Roundup: The good and bad of new Senate rules

The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?

But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.

Good reads:

  • The government has announced that they will finally support a Senate bill that would offer Magnitsky-style sanctions against human rights abusers.
  • The government has also said that they will unveil their national carbon tax for holdout provinces today.
  • Opposition parties are trying to block the appointment of Madeleine Meilleur as the new Official Languages Commissioner.
  • On International Day Against Homophobia, the government says they will make their formal apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians before the year is out.
  • Harjit Sajjan will be at the UN for Peacekeepers Day next week, despite the indecision on our own peacekeeping mission.
  • That mission, however, sounds like it could actually be a series of training missions for other peacekeeping forces, particularly in Africa.
  • The Conservatives’ next Supply Day motion will be around the appointment of the Ethics Commissioner, looking for an independent arbitrator to run the process.
  • Senator Peter Harder is vowing to pass all government bills in the Senate before summer.
  • More consternation over the plans to close the Vegreville immigration processing centre (but seriously – who would want to move to Vegreville? I’ve been there).
  • As part of his quest to appear magnanimous in his decision to quit his leadership bid, Kevin O’Leary says that caucus members told him not to be selfish.
  • Chris Alexander wants people to know that Maxime Bernier’s libertarianism isn’t saleable in an election.
  • Christie Blatchford makes some trenchant observations about the problems with the bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges.
  • Chantal Hébert says that Jagmeet Singh shouldn’t presume that he couldn’t win over Quebec, despite the fact that he would clash with their secular values.

Odds and ends:

The “Arc of Memory” living calendar monument was chosen for the Victims of Communism Memorial. (I much preferred the falling Lenin statue).

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