Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 1, 2014
There are plenty of detractors out there who question Justin Trudeau’s ability to make big moves on the national political stage.
They question the ability of the leader of Canada’s “third party,” wondering whether Trudeau has what it takes to lead Canada through what is undoubtedly a time of transition. Many believe he is in way over his head, as comical Conservative attack ads so poetically put a few months ago.
Trudeau is polarizing, often stating he would do politics “differently,” including controversial stances on marijuana and prostitution. At a glance, he may have seemed to be posturing, but in the end could help reform laws.
While Trudeau’s positions have drawn attention, it’s the latest move from the Liberal leader that may be his boldest yet. This week, he silenced criticism of senators being partisan or marred by party corruption by expelling all 32 Liberal senators from the party’s caucus.
Effectively, the Senate should operate as an independent body of Parliament, offering a sober second reading to bills and governance that come before the House of Commons. More and more, though, the Senate is seen as becoming an extension of party politics, something the Liberals and the Conservatives have both been guilty of over the years. Stephen Harper alone has appointed 59 senators over his time as prime minister, including those involved in the Senate expense scandal that consumed Canadian politics this past year. The focus on scandal has perpetrated this move from Trudeau and caused NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to play a game of message catch-up in his continued calls for complete abolition of the upper house.
Mulcair’s plan may be a bit heavy-handed in seeking a complete removal of the chamber, as it drastically alters the Constitution, and opens the debate on constitutional reform. But Trudeau may have found an alternative plan to Mulcair’s while proving he can be a decisive leader in the process.
Trudeau and the Liberals gain two things from what may become the legacy project of his first mandate as leader of the party.
It proves to Canadians that he and the party are capable of making big moves to alter what some believe has become a corruption of power in Ottawa.
Second, it allows Trudeau some breathing room in regard to senators within his own party who may be called to the mat for spending issues during their time as “Liberal” senators. As the prime minister mused later that day, the Liberals will now have independent senators sitting as Liberals as opposed to what Canadians perceive as the opposite.
As much as the prime minister was quick to dismiss this move, he and his office will undoubtedly feel pressure from Canadians, as well as those within his own party who are becoming increasingly vocal on the need for reformation of the red chamber.
It is doubtful the Conservatives would go as far as to match Trudeau, as they would not want to be seen as following what they believe is a leader turned rogue. There is also a school of thought that says the prime minister would not want to relinquish the control he has over the upper house, which is something prime ministers since Confederation have managed to maintain over what Canadians consider an independent body.
If anything, this move shows some clever initiative on behalf of a party that’s currently a distant third in the House. The true test will be how “independent” these senators are following the move, and whether the Liberals can shake off some of the old ideas kicking around caucus from these members.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this will shake up the House and cause some who continue to angle hard to join the upper chamber through their loyal partisanship to take note. The prime minister will be more and more aware of any appointments to the upper chamber and will be increasingly scrutinized for decisions of this nature.
As well, it will likely cue a new round of comical Conservative attack ads calling out Trudeau as reckless, although the first round of advertising did very little in dispelling the popularity the leader is gaining among Canadians.
It is time for the Conservatives to update their playbook as the ideas of the past continue to look dusty and old in the face of shakeups like this.
Bold moves work to gain attention, and Trudeau has served notice that if the Liberals are able to form government in the not-so-distant future the politics of old will be out the window.
Whether it was a gambit worth playing remains to be seen, but for a party currently in third place, it is another in the line of shakeups the Grits needed to make to garner the attention of Canadians once again.