A prof and a partisan on the Senate's provincial role

Some thoughts on Justin Trudeau's proposal

It’s intriguing to see the redoubtable Peter Russell, former University of Toronto political science professor, wade in with these favourable comments on Justin Trudeau’s surprise move last week to diminish the partisanship of the Senate.

Russell stresses how in any future arrangement following up on Trudeau’s pledge, if he becomes prime minister, to create a non-partisan appointment process, the importance of senators as representatives of their home provinces—not political parties—should be emphasized.

“Given the federal nature of the country and the constitutional provision that senators are appointed for the province in which they reside, each provincial government should be represented on the selection committee that selects Senators from its province,” Russell writes.

You might assume that any shift in this direction would have to wait until the day a serious, sweeping reform of the Senate is finally undertaken. But Sen. Terry Mercer, a bred-in-the-bone Liberal from Nova Scotia, told me last week he hopes to coax his fellow senators from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island into taking a step toward re-emphasizing their provincial roots soon.

I interviewed Mercer, a former national director of the Liberal party, after Trudeau announced his decision to cut the 32 Liberal senators out of the his national caucus, which will now only be open to elected MPs. Declaring himself “very partisan,” Mercer nevertheless said he sees Trudeau’s move as a chance for senators to remember their regions.

“My proposal,” he told me, “is going to be that the 24 senators from the Maritimes, that’s Liberals and Conservatives, meet, and not to figure out how we work together, initially, but to invite the intergovernmental affairs ministers for the three provinces to brief us on their priorities.”

Mercer said the aim of this get-together would be for senators from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. to learn together about the priorities of the provincial governments, and only then figure out if they recognize any common cause that might transcend party loyalties. This might sound radical. In fact, though, Mercer claims that in his early days in the upper chamber—he was appointed in late 2003 by Jean Chrétien—communication and even cooperation between Grits and Tories wasn’t uncommon.

“It’s become so partisan in the past eight years,” he lamented. “Hey, I’m the most partisan guy on our side. I’ve spent my entire volunteer life working for the Liberal party. But it has become so partisan now.” As Russell suggests, maybe it doesn’t have to remain that way.

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