What are we talking about when we talk about partisanship?

The upper chamber and party allegiance

Justin Trudeau’s decision to remove senators from his parliamentary caucus was presented as a step toward “ending partisanship” in the Senate. ” I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” he said. He called on the Prime Minister to join the Liberals in “making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

In response, Mike Coates defends partisanship in an op-ed for the Globe. There are certainly a lot of things to be said for partisanship: it is fundamental to our current system, it assists in making our formal politics more coherent, it helps unite individuals around ideas and the resulting clash of ideas is generally useful for the purposes of sorting out our general direction as a nation.

It’s also probably not possible to ban all partisanship from the Senate, at least insofar as individuals are free to associate themselves with each other or particular causes or parties. Even if Mr. Trudeau’s ultimate vision of an independent Senate is achieved, those 105 individuals might still group themselves together for the purposes of voting or organizing Senate business or car-pooling to work. They might decide they really like the policies of a particular party.

Possibly what we mean when we complain about “partisanship” what we’re complaining about is the assumption or existence of a slavish adherence to a party banner or party leader. Coates argues that the problem with the Senate is accountability—that we can’t hold senators accountable by voting them out of office. Fair enough (I have a problem with an appointed chamber sitting in judgment of an elected chamber and would generally opt for abolishing the Senate). But in the context of partisanship and the role of the Senate there is also possibly another question about accountability—at what point does partisanship erode the system’s ability to hold the government to account?

This seems like the sort of thing Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin was getting at in his speech to the Senate yesterday.

Some colleagues have raised the importance of partisanship in the Senate. I want to be clear: senators are associated with parties, and that is fine. Being partisan or completely independent is not what is causing a problem. The problem is that we are starting to lose sight of our responsibilities.

I described the problems caused in the House of Commons by strong partisanship and too much party discipline. I think it is much easier for senators to carry out their duties if they manage to reduce the influence of partisanship on their decisions. Each individual’s free will is often a much better guide.

And somewhere in here is the basic question about the Senate and its future: What exactly is the Senate supposed to do? (And further: Is that role necessary? And, if so, how can the chamber best fulfill that mandate?)

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