By Mabell, Dave on October 13, 2017.
The Canadian Senate is on the road to reform. Still more changes are needed, according to Alberta Senator Grant Mitchell.
But Parliament’s upper chamber continues to serve a vital role, he said Thursday. What’s needed now is safeguards so a future government can’t reverse that progress, making it a highly partisan body once again.
“I think the Senate has done remarkable work,” he told the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs.
“The Senate’s credibility is continuing to improve.”
Mitchell pointed to the many years of literacy promotion from now-retired senator Joyce Fairbairn from Lethbridge. More recently, he added, Senate members like Romeo Dallaire have made a valuable contribution to Canadian life.
“It has some remarkable people,” Mitchell said, and they’re now serving the nation in a less partisan way. Once the current 10 vacancies are filled, he pointed out, the majority will be independent or “unaffiliated,” not members of a Liberal or Conservative caucus.
And now, he added, those Senate appointments come on the recommendation of a five-member panel operating at arms’ length, with two of its members representing the province in which the vacancy occurs.
Mitchell, an Edmonton MLA from 1986 to 1998 and leader of the Alberta Liberal Party from 1994 to 1998, was appointed to the Senate by an earlier Liberal government in 2005. While sitting as an “unaffiliated” member, he was more recently named one of three liaison contacts with the Liberal government.
Before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed all the Liberal-appointed senators, Mitchell said, that position would be akin to being the government “whip.”
“But now I have nothing with which to whip them,” and he said the Liberal-appointed members are taking a more objective look at all the Commons bills sent for their approval.
As a result, he said, five of the 35 bills sent for approval since the last federal election have been sent back with significant amendments. During the previous administration, Mitchell said, just 21 of more than 360 Commons bills were amended over those 11 years.
After more than a decade sitting as a Liberal, Mitchell admitted he was surprised by the prime minster’s move to cut those ties. But it was a wise decision.
“It was a revelation,” allowing senators to “distance themselves” and study proposed legislation in a non-partisan way.
And the Senate could be still more effective if the new Conservative leader asked Conservative-appointed Senators to leave his caucus, he said.
Mitchell said the Supreme Court of Canada – in response to a challenge by the previous government – ruled that all 10 provinces would have to agree to abolishing the upper chamber and seven of 10, representing at least 50 per cent of the nation’s population, would have to agree with having senators elected.
That’s extremely unlikely, he said, but there are many opportunities to make it a more effective arm of government. Today, just as when the Fathers of Confederation set out the Senate’s role, its responsibilities include protecting the rights of minority groups and individual Canadians.
“That’s why the Senate exists.”
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