Chalk one up for Justin Trudeau's Senate surprise

There may well prove to be a great deal wrong with Justin Trudeau's plan to change the Senate, but being bold won't be one of them, Chris Hall writes.

All in all it's a pretty safe decision, but he gets marks for being decisive

Surprise! Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau arrives at a news conference on Parliament Hill Wednesday to announce that he has removed Liberal senators from the party caucus. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

There may well prove to be a great deal wrong with Justin Trudeau's plan to change the Senate, but being bold won't be one of them.

The Liberal leader sent jaws dropping and tongues wagging across Ottawa when he hoofed all 32 Liberal senators out of his caucus without notice, and promised a new, more transparent process for choosing members of the Red Chamber if he becomes prime minister.

As a political gambit, it was a corker. The proposals dominated political talk shows. Trudeau forced the other party leaders to respond to him.

In the process he repositioned himself and the Liberals from defenders of an institution discredited by scandal, to proponents of changes intended to make the Senate more effective, less partisan and ultimately less reviled.

"It was the surprise of the day. The talk of the day,'' Christian Bourque, a senior partner in the polling firm, Leger Marketing, told CBC News.

"I find it hard to see how average Canadians would fundamentally disagree with the move.''

"It's pretty clever,'' echoed Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. "What he did was brought some bold new thinking to this, and a new decision that nobody was really thinking about. He acted decisively.''

Election impact?

It's also a pretty safe decision. Trudeau hasn't appointed any senators. He won't even get the chance to for two more years, perhaps longer if the Liberals can't form the government in 2015.

And that may prove to be a critical point. Because it's not at all clear whether Trudeau's proposals would really change anything — now or in the future — which is a view coming not just from his political opponents, but from the very Liberal senators he so summarily ushered out the door.

The tall guy in the centre is now former Liberal Senator James Cowan, who may still be the opposition leader in the Upper Chamber. So what has changed? (Blair Gable / Reuters)

James Cowan, the now former Liberal senator and still, possibly, leader of the opposition in the Senate, suggested there's little practical impact to the move.

"We have agreed that we will style ourselves as the Liberal Senate caucus,'' Cowan said. "I think not a lot will change.''

A similar view from Jim Munson, another now-former Liberal senator, but still possibly the opposition whip in the Senate.

"I am a Liberal, independent senator,'' he told reporters. "I'm still a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and a strong supporter of Justin Trudeau.''

The word play was all too much for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to resist during question period.

"I see the change announced today is that unelected Liberal senators become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal,'' he said to gales of laughter from his own benches.

Ditto for opposition leader Tom Mulcair, who reminded the Commons that Trudeau and his MPs voted against an NDP motion in October that would have prevented senators from engaging in partisan activities.

"We're glad the Liberal leader has changed his mind and he'll see the light again to work with us to abolish the Senate!'' More laughter, this time from the New Democrats.

Do the right thing

But even amidst the partisan ridicule, Trudeau accomplished something.

For a politician who's frequently criticized for having no ideas, the Senate proposal firmly positions the Liberals between the Conservatives' elect-or-bust approach to Senate reform, and the NDP's bust-up the Senate altogether.

He also got Harper and Mulcair to snipe at each other.

Mulcair needled Harper over his track record of appointing 59 senators since taking power; the prime minister responding by suggesting the only reason Mulcair hasn't appointed senators is that he's never had the chance to be prime minister, and never will.

It made for a highly entertaining QP. But strip away the rhetoric, and there's still much to debate.

In Trudeau's favour, the proposals are moderate and easily do-able. They won't require a constitutional amendment, or a protracted set of negotiations with the provinces.

What's more, they tap into what the Liberals believe is a public increasingly turned off by a prime minister who wields absolute power.

"I'm calling on the prime minister to do the right thing,'' Trudeau said Wednesday. "Make senators independent of political parties. And end partisanship in the Senate now.''

Harper, of course, is in a legal limbo. His proposals for Senate elections and term limits continue to await a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.

Harper has promised not to appoint any new senators until that decision is made.

But with five more senators reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 this year, and two more in 2015, holding off could put even his celebrated will power to the test.

Mulcair also faces a challenge. Abolishing the Senate sounds good. It even looks good on paper. But it, too, will likely require negotiations with the provinces.

None of this is to say that Trudeau is suddenly in command of the Senate issue.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson is investigating all senators' expenses, and an interim report is expected soon.

With that on the horizon, more than few political wags are already suggesting that Trudeau's plan is really a pre-emptive move to blunt criticism should any of the now, suddenly former Liberal senators be found to have misused taxpayers' money.

If that happens, don't expect jaws to drop. But the same tongues will be wagging once again, right across Ottawa.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.