Canada Is Never Dull

By David T. Jones on February 4, 2014

Washington, DC - Almost a generation ago, when first I contemplated engaging with Canadian issues, I was told that “Canada is dull.”  Subsequently, when assigned to Ottawa, I experienced a referendum on revising the Constitution (1992), a change in Tory party leadership, the virtual annihilation of the Tory party (1993), a cliff-hanging referendum on Quebec-Canada separation (1995), and reconstitution of conservatives until they ultimately won a majority government in 2011.  Simultaneously, the “natural governing party” imploded with revolving door leadership, Bloc Quebecois separatists lost 90 percent of their seats, and the previously laughably amusing socialist NDP became the federal official opposition.  Interspersed there were two wars, a Great recession, and complex trade arrangements.

And now the son of the iconic former federal Liberal leader seeks to make his father’s party relevant again (shades of Bush ‘41 and Bush ‘43).  One of his defining moves has just been to jettison all Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus.

So any political analyst who thinks Canadian politics are dull would only be satisfied with blood in the streets.

And Thus the Senate Imbroglio.

For an American, the Canadian Senate is a “neither fish nor fowl” political assembly.  Constitutionally, it has the potential to be a powerful second house of Parliament, capable of acting to reverse positions taken by the House of Commons and playing a serious political role.  In reality, it has self-neutered; akin to the story of the beaver being an animal that will bite off its own testicles.  Certainly, there are no “bulls” in the Canadian Senate; at most there are some ornery steers (of both sexes).  

But we know the reason.  As appointees, senators believe they lack the legitimacy to take the political actions the Constitution permits.  Thus, while there are intelligent, hard-working senators that examine issues and construct useful analytic reports, it generates a “make work” appearance of peripheral paper pushing.  Senate appointments have all too often been accorded to second-tier bagmen, who are loyal party members (i.e. “hacks”) but of insufficient merit to warrant Cabinet posts, judicial positions, or senior administrative roles.  Happily, the Senate has been available to serve as a single roost for Canadian turkeys; the USG in contrast appoints comparable fowl to ambassadorial positions throughout the globe providing opportunities for worldwide ridicule while Ottawa politely has kept its absurdities at home.

Hence to the whys/wherefores of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s evisceration of the Senate Liberal caucus.

Trudeau has proffered the high-minded explanation that he wishes to transform the Senate into a select group of individuals chosen by some abstract equally unelected group, avoiding sordid politics.  An individual presumable can be a Liberal--and a senator--but never again (or at least not until another Liberal leader reverses Trudeau’s injunction) a Liberal senator and a member of the Liberal caucus.  Only individuals elected by the people can be members of the Liberal caucus.  Trudeau blows off the loss of fundraising-organizers and hurt feelings by those who think him an ungracious twit.  Necessary sacrifices on the road to Nirvana; eggs broken for the perfect omelet.   

Does Trudeau conceive of an assembly of solons dispensing wisdom from on high?  A nest of “Nestors” conveying the ruminations of the best-and-brightest?  Amusingly, Trudeau’s father (no slouch in abstract political theorizing) was quite happy to stash his deserving colleagues in the Senate and use them as effect supplements to the Liberal election team.

Theoretically, that concept should lead to Trudeau supporting a “Triple E” (equal, elected, effective) Senate, which has been the objective of conservatives for a generation.  

Alas, this southern cynic sees less platonic explanations.  Now embroiled in a financial scandal with a persistent intensity that continues to provide scoops to media diggers, senators are at their lowest ebb ever in public esteem.  To date, three of the four disgraced senators are Tories; the RCMP reportedly will bring charges against two of the four.  

Last summer, in a desperate effort to deflect the baying auditing hounds from sole concentration on Tories, then senate Tory leader Marjory LeBreton opened the entire Senate to fiscal review.  One senator at the time concluded that she was a “suicide bomber” who would blow up the entire Senate.

An outsider might conclude that the business-as-usual regarding travel, billings, housing allowances that characterized senators’ fiscal action will not survive green-eyeshade examination.  So Trudeau has sprung the trap by throwing his senate caucus to the auditors’ wolves; it will only be nefarious Tories that will be guilty.

Adroit is he who lays down his friends for his (political) life.


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