Trudeau’s Senate Reform: Does It Enforce Accountability?

The Senate scandal afflicting Canada’s Upper Chamber took an unexpected turn last month when Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau announced that he was removing the Liberal members in the Canadian Senate from his caucus. He also challenged Prime Minister Harper, who has been a major proponent of Senate Reform, to do the same.

Perceived as a bold move by many, it is important to distinguish that the Liberal members who are no longer in the Liberal caucus are still members of the Canadian Senate. These men and women remain Liberal Senators, have created a new caucus (the Liberal Senate Caucus), and are still members of the Liberal Party as per Parliament’s official website.

Nevertheless, Trudeau has said that his plan for Senate Reform is to have senators independent of political parties, chosen by a non-partisan arms-length committee. This idea has received both criticism and praise, with some pundits remarking that he has at least moved forward the discussion about Senate reform and others musing that it changes very little. The real issue here, however, is whether removing senators from a political caucus truly promotes accountability. Indeed, Trudeau’s proposal does not address the deeper issue of transparency plaguing the Upper Chamber.

An independent Senate, appointed based on a merit system, would lack accountability in two principle ways.

First, the Senate would still lack true accountability to a constituency. This should be central to any liberal democracy and is only achievable through some sort of election system. Some may argue that Trudeau’s proposal for reform could resolve this issue by involving elected officials in the appointment process. However, the proposed system does not foster direct accountability, certainly not in the same way that an elected Senate would, and it would likely have shortcomings similar to the current appointment process.

The second major problem with the reform proposal is that the Senate would maintain the current appointment-for-life structure. Currently, Senators serve until they are 75 and the Canadian Constitution insulates them removal (accept in cases of treason, poor attendance, and instances in which they do not meet the Senate’s property requirements). Trudeau’s reform proposal assumes that disbanding Senators from their party caucuses is the primary determinant of accountability. However, in order to achieve true accountability, the government must introduce appointment terms. This ensures that Senators have an incentive to act responsibly, as they would face the possibility of losing their seat in the Upper Chamber.

Trudeau’s reform proposal is problematic not because Senatorial independence is a bad idea. The primary concern is the assumption that independent senators are, by nature, more accountable than their partisan counterparts are. Regardless of whether there are political parties in the Senate, Canada would still have a major democratic deficit and the Senate would remain theoretically unaccountable. True reform must come by way of accountability through elections and the elimination of the current appointment-for-life structure. Until then, however, the Senate will continue to bane Canadian democracy.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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