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How to make the Senate really useful

We’ve been waiting for Justin Trudeau to make the big moves of which we know he’s capable. This morning (01/29/13) he took an important first step by cutting all Liberal Senators loose from the parliamentary caucus, thereby committing himself to a non-partisan Senate.

For those of us who have regarded the Canadian Senate in its present form as a useless and costly appendage, Trudeau’s decision represents a dramatic break with the past. Not as good as abolishing the Senate entirely, perhaps, but at least it’s a formula to create a more meaningful, respectful, and effective “chamber of sober second thought.”

Under Trudeau’s proposal. future Senate appointments would be made from  a process similar to that used now to award the Order of Canada to distinguished Canadians. Gone would be the days of filling the Senate with tired party hacks, bagmen, and assorted creatures obliged to follow the Prime Minister’s orders.

Of course, the Conservatives don’t see it this way. They say they’d like Senators to be elected, but as Trudeau points out, that’s virtually impossible without getting involved in a long, tiresome, and potentially pointless Constitutional negotiation between Ottawa and the provinces. The Supreme Court is now hearing Ottawa’s referral on Senate matters but whatever it decides, it’s unlikely the Court will find any magic formula to shake up the Senate in a painless and effective fashion.

That’s why Justin Trudeau’s proposal is so exciting.

image2-300 “I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” Mr. Trudeau said at his news conference. “Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.”

“I challenge the Prime Minister to match this action,” said Mr. Trudeau. “As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

So who could we expect to see in the Senate if Justin Trudeau were to become Prime Minister and have the opportunity to  implement his reform plan?

There’s no shortage of excellent candidates. Here I offer up a few suggestions:

  • Chris Hadfield, Canada’s thoughtful and smart ex-commander of the International Space Station
  • Jack Diamond, the brilliant Toronto architect who understands the connection between city-building and saving the environment
  • Margaret Atwood, author and advocate of progressive ideas
  • Prem Watsa, the brilliant chief of Fairfax Holdings, a man clued into the need to build world-class Canadian tech companies
  • Heather Reisman, who’s running the big Chapters-Indigo book chain
  • Marc Carney, ex-governor of the Bank of Canda (now at the Bank of England)
  • Kirstine Stewart, ex of the CBC, now head of Twitter in Canada
  • Pierre Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, the train and plane builder
  • Mike Lazaridis, far-seeing co-founder of Blackberry

Imagine what a Senate made up of these personalities and others like them would look and sound like! Freed of the obligation to follow orders of the Prime Minister. Equipped with the long-standing Senate authority to review Parliamentary legislation, and suggest changes where it sees fit.

Perhaps we’d then get serious discussion of important issues — like how to educate Canadians for the 21st century, how to reduce the wastage of lives trapped in our prisons, or how to reclaim Canada’s position in the world as a tolerant, fair-minded, progressive contributor to the family of nations. Ideas on how to renew Canada.

In the short term, it will be instructive to see how the 32 former Liberal Senators conduct themselves in the Red Chamber. More significantly, Justin Trudeau’s proposals represent a break with the traditional tired politics of the old Canada. A first step toward renewing this great country to make it capable of facing the challenges we see ahead.

Trudeau’s new idea should play well with voters. He has put forward an innovative policy in a positive, forthright manner. Just as he has called for the legalization of marijuana, he is breaking new ground while answering critics who have derided him for not putting out policy ideas.

Justin Trudeau’s proposals offer a welcome contrast to the tired, personality-driven dirty politics so cleverly practiced by the Harper government. Perhaps he really has found a way to do politic differently.

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