Senate faces an uncertain future out from under the party whip

Testifying before a Senate committee this week, Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc says the government would rather not appoint a government whip to the Senate, raising questions about parking spaces and other serious matters.

Is an unsupervised Senate better positioned to provide sober second thought?

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc, right, and Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, tried to reassure senators this week that the Senate can operate without a government whip. It's an idea senators are apparently going to have to get used to. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Among the myriad ways the Trudeau Liberals might change this country forever you can now count this: they might not appoint a government whip in the Senate.

This much was posited by Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc to senators Wednesday evening, when he and Maryam Monsef, the minister of democratic institutions, were invited to appear before a Senate committee on the subject of the new government's plans to reform the upper chamber. 

And while it might be years before the full extent of the ramifications is understood, the mere suggestion a government whip might not appear raised questions from Conservative Senator David Tkachuk.

"Someone has to do the work of the whip, whether you have a whip or you don't have a whip," he maintained. "Someone has to allocate offices and parking spaces. There's a lot of ordinary administration that takes place, as you well know."

More fundamentally, Tkachuk insisted that the parliamentary system depended on parties. "This is a very unique experiment," he said, but ultimately the system would come to partisanship.

LeBlanc acknowledged the administrative tasks involved in maintaining a legislative chamber (and there are at least two rules of the Senate that reference a whip). But, he suggested, perhaps those duties could be assigned to some sort of other representative of the government in the Senate.

"We're hesitating to appoint a whip," he explained, holding his hand out to emphasize the w-word, "because the whip implies a discipline on voting."

Indeed, it is rather unclear who that whip would be whipping. Conceivably, a government whip would exist to whip the government's caucus. But there will be no government caucus in the Senate, at least so long as Justin Trudeau is prime minister.

A government whip in the Senate would thus be made to live an existential quandary: a shepherd with no sheep, a tree forever falling with no one to hear.

The current lack of a government caucus is an extension of the decision Trudeau made two years ago to forcibly eject Liberal senators from the Liberal parliamentary caucus. Those senators now style themselves as Senate Liberals and though some amount of mockery was directed at the resulting wordplay, the distinction should matter: whatever the former Liberal senators call themselves, they are no longer under the direct authority of the Liberal leader.

First batch of new senators coming

Some weeks from now, the prime minister will nominate the first cohort of senators selected with the assistance of an independent advisory council. However those five senators end up organizing themselves, they will seemingly enter the Senate without a decreed party assignment.

One of those senators will carry the responsibility of being the government's representative in the Senate, but LeBlanc was keen to distinguish between a government representative and, as has been the practice, a government leader in the Senate. A government leader in the Senate, of course, would suggest that the government was attempting to lead in the Senate.

What happens then is something of a mystery.

How will the Senate conduct its business? Will the red chamber descend into chaos? Will the government struggle to get its legislation through the upper house? Will unwhipped, free-range senators run wild?

LeBlanc at least allowed that the government would not view as a crisis any move by the Senate to improve a bill.

In lieu of a government leader in the Senate, the Liberals have agreed to a request to send a cabinet minister down the hall each Wednesday to take questions from senators. But Conservative Senator Denise Batters still ventured Wednesday evening that the Liberals were "subverting democracy" in not having a representative on hand for questions every day.

Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, assured senators that the situation would evolve according to "your needs and your feedback."

"I firmly believe that what we're doing here is a great service to Canadians and to the democratic process," the minister added.

The perils of 'constant supervision'

We are now a month short of the third anniversary of a remarkable memo to Stephen Harper from his staff in the Prime Minister's Office. "What we see is a laissez-faire system that requires constant direction, supervision and follow-up from your office to ensure that government messaging and direction are followed," Harper's aides reported of the Senate, the memo later made public by the RCMP.

Just less than two months after that memo, PMO staff coordinated the rewriting of a Senate committee's report on the matter of Mike Duffy.

Senator Mike Duffy's trial has focused a lot of unwanted attention on the Upper Chamber over the past 10 months. The judge will issue his ruling in April after the trial wrapped up this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Though much remains to be seen, a Senate without a government whip seems something like the opposite of all that. And a Senate that would act as some kind of independent, and vaguely non-partisan, check on the House of Commons seems almost to embody the original promise of "sober second thought."

The matter of Mike Duffy, of course, is what inspired the latest round of questioning the Senate's existence. Which led the Liberals to exile their senatorial friends and propose a new "non-partisan" and "merit-based" process for nominating new senators.

A partisan appointed under the old way of doing things might, understandably, question the implication. Conservative Senator David Wells, for instance, took his opportunity on Wednesday to list, at some length, the merits and qualifications of some of his colleagues. How more merited, he wondered, was the new government aiming for?

Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan, noting Monsef's general praise for the Senate, wondered precisely what she thought was wrong with the current state of affairs. Monsef nimbly stepped over this question to avoid offending her hosts.

"This process is in no way meant to diminish the good work of senators past or present," she said. "But the good work of the Senate has been hampered by the perception that Canadians have about how much partisanship is affecting the chamber."

Of course, if the public currently takes a rather dim view of the Senate it is, in part, because the previous government was so deeply invested in one of its appointees.

Trudeau's reforms might at least ensure that his chief of staff refrains from cutting any senator a cheque. And that, plus the sight of esteemed and unaffiliated Canadians joining the Senate, might leave the public feeling somewhat better about the chamber's continued existence.

That the Senate might conduct its affairs more freely, whether on the allotment of parking spaces or the consideration of government legislation, might be understood as an added bonus.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.