More changes needed for Sen­ate, SACPA told


The Cana­dian Sen­ate is on the road to re­form. Still more changes are needed, ac­cord­ing to Al­berta Se­na­tor Grant Mitchell. But Par­lia­ment’s up­per cham­ber con­tin­ues to serve a vi­tal role, he said Thurs­day. What’s needed now is safe­guards so a fu­ture govern­ment can’t re­verse that progress, mak­ing it a highly par­ti­san body once again.

“I think the Sen­ate has done re­mark­able work,” he told the South­ern Al­berta Coun­cil on Pub­lic Af­fairs.

“The Sen­ate’s cred­i­bil­ity is con­tin­u­ing to im­prove.”

Mitchell pointed to the many years of lit­er­acy pro­mo­tion from now-re­tired se­na­tor Joyce Fair­bairn from Leth­bridge. More re­cently, he added, Sen­ate mem­bers like Romeo Dal­laire have made a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to Cana­dian life.

“It has some re­mark­able peo­ple,” Mitchell said, and they’re now serv­ing the na­tion in a less par­ti­san way. Once the cur­rent 10 va­can­cies are filled, he pointed out, the ma­jor­ity will be in­de­pen­dent or “un­af­fil­i­ated,” not mem­bers of a Lib­eral or Con­ser­va­tive cau­cus.

And now, he added, those Sen­ate ap­point­ments come on the rec­om­men­da­tion of a five-mem­ber panel op­er­at­ing at arms’ length, with two of its mem­bers rep­re­sent­ing the prov­ince in which the va­cancy oc­curs.

Mitchell, an Ed­mon­ton MLA from 1986 to 1998 and leader of the Al­berta Lib­eral Party from 1994 to 1998, was ap­pointed to the Sen­ate by an ear­lier Lib­eral govern­ment in 2005. While sit­ting as an “un­af­fil­i­ated” mem­ber, he was more re­cently named one of three li­ai­son con­tacts with the Lib­eral govern­ment.

Be­fore Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau re­moved all the Lib­eral-ap­pointed sen­a­tors, Mitchell said, that po­si­tion would be akin to be­ing the govern­ment “whip.”

“But now I have noth­ing with which to whip them,” and he said the Lib­er­alap­pointed mem­bers are tak­ing a more ob­jec­tive look at all the Com­mons bills sent for their ap­proval.

As a re­sult, he said, five of the 35 bills sent for ap­proval since the last fed­eral elec­tion have been sent back with sig­nif­i­cant amend­ments. Dur­ing the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mitchell said, just 21 of more than 360 Com­mons bills were amended over those 11 years.

Af­ter more than a decade sit­ting as a Lib­eral, Mitchell ad­mit­ted he was sur­prised by the prime min­ster’s move to cut those ties. But it was a wise de­ci­sion.

“It was a rev­e­la­tion,” al­low­ing sen­a­tors to “dis­tance them­selves” and study pro­posed leg­is­la­tion in a non-par­ti­san way.

And the Sen­ate could be still more ef­fec­tive if the new Con­ser­va­tive leader asked Con­ser­va­tive-ap­pointed Sen­a­tors to leave his cau­cus, he said.

Mitchell said the Supreme Court of Canada — in re­sponse to a chal­lenge by the pre­vi­ous govern­ment — ruled that all 10 prov­inces would have to agree to abol­ish­ing the up­per cham­ber and seven of 10, rep­re­sent­ing at least 50 per cent of the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion, would have to agree with hav­ing sen­a­tors elected.

That’s ex­tremely un­likely, he said, but there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties to make it a more ef­fec­tive arm of govern­ment. To­day, just as when the Fa­thers of Con­fed­er­a­tion set out the Sen­ate’s role, its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude pro­tect­ing the rights of mi­nor­ity groups and in­di­vid­ual Cana­di­ans. “That’s why the Sen­ate ex­ists.” Fol­low @DMa­bel­lHer­ald on Twit­ter

@TMart­inHer­ald Her­ald photo by Ti­jana Martin

Se­na­tor Grant Mitchell dis­cusses re­form­ing the Cana­dian Sen­ate dur­ing a SACPA ses­sion at Coun­try Kitchen Cater­ing on Thurs­day.

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