The Liberal government is overhauling the Senate appointment process in a bid to end bitter partisanship and restore public confidence in the scandal-plagued Senate, but the plan is already under fire.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef and House leader Dominic LeBlanc today announced a five-member independent advisory board will be struck to make recommendations for "merit-based" candidates to sit in the Senate.

During a news conference on Parliament Hill, Monsef said the changes will not require any constitutional revisions and will ensure regional, gender and ethnic representation in the Senate. The advisory board will be formed this month and will consult with provinces, community and indigenous groups, business and labour organizations, arts councils and others.

"It brings real change to the Senate for the first time in decades," she said.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was one of the first to criticize the proposed changes, announcing on Twitter that her province won't participate in the process.

"Today's changes don't address our concerns — Senate has never represented B.C.'s interests at the national level," she tweeted.

A taxpayers' watchdog group also slammed the plan as "totally inadequate" for fixing a broken system.

"This truly is nothing more than the proverbial lipstick on the pig," said Canadian Taxpayers Federation director Aaron Wudrick in a news release.

Wudrick, whose group is calling for a referendum on abolishing the Senate, suggested the new process could actually make the Senate even less accountable because it weakens the link to the appointing prime minister. He also questioned how a panel would be better-placed to weed out problematic senators.

Candidates for Senate appointments must meet several criteria, including:

  • Demonstrated a record of achievement and leadership in community service or professional expertise.
  • Proven record of "outstanding" ethics and integrity.
  • Bring perspective that Senate is an independent, non-partisan institution.
  • Understand the Senate's role in Canada's constitutional framework.

Individual Canadians will also be able to apply to be considered for a seat in the Senate through the "independent and open application" process.

All Canadians can apply for a seat

The advisory panel will provide a non-binding short list of five nominees for each vacancy. One of the new appointments will serve as the government representative in the Senate.

Conservative Senator Claude Carignan called it "very weird" that the government would have a representative in the Senate who is supposed to be independent.

"A leader of the government by definition is partisan and non-independent," he said. "So if he wants to do that, he will break his first engagement to have a non-partisan and independent appointment."

Conservative Senate leader says Trudeau plan 'weird'1:50

The process will unfold in two phases, with the first "transitional" phase moving quickly to fill five vacancies early in the new year; two in Ontario, two in Manitoba and one in Quebec. 

The permanent process will see all 22 vacancies in the Senate filled by the end of 2016.

LeBlanc said the new appointees will "revitalize" the Senate and set a new, less-partisan tone as the chamber fulfils its role providing attentive, sober second thought on legislation passed in the House of Commons.

"Today marks an important new chapter in our country's democratic and parliamentary life," he said.

The NDP, which wants to abolish the Senate, said the proposed changes serve only to "paper over" the undemocratic nature of the upper chamber.

"The institution remains what it is: undemocratic, unaccountable and still under investigation," said NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen. "This is an inadequate fix and it is non-binding on the prime minister. The whole process is undone if the prime minister simply changes his mind."

Maryam Monsef and Dominic LeBlanc

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, left, listens to government House leader Dominic LeBlanc as he responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

LeBlanc also announced that Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal-appointed Senator George Furey will serve as Speaker in the Senate, replacing Conservative Leo Housakos.

In an open letter to Canadians released Thursday, Housakos defended the Senate as a valuable, independent institution.

"Despite what is often reported, the Senate is an autonomous and independent body. Senators understand their role in the national Parliament and strive to contribute to the country's well-being while respecting the trust invested in them," he wrote.

"What some consider most controversial about the Senate is that its members are appointed. Yet, ironically, this is precisely why senators do a great deal of good work. We don't always get bogged down by the partisan sound bites often heard from the House of Commons where members are seeking public attention to ensure re-election."

Merit-based process

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to create the advisory body two years ago, when he kicked all Liberal senators out of his party's caucus.

The objective is to appoint new senators based on merit, rather than party affiliation.

Senate 20110113

A view of the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Eventually, the process is intended to end partisanship in the Senate, which Trudeau believes has eroded the chamber's independence and senators' ability to dispassionately scrutinize legislation passed by the elected House of Commons.

"The status quo is not an option," the Liberal election platform stated. "The Senate needs to change. We need to end the partisan nature of the Senate."

Getting the appointment process going is a more pressing concern because the Senate is currently dominated by Conservatives, some of whom may be only too happy to throw up roadblocks to Liberal legislation. However, there are 22 vacancies in the chamber which, once filled, would rob the Conservatives of their majority control of the chamber.

Harper's last Senate appointment was in March 2013 — when the scandal over improper expenses claimed by some senators began to engulf his government.

He had spent three decades championing an elected Senate but threw in the towel last year following a Supreme Court ruling that said reforming the Senate would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. The top court set an even higher bar of unanimous provincial consent for Harper's fallback position — abolishing the Senate altogether.

Last spring, Harper formalized his refusal to appoint senators, announcing a moratorium which he said was aimed at pressuring the provinces to either come up with their own reform proposals or conclude that abolition was the only answer.

Trudeau maintained during the election campaign that his approach to Senate reform was the only practical solution, one that would deliver real change without requiring a constitutional amendment.

The Constitution specifies that it's the job of the Governor General to appoint senators, but by convention, the Governor General acts only on the advice of the prime minister.

Open Letter from Housakos

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With files from The Canadian Press