Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government face a unusual dilemma. They have an ambitious legislative agenda. They have a majority in the House of Commons. But they do not control the Upper House, the Senate. In that legislative chamber, the Conservative Party have 47 members. The Liberals cast their senators, now numbering 29, from their caucus. There are 7 independent senators. And 22 vacancies. Because the Liberal senators are no longer subject to party discipline, their votes cannot be controlled. One can imagine nevertheless that Liberal senators would be inclined to vote for the Liberal Party’s legislative agenda. But the Conservative Party Senators, however, have been strictly whipped, at least under the leadership of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
It is almost exactly one month to Election Day in Canada and the party leaders have been making all sorts of statements with a view to garnering sufficient votes to form the next government. Some of their statements, however, have had constitutional implications. In today’s Globe & Mail, Professor Eric Adams of University of Alberta has presented a quick summary of the leaders’ misconceptions as to who gets to form a government in the event there is no one party with a majority in the House of Commons. His article, “Minority Governments: The constitutional rules of the game” outlines how Conservative leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau all get it wrong when it comes time to articulating the rules for formation of government.
This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that there would be no further Senate appointments on his watch – either the Senate will be abolished or there will have to be substantial reforms to the Senate before he alters this position. The Prime Minister says that it is up to the provinces to come up with a solution. This is apparently part of his election platform. The question has to be posed: is the Prime Minister acting unconstitutionally?
This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference was entitled “Time for Boldness on Senate Reform”. Its opening speaker was the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada. She delivered a thoughtful review of her experience both as a minister under Brian Mulroney’s government and as prime minister and her recollections about how the Senate had acted in response to both the Progressive Conservative’s government’s proposal for free trade with the United States and to the Mulroney government’s later proposal for the Goods and Services Tax (“GST”). The conference ended with the eminent professor and scholar Roger Gibbins reviewing the results of the various speakers and summarizing his experience at the conference. Professor Gibbins asked himself two questions. First, he asked whether the conference participants had been successful in living up to the conference’s : were they “bold” in their suggestions for Senate reform. He answered that question with a “No”. Then, he asked whether he learned whether Canada had to be bold in reforming the Senate. To that, he responded “Yes”.