In the House of Commons foyer today, Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, said:
“The Senate must be non-partisan, composed of merely of thoughtful individuals, representing the very values, perspectives and identities of this great country, independent from any particular political brand.”
He said this as he was announcing that the 32 senators who had been part of his national Liberal caucus were getting booted and should now consider themselves independent senators.
The first thing those newly independent senators did was confirm their old leadership, electing Senator James Cowan as leader, Senator Joan Fraser as deputy leader and Senator Jim Munson as whip. Given that a whip’s function in our democracy is, largely, to make sure party members follow the party line, why would a group of independent non-partisan senators need a whip?
Maybe they’re not so independent or, for that matter, non-partisan. Here’s Senator Cowan, speaking to reporters after learning of Trudeau’s decisions:
We have agreed that we will style ourselves as the Liberal Senate Caucus because we all share the values of the Liberal Party of Canada. We remain proud members of the Liberal Party of Canada. We are supporters, strong supporters of Mr. Trudeau and his leadership and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure that he becomes the Prime Minister.
By any definition, Cowan’s statement is a partisan one. Trudeau had hoped his cast-off senators would make their decisions “independent from any particular political brand” but his faith in his former colleagues to do just that was betrayed within minutes of Trudeau giving those Senators their gift of political freedom. The doors on their cells having swung wide open, the jailed partisans preferred to stay right where they were.
“We all remain proud active members of the Liberal Party of Canada and we will do everything we can in our own way to support Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal team in the next election. That’s not changed,” Cowan told reporters.
Senator Serge Joyal has been a partisan for 25 years. He was a Liberal MP for a decade and a Senator for the balance. Joyal was not going to be rude about it today but he’ll be damned if Trudeau fils is going to tell him to sit down, shut up and stop being a Liberal. “I have a membership card. Like any militant we can attend any nomination meeting,” Joyal said. “We can vote for whoever we want as a candidate. We can propose policies at the national convention. We are militants of the Liberal Party. I’ve been militant for 40 years. I remain a militant for the Liberal Party.”
So back to the leader.
“The Senate is suffering from two central problems: partisanship and patronage. Let’s begin with partisanship. The Senate was once referred to as a place of sober second thought, a place that allows for reflective deliberation on legislation, in-depth studies into issues of import to the country and to a certain extent, to provide a check and balance on the politically driven House of Commons. It’s become obvious that the party structure within the Senate interferes with these responsibilities,” Trudeau said.
The Liberal Senate Caucus — a group created as a direct result of Trudeau’s decision today — is, by any measure, “a party structure” within the Senate. But Trudeau’s decision to sever ties with this caucus means he can have no control or influence over this group to correct or ameliorate the “patronage and partisanship” problems he has identified. Instead, he has left it to Senators who clearly do not wish to be non-partisan or reject their partisan role in the Senate to carry on — unelected and accountable to no one.