitutional amendment and opening up that Pandora’s Box in the near future is unlikely.

Until that happens, we’re stuck with a sleeping giant that has only just started to twitch. If that giant is fully awake, the consequences might be disastrous.

Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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