Before Justin Trudeau informed the 32 Liberal senators of his decision to remove them from the party’s caucus and have them sit as independents in the Senate, he seemed to have done his due diligence. From all accounts, the Liberal leader held consultations with trusted allies before coming to this decision; however, he did not confide in any of the senators.
This “bold” move follows Trudeau’s earlier announcements that expense claims by Liberal senators will be made public and transparent.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with his reputation for being controlling, had struck such a move, he would likely have been criticized for taking unilateral action or conversely for reacting to the Senate expenses claim scandal involving now suspended Conservative senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallen and Patrick Brazeau.
Trudeau, on the other hand, seems for the most part to be getting away with it. He has some capital with the public and wears quite well the charisma many would associate with his famous father. In fact, polls taken after the news broke of his decision showed more than 50 per cent public approval.
Trudeau’s emerging leadership style taps into the interests and anger of everyday people facing financial hardship. For the past 10 months, public and media attention have been taken up with charges of abuse of the public purse by senators who appear to be very creative in the application of expense claims for their travel and housing costs. The matter has taken another turn with the RCMP now charging Brazeau and retired Liberal senator Mac Harb with fraud and breach of trust. There has been the suggestion that other senators may have to answer for their claims as well with the RCMP continuing investigations and another audit in the works.
It took an auditor general’s report in June 2012 to begin to shine a light on the kind of practice that had been the norm for senators almost from the beginning of the establishment of the Senate nearly 150 years ago.
The notion that the Senate watches over Parliamentary matters, and would provide the oft referred to ‘sober second look’ is meant to give legitimacy to this appointed body. However, appointments to the Senate have more often than not been acts of patronage as prime ministers use the procedure to reward party faithful.
Reforming the Senate has been a key plank in Harper’s political mission. But while the PM waits for a court decision expected sometime this year on questions of Senate reform, including electing rather than appointing senators and limiting terms to 10 years, or Parliament even abolishing the Senate without approval of all the provinces, Trudeau wants to appear to be doing something now. It’s a clever move. He’s managed to take action while not interfering with the Senate’s continued existence.
This has not, however, suddenly brought change to the Senate where the Liberals are currently in the minority. But as with Trudeau’s style of laying groundwork for longer-term outcomes, this can only be viewed as a first step. What he has done with this ousting of senators from the Liberal caucus is to at least try to address the matter. Or seem to be doing so.
It has won both approval and criticism from Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, who claimed Trudeau took the idea from his New Democratic Party. And, with 59 Conservative senators still in his caucus, Harper has tried to shrug off Trudeau’s move as mere cosmetics.
The affected senators for the most part have greeted the change positively, some expressing satisfaction with now having the freedom to vote their conscience on parliamentary matters. Although, no one should be fooled that they will suddenly be impartial; for the most part they will continue to side with party principles. As many have said, they are still Liberal.
Whatever effect this action has, it does send the message that Trudeau is willing to make bold moves and that might have come as a surprise to many who until now thought he was just all talk.
It is also clear that the campaign for the 2015 election is on.