Today more than ever, the Senate is broken. Canadians deserve an open, transparent government that will focus on their real priorities: economic growth that works for everyone. Canadians are rightfully calling for meaningful reforms. They are appalled by years of unethical behaviour by some senators and the way Stephen Harper has transformed the upper house into a hyperpartisan Senate, a de facto extension of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Senate needs to be fixed.

Harper promised he would never appoint a single unelected senator but went on to appoint 59 new ones in his 10-year tenure. Canadians have not forgotten that the people he appointed — including Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — were there to serve the Conservative Party above all else. Harper promised he would reform the Senate, but he failed miserably to do so. Now, Harper is trying to divert the attention of Canadians by decreeing a “moratorium” on Senate appointments that will do nothing to improve this institution. This 11th-hour moratorium could be deemed unconstitutional by the courts on the grounds that according to the Constitution, the governor general “shall” summon new senators. Should the courts compel Harper to appoint new senators, he could continue stacking the Senate with hyperpartisan appointments that further the Conservative Party agenda in the upper chamber.

Meanwhile, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair keeps trumpeting that he will abolish the Senate. So what does he make of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent ruling that abolition would require a constitutional amendment with the consent of all 10 provinces? Everybody knows that there is no appetite in the provinces — and certainly no unanimity — to abolish the Senate. Some premiers have said that if a new round of constitutional negotiations were to be initiated, they would bring a host of other issues to the table. So one wonders why Mulcair wants to drag Canadians into yet another messy, drawn-out and unproductive constitutional debate instead of dealing with the important issues facing Canada today, such as strengthening the middle class and growing our economy — the priorities of Canadians, and those of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

The Senate must be reformed. That is why Justin Trudeau has developed a responsible and immediate plan to remove partisanship and patronage from the Senate, through the introduction of a truly nonpartisan nomination process. The Trudeau plan consists of two phases.

The first phase was completed on January 29, 2014, when Trudeau removed all senators from the national Liberal caucus. No longer do these senators have formal or organic ties with the Liberal caucus, nor do they have any organizational, financial or other formal responsibilities within the Liberal Party. Instead, they are able to focus on their legislative work as independent parliamentarians. Invited to do the same with his own Conservative senators, Harper refused. As such, Justin Trudeau did more to reform the Senate than Stephen Harper has in a decade.

The second phase of Trudeau’s Senate reform will be implemented if Canadians elect a Liberal government. We will create a new, nonpartisan, merit-based, broad and diverse process to advise the prime minister on Senate appointments. We will also work to implement the recent recommendations of the Auditor General regarding parliamentarians’ expenses, including with legislative measures where necessary.

Instead of producing candidates like Mike Duffy, the new process would search out those of exceptional competence, an indisputable connection with their province, a history of outstanding service to their communities, an excellent work capacity, flawless honesty and integrity, open-mindedness, the wisdom and sound judgment expected of a legislator and full understanding of the role of a chamber of sober second thought: proposing improvements to legislation without disputing or usurping the legitimate lead role of the elected House of Commons in a democracy. Care will be taken to ensure fair representation of women and minorities, including Aboriginal peoples and official-language communities that have historical ties to the Senate.

Without having to change a single word in the Constitution, Trudeau’s plan — the most significant and concrete action to reform the Senate in its history — will deliver an effective upper house, worthy of the pride and confidence of Canadians and more representative of our great country’s diverse regions, values, perspectives and identities.

Yes, we can bring real change to the upper house, without getting mired in the protracted debates, controversy and paralysis that Stephen Harper’s and Thomas Mulcair’s proposals would cause. The only realistic and much-needed plan for Senate reform is the Liberal plan. It is time for an effective Senate; it is time for real change on Senate reform.

Photo by Alex Guibord licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stéphane Dion
Stéphane Dion is the Liberal candidate for the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent.

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