Government Politics

A few thoughts on the Liberal Party’s Senate announcement

Much ado this week regarding the Liberal Party of Canada’s announcement that its 32 Liberals in the Senate would henceforth sit as independents, that if and when they form the government, they would set up an independent commission to oversee all future Senate appointments, and that all future Senators appointed that way would be independents.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long advocated setting up an independent body to oversee Senate appointments, something modelled on the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) which was set up in the United Kingdom in 2000. Consequently, I heartily approve of this initiative. Some comments on Twitter and elsewhere questioned the constitutionality of having an independent commission make the appointments, or more specifically, advising the Governor General on who should be appointed. I don’t see that the process would work that way at all.

If we use HOLAC as our model, the Commission would assess nominations against specific criteria. The nomination process itself would be open to anyone – you could even nominate yourself, as long as you met the criteria. The selection criteria HOLAC uses is quite specific. They seek nominees:

  • with the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords, not only in their areas of particular interest and special expertise, but the wide range of other issues coming before the House;
  • with a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies;
  • who are willing to commit the time necessary to make an effective contribution to the work of the House of Lords. The Commission recognises that many active members continue with their professional and other working interests and this can help maintain expertise and experience;
  • with some understanding of the constitutional framework, including the place of the House of Lords, and the skills and qualities needed to be an effective member of the House – for example, nominees should be able to speak with independence and authority;
  • who are able to demonstrate outstanding personal qualities, in particular, integrity and independence;
  • with a strong and personal commitment to the principles and highest standards of public life;
  • who are and intend to remain independent of any political party. Nominees and the Commission will need to feel confident of their ability to be independent of party-political considerations whatever their past party-political involvement. For this reason, all nominees are asked to respond to the questions on political involvement and activities which are similar to those used for most public appointments;
  • who are resident in the UK for tax purposes and accept the requirement to remain so.

Of course, we could develop our own criteria for the Senate, but I would hope it would be something along the same lines. The actual appointing of Senators would still be left to the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The way I would see the process working is quite simple. There is a vacancy for a Senator from the province of Ontario. The Senate Appointments Commission (SAC) reviews nominees from that province, vets them, and comes up with a shortlist of 4 or 5 candidates. That list is provided to the Prime Minister, who would make the final selection from the short-list and advise the Governor General accordingly. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Constitution governing how the Prime Minister selects an individual for a Senate appointment; consequently, being provided by a shortlist of candidates by an independent commission would not be unconstitutional, and it would certainly be a far more transparent and accountable process than what currently transpires.

The bigger issue is perhaps making the Senate completely non-partisan. I don’t dislike the idea at all, but I also don’t object to appointed Senators having a party affiliation. That said, I do believe that their party affiliation should not be the main reason why they were appointed. In other words, their appointment should not be a partisan decision made for partisan purposes. I also think the Senate would benefit greatly from having crossbenchers, as is the case in the UK House of Lords and the Australian Senate. Crossbenchers aren’t necessarily independents in the way we understand it; in both the UK and Australia, while they do include persons with no party affiliation, they also include persons representing smaller parties (i.e parties which will most likely never form a government).

Some have asked how a future Liberal Government would get legislation passed in a non-partisan Senate. The same way it should expect to get legislation passed now: by presenting good pieces of legislation and being willing to accept amendments proposed by the Senate to improve the legislation.

There is an attitude that seems to be prevail in Canada that a government, in particular one with a majority, must ultimately be able to get its legislative business. That is nonsense. A government is entitled to put its legislative business to the House. It is not entitled to get its legislative business. It has to put its legislative proposals in front of the House of Commons and then the Senate. The job of the House of Commons and the Senate is to scrutinize and process them. Those bills that the government can win a majority for will succeed; those which it cannot will either be amended or defeated. In the House of Commons, if a party forms a majority government, that process is too often a moot point because government backbenchers never dissent. That means it is up to the Senate to fulfill that role. The House of Lords regularly defeats sections of bills (sometimes entire bills) put forward by the government of the day. This is not only accepted, it is expected. The Constitution Unit keeps a running tally of Government defeats in the House of Lords going back to the 2005-2006 session. So that is how legislation would be passed in a non-partisan (or much less partisan) Senate.

Those are my initial reactions. I am fully in favour of an independent appointments commission, and not opposed to, but not entirely sold on, the idea of an entirely non-partisan Senate. Right now, party affiliation is essentially the only reason someone is appointed to the Senate. I personally think that screening candidates by an independent body against specific criteria would mitigate partisanship significantly, and that is why I don’t think it would be necessary to then force individuals to sit as independents. But given that this is all hypothetical at the moment, I reserve the right to change my mind down the road.

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