Trudeau should welcome opportunity to turn Senate on its head

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For the same reasons Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to embrace parity in his Cabinet, he should welcome the opportunity to turn the Senate on its head, and its body.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 11, 2016.

OTTAWA—It is 2016, eh! All the more reason for the countrywide Senate parity push. The unprecedented number of vacancies provides an historic opportunity.

When a non-partisan body, representing women across the political spectrum can achieve consensus on the need for Red Chamber equality, you know the political winds in Canada have shifted dramatically.

From the first woman prime minister to multiple female leaders, from prominent Conservatives to renowned New Democrats, there is near unanimity on the issue amongst political women.

That, in an of itself, is no minor accomplishment, as women of different political stripes are no different from their male counterparts, when it comes to philosophical leanings and opposing positions on multiple issues.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained his decision to promote Cabinet parity, his logic was simple and compelling. He did face some pushback from the usual suspects.

However, the broad public support for his leadership far outweighed any dissenters, and the obvious quality of his Cabinet nominees muted any criticism.

Simply appointing women to the Senate will not, in and of itself, be universally supported. However, the appointment of quality women candidates from multiple fields would signal a sea change in the Senate appointment process.

As the Prime Minister has already promised to consult widely on Senate nominations, he certainly has plenty of leeway to recruit the best possible candidates in the circumstances.

And the strong support from a broad spectrum of women means that even parties hoping to kill the Senate will not likely balk at this radical reform proposal.

The Senate of Canada is currently struggling to defend itself against charges of obsolescence, mediocrity, and even claims of outright criminality.

The public backlash caused by allegations against Senator Mike Duffy and multiple other suspended and retired Senators is enormous. Even those Canadians, including political activists, who have witnessed good Senate work first hand, are saying little in defence of the Chamber of Sober Second Thought.

Normal Senate supporters are surprisingly quiet on matters of reform and nominations. The Senate has become the political institution that everyone loves to hate. All the political parties are keeping their distance.

It is clear that the current government has no appetite for reopening the Constitution. Thus, proposals for radical change to the Senate’s current modus operandi cannot include constitutional amendments or abolition. Likewise, the naïve suggestion that some provinces will willingly relinquish Senate seats in favour of others is also a non-starter.

With all those caveats, it is difficult to see how a forward-thinking prime minister could reinvigorate the Senate and restore public trust in an institution that has actually served our country effectively over many years.

A decision to undergo a complete facelift of the Red Chamber would serve dual purposes. By achieving parliamentary parity, the face of the Senate is changed forever, and in a positive way.

Canada’s Senate has been the ultimate old boys’ club in large measure for almost 150 years. While we certainly have witnessed some strong women Senators, at no time has the institution reflected anything near equal representation in gender or race.

The closest we came to parity was during the tenure of former prime minister Jean Chrétien. He actually appointed more women than men during his term. Prime minister Paul Martin continued that trend. Had prime minister Stephen Harper followed suit, we could have already achieved Senate parity today. That did not happen.

Harper’s unconstitutional refusal to appoint any Senators whatsoever has left the current government with a huge challenge and a unique opportunity. Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef has exhibited a willingness to reshape the House of Commons, with an aggressive timeframe to achieve electoral reform.

The government has promised that an end to “first past the post” voting will be in place before the next election. That is no small order in a political landscape littered with reform corpses.

The move to Senate equality would be striking and permanent. By embracing the parity recommendation proposed by dozens of women leaders across the country, the government could send a clear signal for change.

House of Commons equality cannot happen in one election. It has not happened in more than a century.

Senate gender parity is within the grasp of the government. For the same reasons the prime minister chose to embrace parity in his Cabinet, he should welcome the opportunity to turn the Senate on its head, and its body.

A strong group of new Canadian women Senators would certainly send a clear message.

This is 2016.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.