Is Justin Trudeau’s senate legitimate?

When a leading Liberal thinker such as Pierre Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary Thomas Axworthy challenges us on how to make the new independent(?) Senate of Canada legitimate, workable and effective, we need to pay attention. The only problem is that in a think piece for the Toronto Star on March 26, Tom writes that Justin Trudeau’s senate solution seems to be based on a fantasy.

Tom credits Helen Forsey (daughter of the late constitutional expert Senator Eugene Forsey) with writing of the ‘fantasy of the future’ in which people who have earned the respect of their fellow Canadians through their work for the common good, are appointed to the senate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already gone Helen Forsey one better. He has picked an elite committee to recommend elite candidates for the senate for him to choose. He must have figured that it takes an elite to know one. It reminds us of Benito Mussolini’s corporations that he appointed to make Italy’s trains run on time.

But what is legitimate about elitism in any form?

Tom answers his own question about whether this elitist senate is workable. In his article, he questions the organizational structure of this new body that is supposed to be without connection to political parties. He is concerned that the senate will have no choice but to to organize itself into quasi-provincial caucuses. While some might think that a house of the provinces could work, there needs to be a lot of thought about the inequality that this idea would foster.

And that leaves the critical question as to whether this elitist, ‘non-partisan’ senate can work on behalf of Canadians. The answer is probably not. When you ask people who have no experience in the process of creating legislation to study bills, you are asking for trouble.

And besides, Canada already has the Order of Canada as an honours system—such as it is. To also use the senate as an honours system is almost as silly as the political use of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for political purposes under the last Conservative government.

As policy chair for Massey College, University of Toronto, we see that Tom will be hosting a conference at the college on April 25. The conference will be on the future of an independent senate. Hopefully the conference can help make sure it will be a short future.

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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