The Senate as a Progressive Vanguard

Today’s Globe and Mail notes that Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent appointments to the Senate may not be Liberals, but they are ‘liberals’.

This dovetails with recent musings I’ve had about the future of the Senate.

In theory, the Senate is supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought. Let’s leave aside debates about whether it ever successfully lived up to this ideal; the point is simply that the upper chamber was meant to act as a mild check on the excesses of the House.

Under the previous government, the Conservative majority in the Senate became an extension of the governing party, complicating the upper chamber’s ability to act as an effective check. A number of Conservative senators continue to subscribe to this vision of how the Senate should operate. Since they are not elected, the thinking goes, democratic norms demand that senators follow the course set by their elected counterparts in the Commons.

The Liberals have followed a different path. In expelling senators from the Liberal caucus and establishing an appointment process that will name only independents, Prime Minister Trudeau may be seen to be reinforcing the Senate’s ability to act as a corrective on the lower house and the government. Under this approach, independent senators and ‘Senate Liberals’ will have sufficient distance from Cabinet and the Liberal Party in the Commons to revive the upper chamber’s ability to exercise a mild, cautionary check. Here again, that’s the theory.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think we’re seeing something else happening.

Rather than allowing the upper chamber to exercise sober second thought, the new appointments may be transforming the Senate into a progressive vanguard.

Instead of acting as a cautionary check on the House, a Senate with a majority of progressively-minded independents could provide Liberal governments with political and institutional cover to pass legislation and enact policies that are further to the left than the Liberal Party is prepared publicly champion at the time.

It isn’t difficult to see how this would work. The government introduces legislation that is timidly progressive. The Senate then amends the legislation to make it more robustly progressive, or the upper chamber demands that the government make it more resolutely progressive. After a bit of political theatre, the government agrees, laying any public discomfort at the feet of the upper chamber, while quietly achieving an objective that it had all along.

In this construct, the independent Senate serves not as a check on the excesses of the House, but as a body that allows the Commons and Cabinet to go farther than political prudence would permit. In effect, the Senate becomes an enabling chamber.

We should also note that this type of strategy isn’t alien to Canadian politics. Liberal governments arguably used the Supreme Court to this end in the past. These governments would wait for the SCC to rule in favour of progressive but controversial policies, allowing Cabinet to say that it was simply following the findings of the court when tabling new legislation.

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that this result is likely or inevitable. But it does strike me as a possibility, one that becomes stronger if comparatively few conservatively-minded individuals are appointed as independent senators.

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