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OP-ED: Senate in Transition - Observations from a Rookie Senator

Senator Tony Dean

Canada’s Senate has taken some knocks over the past few years and, as recent events show, it still is.

These issues have rubbed salt into public disenchantment with a 150-year-old institution and Senators who are still working with 150-year-old job descriptions. The stakes are high because we are talking about Canadians’ confidence in one of the country’s most important democratic institutions.

But there are signs of a brighter future for the red chamber. Without this a number of recent recruits, including me, would not have taken the job.

In November 2016 I was appointed to the Senate after being nominated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau based on recommendations from an independent appointment panel.

Like the seven initial new Senators appointed early in 2016, my cohort was appointed as “independent” Senators — free from party affiliation or any sense of debt to the prime minister. The only thing asked of us by the PM was that we should bring an independent perspective to our work and work hard on behalf of Canadians.

This is a significant change in the appointments process and it is bringing a major culture shift to the Senate chamber.

We are embracing this important responsibility. It has taken politics out of the equation and respects our constitutional responsibility to bring “sober second thought” to government bills and policies, representing regions and minorities and identifying and studying issues of concern to Canadians.

Like any other organization the character of the Senate is mixed. Despite a long history of partisan Conservative and Liberal appointments some senators of both stripes were pushing for reforms well before our arrival. Alberta Senator Elaine McCoy was nudging the Senate towards greater independence as early as 2008, while others such as Conservative Stephen Greene and Liberal Paul Massicotte prompted work on potential elements of a contemporary senator’s job description.

The 2014 Supreme Court reference, which affirmed the importance of a more independent Senate, has also been encouraging.

We saw evidence of how an improved Senate might work when senators examined and amended legislation on physician-assisted dying last year. This highlighted the positive role the institution can play in reflecting the priorities and concerns of Canadians as it reviews government bills. We need more of this — and less of some still-common practices that replicate the partisan character of the House of Commons.

It’s not surprising that politics is still baked-in to the character of the current Senate. The more obvious example are partisan efforts to delay and frustrate government bills sent to us for review by the House of Commons and the engagement of “gotcha” politics in the Senate’s Question Period.

But a partisan lens and entrenched defence of the status quo is also brought to relatively straightforward modernization initiatives — such as efforts to bring fairness and proportionality to the allocation of Senate committee assignments and redesigning Senate procedures to ensure higher-quality and more efficient debate.

A number of independent Senators tend to see this partisan behaviour through the same lens as disenchanted citizens and it has sharpened our interest and drive for necessary reforms and culture change.

The new independent senators were appointed at the height of their professional careers — with some leaving behind highly successful and, in some cases, lucrative professions. They did this because they want to make a difference in one of Canada’s most important democratic institutions.

I think the new independents will want to be informed by a broader range of views and evidence and to exercise their own professional and personal judgment, as opposed to toeing a party line. This will require changes that promote improved efficiency and quality in Senate debates and opening the door to different perspectives, including the views of those currently without a voice in a world in which the discourse of political parties always tends to hold sway.

For the time-being we are working in somewhat of a cultural bubble and navigating through some entrenched institutional and personal interests. We need to burst that bubble and I see my independent colleagues increasingly bringing their deep professional experience and talent to this task in every Senate Committee meeting and in debates in the Chamber.

Perhaps the addition of television coverage in the next year or two will add some much-needed transparency to the Senate’s operations.

But these are all first steps — when it comes to changing a 150-year-old institution for the benefit of Canadians we have our work cut out — including ongoing efforts to tackle the Senate’s ethics challenges. Citizens expect no less, and rightfully so.

This article appeared in the April 3, 2017 edition of the Toronto Star.

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