Conservative-turned-independent Senator Stephen Greene took to the pages of the National Post yesterday to decry Andrew Scheer’s plans to return the Senate to a more partisan institution by making partisan appointments, should he ever form a government and be in a position to do so. Much of Greene’s op-ed makes a series of good points, but at the same time, I find myself a bit leery of his particular conclusion that partisanship is a bad thing period. I agree with his points that a too-partisan Senate can simply act as a rubber stamp, which there were many cases that it appeared to during the later Harper years, when they had a comfortable majority in the Upper Chamber and simply went on neglecting needed appointments while letting their caucus be whipped into continued votes in support of legislation, no matter how flawed.
Where Greene’s analysis falls down, however, is the fact that while the tendency in a more partisan Senate to whip votes means there is less pushback against the government of the day, it fails to take into account that to a great degree, it’s not so much the final vote that matters in the bigger picture than what goes on the record. Courts rely on the parliamentary record to help determine what parliament’s intentions were when they are asked to interpret the law, and in cases where opposition parties in the Senate are unable to get enough votes to push through amendments to a bill, they can at least attach observations to it, and ensure that their objections are on the record – something the courts find valuable. The other aspect is that having senators in the caucus rooms provides a great deal of perspective to MPs because the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament. Not having those voices in the caucus room, behind closed doors, can mean even more power for the leader because there are fewer people who aren’t constrained by the blackmail powers of that leader to not sign nomination forms, for example, who can push back and who can offer the cautions to the other MPs when the leader is overstepping their bounds. Not having those voices in the caucus room diminishes them, which is something that the Liberals have been dealing with (while Trudeau’s office centralizes yet more power as a result).
Greene also doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that not having party caucuses in the Senate means that opposition is harder to organize, thereby advantaging the government of the day. It also makes ideological scrutiny of government legislation more difficult because a chamber of independents, especially when you have a mass appointed by a government on ideologically similar lines. That is an underappreciated element of the Westminster structure in the Senate that most modernization proponents continually overlook.
While I sympathise with many of his points, and I do recognise that there have been problems with how the Senate has been operating for the better part of a decade, partisan caucuses weren’t the sole cause of those problems. Breaking up the two-party duopoly has been a boon to the Chamber’s governance and management, and that’s why having a “crossbencher” component has proven to be extremely valuable. But doing away with party caucuses entirely is short-sighted, and causes more problems than it solves.