Note to readers: The Honourable Grant Mitchell retired from the Senate of Canada in April 2020. Learn more about his work in Parliament.
Those of us pushing reform in the Canadian Senate over the past year or so owe a large debt to this city.
It’s here where much thought and energy have been expended in the service of democratic change through the efforts of pioneers like Preston Manning and Bert Brown, and the expertise of organizations like the University of Calgary and the Canada West Foundation.
With this in mind, I wanted to take a moment to bring to your attention the substantial developments that have taken place in the Senate this year, in particular, its increasingly less-partisan character, as exemplified by the appointment of 28 new senators this past autumn.
Over the past few months, some critics have argued that the appointees are little more than Liberals in “independent” clothing. Too many academics, say some. Not enough engineers, say others.
These are debatable points, but it would be disingenuous to argue that we don’t bring our previous experiences with us. (As an aside, I’d assert that the addition of a police commissioner, an expert on trade with China and a bank executive are creating a pretty good balance in the Senate.)
Still, the real point to make about the new senators is not that they may have held opinions before their arrival. It’s the fact that they can express those views and vote freely without being constrained by the traditional party caucus system.
I should know. As the government liaison within the three-member government representative team – a position formerly known as whip – I have absolutely no ability to whip senators into doing anything.
The whip’s traditional role has been to make sure that the members of the government caucus in the Senate show up to vote as a bloc for government-sponsored legislation emerging from the House of Commons. Whips maintain unanimity by re-enforcing a culture of party discipline.
But since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided that Liberal senators would no longer sit in a unified government-led caucus, the men and women now being appointed no longer answer to a whip, a Senate leader or a prime minister.
This means that independent senators are free to state their views without concern of being judged or punished within the caucus or by the leadership.
A more independent, less-partisan Senate is a Senate whose members more comfortably speak for Canadians and their regions. Would a less-partisan system like this have saved some of the heartache that so many Albertans experienced during the National Energy Program?
What we can say is that independent senators are already making their opinions known and affecting legislation.
For example, concerns raised by independent Quebec Senator André Pratte were instrumental in removing a portion of the recently passed Budget Implementation Act that dealt with consumer protections under financial institutions. Senator Pratte felt that the federal law wasn’t as effective as Quebec laws covering the same areas, and the government has promised to bring new legislation to the House.
And other senators successfully amended the assisted-dying legislation last June. Indeed, during that debate, senators sitting in traditional party caucuses crossed party lines. A new, less-partisan culture appears to be bleeding into all parts of the upper chamber.
Other examples of co-operation include independent Calgary Senator Doug Black’s sponsorship of a government bill complying with certain trade facilitation provisions of the World Trade Organization.
Without presuming to know how senators will vote in the future, I think it’s reasonable to expect more demonstrations of independence and the increased application of sober second thought.
This might make it a little more difficult to know in advance how a bill will proceed through the chamber, but I can’t help but think that a little less certainty on this front is good for the country.
Senator Grant Mitchell of Alberta is the government liaison for the office of the government representative in the Senate.
This article appeared in the January 7, 2017 edition of the Calgary Herald.