It’s rare that something happens in Ottawa that truly surprises everyone. Despite having spent the last year talking about the senate over and over again, it’s safe to say very few saw this coming:
Trudeau leads on Senate Reform: Liberal Leader takes concrete action to remove partisanship and patronage from the Senate
OTTAWA – The Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, today issued the following statement:
“Canadians expect their leaders to be open and honest with them, and they expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly. The Senate, through extreme patronage and partisanship, has become an institution that poorly serves the interests of Canadians.
“Paired with patronage, the pervasive issue of partisanship and control in the Senate is a deeply negative force. We need immediate action to address this. That is why, as of today, the National Liberal Caucus will only include elected Members of Parliament, and not Senators. This action will immediately mean that each of the 32 current Liberal Senators will become independent of the Liberal Caucus.
Yes, you read that right. Justin Trudeau just blew up the Senate, in a political masterstroke.
By cutting all ties to the Senate, Trudeau inoculates himself against the Auditor General’s upcoming report on Senate expenses, and leaves Stephen Harper as the last defender of a partisan upper chamber – an awkward position for the man many believed would bring about overdue reform. This gives Trudeau the same footing to criticize the Senate the NDP has enjoyed for years. Perhaps even stronger footing, since Trudeau’s solution of a non-partisan Senate would not require a constitutional amendment, unlike Mulcair’s plans for abolition. Just like that, the NDP has been neutralized on one of its traditional wedge issues.
More important than the issue itself, is what it says about Trudeau. As hot a topic as Senate reform is in political science lectures, few Canadians will base their vote on this issue. What they will base it on is their perceptions of the party leaders, and Trudeau can now use this issue to define himself for voters. It plays to his image as an agent of change who will walk into Ottawa and shake up the way politics is done. Given how disillusioned voters are with the status quo, that’s exactly where you want to be positioned.
Moreover, this move just screams “strong leader”. Already, Liberal press releases are asking why Stephen Harper lacks the strength and judgment to follow Trudeau’s lead, no doubt a dig at the Tory tune comparing Harper’s “strong leadership” to Trudeau’s “lack of judgment”.
Like any bold move, there are risks, but I’d argue those have been overblown. It will rub some party stalwarts the wrong way, but a lot of Senators won’t miss having to shuck tickets for Liberal fundraisers. Yes, there may come a day when Prime Minister Trudeau longs for a rubber stamp Senate. However it seems unlikely the Senate will survive in its current form long enough for Trudeau to ever appoint back a Liberal majority. Having an uncooperative Conservative Senate might actually provide Trudeau with a good foil – remember how Stephen Harper loved to complain about the “unelected Liberal Senate” holding up key pieces of legislation? Those very same talking points are now coming to a Liberal fundraising letter near you!
In the end, what stands out is that this was a case of action. If Trudeau had promised a non-partisan senate, no one would have paid it any attention. Seriously, try to find me 5 people who remember Michael Ignatieff’s very impressive democratic reform platform from the last election. Voters respond to actions rather than promises, and in one morning Trudeau did more to advance the case of Senate reform as the leader of the third party than Stephen Harper has done in 8 years as Prime Minister.