March 19, 2016 - 1:00 PM
OTTAWA - The evolution of the discredited Senate into a supposedly more reputable, less-partisan chamber of sober second thought picked up steam Friday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named seven new senators — including a former senior bureaucrat, a judge, a journalist and a Paralympian.
They are the first appointments in three years and the first to be based on the recommendations of a new arm's-length advisory board, established by Trudeau in a bid to reduce partisanship in the Senate.
Peter Harder, a former federal deputy minister who led the transition team when Trudeau took power last fall, was named government representative in the Senate — as opposed to the traditional government leader in the Senate. His role will be to steer government legislation through the upper house but, even so, he said he'll sit as an independent, as will the other six new senators.
"I think it's important that we are clear that the Senate is both a separate chamber and that the independent members of the Senate are being called upon to exercise their judgment on pieces of legislation as they come through, without being whipped by partisan interests," Harder said in an interview.
Trudeau said his picks will help "transform the Senate into a less-partisan and more independent institution that can perform its fundamental roles in the legislative process more effectively — including the representation of regional and minority interests."
But opposition parties wasted little time dismissing the new appointments as little more than lipstick on a pig.
"Regardless of the merits of those appointed, the new senators were still appointed from secret short lists, created by an unelected, unaccountable board that reports to the prime minister himself," Tory MPs Scott Reid and Blake Richards said in a joint statement.
New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen echoed that: "The Liberal appointment process was as secretive and unaccountable as it has always been."
Harder's role is murky. He will be sworn into the Privy Council so he can attend cabinet meetings when necessary, but he is not a cabinet minister and still considers himself non-partisan.
"I'm a bit of a buckle that joins the government, which is represented in the House of Commons, with the other chamber," Harder said. "And as the representative of the government, I will work with all senators to appropriately advance the legislative agenda that comes to the Senate of Canada."
Whether or not he'll answer on behalf of the government during the daily question period, as the government Senate leader has always done, remains unclear. It's equally unclear whether the Conservative-dominated chamber will agree to change a system geared to having governing and opposition party caucuses in the Senate.
Harder acknowledged that reforms to reflect a more independent, less partisan chamber are "a work in progress."
Two of the new appointees, journalist Andre Pratte and longtime multiculturalism and diversity advocate Ratna Omidvar, acknowledged they're concerned that, as independents, they'll have no access to the budgets and research teams available to the Conservative Senate caucus and the caucus of independent Liberal senators, who were booted from the national Liberal caucus by Trudeau two years ago.
But Omidvar said she hopes independent senators can pool resources for research. And as other vacancies are filled, Pratte said the independents will gain clout and eventually the numbers to change the existing rules.
It's also unclear whether a chamber eventually full of independent-minded senators will defer to the elected House of Commons. Although the Senate's powers are effectively equal to the Commons, appointed senators have generally tended to defer to the will of MPs.
Omidvar said she expects the new Senate to be "constructive" rather than deferential.
The new appointment process does not preclude people who've been involved in partisan politics but it is supposed to put a premium on merit.
Harder worked for Joe Clark when he was leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1970s. But he rejoined the bureaucracy because he felt "more comfortable in a non-partisan, professional public service context."
Among the other new appointees, Frances Lankin served as a cabinet minister in Ontario's NDP government in the 1990s. She declined to give any interviews Friday.
Omidvar said she's never been a member of any party but has supported both the Liberals and NDP in the past, including once attending a $500 fundraiser featuring Trudeau.
"Does that mean I'll agree with everything the government sends to the red chamber? Probably not," she said in an interview.
Pratte, longtime editorial writer for Montreal's La Presse newspaper who once authored a book that posited that all politicians are liars, said he's never been partisan.
Pratte and fellow appointee Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation commission, both said they agreed to become senators precisely so that they could act independently.
"I'm really a firm believer in the role of the Senate," said Pratte, adding that he's saddened that the institution has become so discredited in the minds of Canadians.
The other two appointees, wheelchair athlete Chantal Petitclerc and Raymonde Gagne, former president of Universite Saint-Boniface in Manitoba, could not be reached for comment.
The new advisory board was supposed to recommend five potential senators for each vacancy and it was to proceed in two phases, with just five seats filled in the first phase.
The board duly presented Trudeau with 25 names, from which the prime minister decided to fill seven seats. A spokesman said Trudeau appointed two more than originally planned because the board's list included such high-calibre candidates and two additional seats had fallen vacant since the board was created.
The new appointments fill vacancies in Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. There are still 17 others in the 105-seat chamber, left empty by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who stopped naming senators in 2013 in the midst of the Senate expenses scandal.
The Conservatives currently hold 42 seats, the independent Liberals 26. In addition to Friday's appointees, 13 other senators currently sit as independents.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016