Outgoing Senate leader wants Trudeau to appoint more people with political experience

Sen. Peter Harder, Trudeau's outgoing point-man in the upper house, said the Conservatives' loss in the last election has secured the Senate's future as a more independent chamber free of partisan politics. But he'd like to see more appointees with actual political experience.

The prime minister typically sends political neophytes to the upper house

Senator Peter Harder, the Trudeau government's representative in the Senate, says Conservative senators are holding legislation "hostage." (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sen. Peter Harder, Trudeau's outgoing point-man in the upper house, said the Conservatives' loss in the last election has secured the Senate's future as a more independent chamber free of partisan politics.

And while he's pleased with the reforms made during his four-year term as government representative in the Senate, Harder said he'd like to see more people with political and parliamentary experience appointed to the place in the future.

Only a few of the recent Senate appointments have a background in politics — like Sen. Frances Lankin, a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister, and Sen. Pat Duncan, a past Liberal premier of Yukon. Most of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 51 appointees to date have been political neophytes.

Under Trudeau's reforms, an independent appointments board compiles a list of eligible people to help the prime minister make his picks for the appointed chamber.

But the effort to rid the place of people with a partisan bent has left the Senate short of people who came into the job knowing how Parliament works.

Harder said Trudeau doesn't have to return to a time when Senate appointments were given out as "gifts of the prime minister ... rewards for political loyalty and the like."

"I personally believe having political experience ought not exclude you from consideration for the upper chamber. We'd benefit from having individuals who've had experience in legislatures, or the House of Commons, or who are more active in political life," he said. "But when you come to the Senate you turn that page [on party politics]."

Independent Ontario Sen. Frances Lankin, left, was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. Before her time in the upper house, Lankin served as a cabinet minister in a former Ontario NDP government. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Harder, a former senior public servant, said there's been a steep learning curve for some of the Trudeau appointees coming from non-political fields like medicine, the arts, business or the charitable sector.

Joining the Senate means a transition from private to public life — and the way Parliament works is completely unlike a private business or a non-profit.

For example, the standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration — which essentially governs the chamber's operations — is accountable not to shareholders but to the Canadian people, through senators.

The procedural quirks of the Senate can be hard to master. And while the Red Chamber has considerable power to amend or defeat legislation — a tempting proposition for new senators eager to enact change — Harder said senators ultimately have to defer to the government of the day.

"It would be helpful, in the mix of skill sets that are in the chamber, to have people who've gone through the practicalities of legislating — which, by definition, requires political compromises," he said.

The chamber's composition notwithstanding, Harder said the Senate has been more effective since the reforms because more senators are now willing to push the Liberal government to improve legislation.

Of the 88 government bills passed by the Senate in the last Parliament, the Senate amended 32. And 29 of those amended bills ultimately were accepted in whole or in part by the government.

Critics maintain some of those amendments were inconsequential or would have been proposed by senators during the drafting stage if they still sat in national party caucuses.

But the Senate under Trudeau has made considerably more amendments than it did under former prime minister Stephen Harper — when only one bill was amended by the Red Chamber in a four-year period.

'I take some pleasure in that'

Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had promised to dismantle the Liberal government's appointments process.

Scheer said he would revert to the decades-old tradition of appointing loyal party members to the Red Chamber.

When asked if he was happy with Scheer's election loss on Oct. 21, Harder said no.

"I think that's not the right adjective. I wasn't relieved that Andrew Scheer didn't win but I do think that our Senate experience, of being less partisan, more independent, will take root. I take some pleasure in that," Harder said.

"The promise he made to go back to the political appointments and to the Senate of old is not good for the institution. It turned out not to be good for him politically, either."

If the Liberal minority government can serve out an entire four-year term without losing a confidence vote, Trudeau will have appointed nearly three-quarters of the 105 seats in the chamber.

All of the Trudeau picks to this point have sat as Independents, outside of the traditional Liberal and Conservative caucuses.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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