Towards a more effective Senate

  • National Newswatch

The recent announcement by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau that he was removing senators from his party's parliamentary caucus, far from being purely esthetic, may in fact lead to deeper changes in the way legislation is passed and how government advocacy is conducted.One of the main differences between the American and British parliamentary systems of government lies in the fact the United States polity exemplifies the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judiciary) as described by the French political thinker Montesquieu who offered a form of government which avoids centralization of powers into the hands of a single ruler.  In Canada, on the other hand, the legislative and executive branches remain firmly under the control of the Prime Minister, who is not only the de facto Chief Executive Officer of the government but also the head of the ruling party in the House of Commons.When advocating to the American government, one has to factor-in bipartisanship – whereby the opposing Democrats and Republicans find common ground through compromise.  In Canada, true bipartisanship is rare as most Members of Parliament (MP) – and up to recently, Senators – depend on the leader of their respective party for appointments to caucus and/or cabinet positions and key party operative and fundraising roles.  An MP or Senator can only be bipartisan and disagree with the party line at his or her own peril.In the United States, the independence that representatives and senators enjoy from the White House shields them from such a scenario and provides them with more latitude to vote on legislation.  The result is that advocacy in the United States is more diffuse and has to be conducted with the House of Representatives and the Senate, and especially with members of specific committees in each chamber.  In Canada, effective advocacy can start and end at the Prime Minister's office.Mr. Trudeau's proposal to remove senators from the Liberal caucus and to take the appointment process out of the hands of the Prime Minister may lead to increased separation of powers in Canada and actually make the Senate more objective – a true second-thought chamber.  This also means that senators will actually become relevant in government advocacy as we may no longer take for granted that they will automatically toe the party line, having no real incentive to do so.  What is more, for the first time since Confederation, the Senate and its committees may actually become part of government relations strategies for corporations and organizations.  Our Senate may not yet be elected or equal but, without opening the Constitution, Mr. Trudeau may in fact have made the Upper Chamber more effective.Marc Dupont is a lawyer and a Fulbright Scholar. He holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.