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81 senators later, Trudeau has changed the Senate. Is it ready to change again?

It's been 10 years since Trudeau kicked off his program to reform the Senate. Eighty-one independent appointments later, has the face of the Senate changed for good?

Almost three quarters of current senators were appointed as Independents under new process

A man wearing a suit, surrounded by other people, speaks to people holding microphones.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his 81st Senate appointment this week — another Independent senator in a transformed Senate that Trudeau vowed to make less partisan.

That effort began just over ten years ago, when Trudeau gathered his Liberal Senate colleagues together in Ottawa.

"Mr. Trudeau was sitting there with all of the Liberal senators but no MPs," said James Cowan, who in January 2014 was the leader of the Senate Liberal caucus. The former senator from Nova Scotia spoke with CBC Radio's The Housefor an interview airing Saturday.

"He then proceeded to say that a decision had been taken that Liberal senators would no longer be members of the national caucus," Cowan said.

That announcement shocked those senators and the wider federal political scene. Senate reform was a hot topic at the time, spurred to prominence by an expenses scandal and competing proposals for change. The NDP was calling for the Senate's abolition, while the governing Conservatives sought an elected upper chamber.

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"[The Liberals] were third-party status," said Jane Cordy, who was a Liberal senator for Nova Scotia at the time. She now heads up the Progressive Senators Group and is the longest-serving senator in the Red Chamber.

"And I guess from [Trudeau's] perspective, he was looking to make a dramatic change."

"Some [Liberal senators] were very angry, some were very happy and most of us, I think, were just in a state of shock," Cordy said of the January 2014 meeting.

Conservatives at the time — including Minister of Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre — dismissed the move as a meaningless rebranding. But it ended up being the first of two consequential steps in Senate reform.

A new majority Liberal government implemented an independent appointment process soon after their election victory in 2015. The aim, Trudeau said, was to bring about the end of the partisan Senate.

Now, 81 senators — and almost three-quarters of the current chamber — have been appointed under the reformed process, with a dwindling Conservative bloc the only explicitly partisan portion of the chamber remaining.

"One of the things that has happened as a result of the [reforms] is that the culture of the institution has changed," said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba who has studied the Senate. He said that while he disagreed with the initial motivations for reforming the Senate (he argued it worked better than most people thought), there have been some positive results from the new climate of non-partisanship.

"If you ask me, on balance, I think the new Senate is better than the old Senate in terms of being a constructive presence in the national governing process," he said.

The new Senate, made up more of individuals than parties, did make the legislative process more confusing and fractious, he said, but there was a benefit to that.

"It's not a bad thing in Canada to have to work harder to demonstrate that you have a consensus in favour of a major, contentious piece of legislation," he said.

The Conservative critique

The new Senate has had to deal with contentious and divisive issues, ranging from medical assistance in dying to carbon tax exemptions. Votes on amendments to C-234, which would have exempted some farming activity from the carbon tax, split the various new groupings in the Senate — another sign that the body has grown more independent.

Though they are now in the minority in the chamber, the Conservatives have kept up a consistent critique of the new system.

"I have frequently termed this Justin Trudeau's fake independent Senate because I really don't think that it has been in any way Senate reform. I think many Canadians, myself included, want to see real Senate reform. But this is not that," said Denise Batters, a Conservative senator from Saskatchewan.

She said the Senate reforms have not made for better policy and have led instead to a more expensive, chaotic process.

And she argued that the independent advisory boards which recommend Senate nominees are heavily influenced by the Prime Minister's Office. The boards are composed of federal and provincial appointments — many provincial seats are currently vacant. Batters said that Senate nominees tend to be friendly to the Liberals.

"Many of the other senators who have been appointed by Justin Trudeau, I wouldn't call them independent," she said.

Thomas said it's not accurate to say all the nominees have been "Liberal hacks" or patronage appointments.

"Where the Conservatives may be on stronger foundation is to say that the appointments are typically are more liberal — small 'L' liberal — in their thinking," he said.

"Do they represent the full spectrum of public opinion within Canada? That's not the case."

WATCH | Controversial delays on key carbon tax bill:

Senators delay debate on carbon tax carve-out for farm heating

3 months ago

Duration 8:39

'It's incredibly important that we take the tax off our [food] producers,' Ontario Conservative MP Michael Barrett told Power & Politics on Thursday after senators voted 29-24 to delay debate on a bill that would exempt propane and natural gas used for farm heating from the carbon tax. The Senate won't resume debate on Bill C-234 until after the Remembrance Day break.

Will it last?

Trudeau's appointments have reshaped the Senate but polling indicating the Liberals are poised to lose the next election to the Conservatives now raises questions about whether the changes are durable.

"Liberals will tell you there's no going back, that we will never ever have another partisan Senate, that the public would be so upset that it would become a house of patronage again," said Thomas.

But there are some who think the Red Chamber worked better as a more standard Westminster body, with a clear government and opposition.

"I found then and I still feel today that it's difficult to see how you can have a properly functioning Westminster style parliamentary democracy if you have that model in one house and you have a totally different model in another where everybody's an individual," said Cowan.

Batters agreed, saying it's important to have a strong opposition in the Senate.

"Some of the Trudeau-appointed senators have talked about, oh, this should be more like a think-tank and you know, a council of elders or something. I don't think that that's appropriate," she said.

Cordy said it's hard to know if the current Senate system will last under a new government.

"I guess we'll have to wait and see what the next 10 years bring," she said. She said she's not sure if a future Senate would have its own opposition, or if some Independent senators might join the Conservative side.

"Those are all questions that I can't answer," she said. "They're all scenarios that some of us wonder about … and we will only know when it happens."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

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