New appointees a move towards less partisan Senate: experts

Nicole Riva

[Commissioner Murray Sinclair, who was appointed to the Senate on Friday, shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld]

The announcement of seven new senators on Friday is a step into unchartered territory for Canadians because of the attempt to remove partisanship from the Red Chamber, political experts say.

Penny Collenette, adjunct professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, and former director of Senate appointments for Jean Chrétien, says changes are a work in progress.

“I think everybody’s got fingers crossed that this is going to work but it will take some negotiations and a lot of compromises,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

In the announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his recommended appointees follow through on his commitments “to reform the Senate, restore public trust and bring an end to partisanship in the appointments process.”

All seven are appointed as independents instead of being associated with a particular party, but Collenette says Canadians will have to wait and see if an independent Senate can actually happen.

The bigger question is whether an appointed Senate still makes sense, she said.

“Do we really want in 2016, in our country, to have a body that is not elected? That is the philosophical questions for all of us as Canadians,” Collenette said.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says changing the process of appointing senators looks good, but won’t actually change anything.

“It doesn’t change the fundamental facts, it’s still an appointed body and there’s still no recourse to hold senators accountable,” executive director Aaron Wudrick said.

These new independent senators will also be tested quite soon as to where they stand, and Wudrick doubts any appointed senator can be truly non-partisan.

“Just like all other appointees they owe the prime minister for appointing them. I don’t see how it’s any different now than any other previous appointed senators,” he said.

Collenette says these new senators may have a sense of personal loyalty to the prime minister or the party, but will need to act independently because “that’s the deal.”

“This is the part that is unchartered waters,” she said.

Sen. Jim Cowan, former Liberal leader in the Senate, is largely looking forward to filling some of the many empty seats in the Upper Chamber because there hasn’t been a new senator in three years and there are still 17 empty seats.

He doesn’t expect the Senate to become fully non-partisan, because it is still a political body. However, he thinks it can be less partisan and that’s been a goal in the last couple of years.

Cowan hopes that bringing in some new senators can refocus the Senate’s work to legislation and policy reports.

“That’s the work we need to do. And as long as we do that the more we do to enable people to see the value of the Senate,” he said.

Retired senator Marjory LeBreton, former leader for the Conservatives in the Senate, says that the latest appointments are all qualified individuals, but shouldn’t be seen as better than many of the current senators on both sides.

She agrees the appointees will carry some level of partisanship into the Senate, but doesn’t have an issue with that.

“Partisanship and political parties did not create the problems that the Senate had,” LeBreton said, referring to scandals about expenses.

“There’s been some new mythology that the Senate was a body that was not doing the work properly, which is wrong,” she said. “It’s going to fall to these seven, perhaps unfairly, to demonstrate that they in fact will look at legislation fairly.”