Early on in Martin Scorcese’s 2006 film “The Departed”, Massachuesetts State Police Captain Oliver Queenan, played by Martin Sheen, tells the young aspirant, Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, “We deal in deception here. What we do not deal in is self-deception.” We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that the Liberal Senate ouster is anything close to meaningful Senate reform.
Justin Trudeau’s decision to remove Senators from the National Liberal Caucus does nothing to reform the upper house, and it will have no practical effect. These “independent” Senators have largerly agreed to sit as the Liberal Senate Caucus, and will presumably echo positions similar to Trudeau’s. The only actual difference is their inability to attend the weekly national caucus meetings.
The Liberal Leader portrays these dismissals from caucus as a method of depolitizing the Senate. Nothing could be further from the truth. This same Leader who criticizes the Prime Minister for supposedly controlling Conservative Senators has used a heavy-handed tactic to dismiss these Liberal appointees. It was dictatorial, and perhaps a foreshadowing of a style that he would use in government. With an Auditor General’s report in the offing, it remains to be seen if he is pre-emtively distancing himself from any wrong-doing which the report could expose.
Let’s get real. The Senate is indeed a political institution, and will remain so. The only way the Senate can be de-politicized is by abolition. Whether selected by the Prime Minister, a blue-chip panel, or by election, politics cannot be removed from any legislative body. To believe otherwise is to deny reality.
Trudeau’s model of selection is also troubling. In effect, a panel of “eminent Canadians” will select other eminent Canadians to sit in the Senate and make decisions for the masses. In other words, our betters will bestow upon us the great wisdom of their peers. That would be an inspirational and progressive idea, in the 19th century.
The Liberals portray this new selection method as a means of improving the calibre of appointees. But questions must be posed: Could they do better? Could they guarantee that their appointees, selected by this new, esteemed, apolitical, clairvoyant panel, would never file an improper expense? Could they predict the future? The honest answer to all these questions is no.
The reality is that every group has an agenda. Be they senior civil servants, academics, and anyone else who is not a politician. Quite often those agendas are political, but the difference is that these interests do not face the voters. Those agendas would manifest themselves in their appointments, regardless of how they are framed. The remaining fact is, Canadians would have no choice, and would in fact be further removed from the process; at present, the Prime Minister has been before the voters of the nation, and is accountable for the appointments he or she makes. Trudeau’s new model allows him to obtain the desired result, with a comfortable distance from any Senator who behaves badly.
A vibrant, healthy 21st century Canada cannot abide a legislative body whose members are not selected by the people. Trudeau’s model is impressive only in its abruptness. The long-term Liberal Senate reform plan is regressive. The Senate must either be elected or abolished. No other scenario is acceptable in a democratic state.
Wes McLean is a New Brunswick MLA, and worked for the Conservatives on Parliament Hill from 2004 to 2010.
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