Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reframed the Canadian Senate debate last week by announcing that the 32 Liberal senators were being kicked out of the Liberal Parliamentary Caucus. He also indicated that, should he become Prime Minister, he would forgo the right to make appointments, instead passing that privilege to a non-partisan appointments committee. This process would be similar to the current mechanism for making Order of Canada appointments.
Of course it's a political stunt. It positions Trudeau as bold and decisive. The new proposal tabled during the first days of this sitting counters the narrative that Trudeau is all flash and has no ideas. It is designed to inoculate the Liberal brand against an upcoming and potentially damaging auditor's report on Senator spending. However, none of these things make it bad. Mechanics grease cars. Farmers clean pigpens. Politicians politic. They are doing their job.
But that doesn't negate the role of parliamentary caucuses as essential institutions in our system of government. Mr. Trudeau might claim that this moves towards the senate as non-partisan, "composed merely of thoughtful individuals ... independent from any political brand" but the record shows otherwise. The record confirms that approximately two hours after Trudeau's announcement, the system was busy undoing that very same announcement. It had to. The political laws of gravity work that way.
Wednesday's Senate session opened with the Speaker tabling Mr. Trudeau's letter. Senator Cowan was recognized as the Leader of the Opposition, which, as the Government Leader immediately pointed out, was a contradiction because there was no Opposition party to lead. A quick check of the definitions on page 123 of the Senate Rules confirmed that a "recognized party" was "a caucus consisting of at least five Senators who are members of the same political party." Various Senators were quick to stand and affirm their continued Liberal party membership and loyalty. Throw in a few partisan back-and-forths and the Speaker declared there was a caucus identified with at least five members of the same political party. (It so happened the party was the Liberal Party of Canada.) "We should now proceed to the calling of Senator's Statements."
Hansard tells us all this took from 14:00 to 15:00 hours—one hour that provides a vivid case study of why institutions are resilient. Often the supposed reform of our institutions ends up being little more than a replacement of one institution with another that looks mightily similar to it. That makes sense—it takes work to bring an institution into being. The reason for its original creation usually doesn't disappear just because it is having some bad days. And so, in spite of efforts to replace it, it prevails—sometimes in remarkably similar form. Senator Cowan told the cameras, "I'm not a former Liberal. I'm a Liberal and a Liberal Senator."
This is not to say that institutions cannot change or that Senate caucuses are doomed to remain in their present form. However, it is one of the essential characteristics of institutions that they are resistant to sudden change. They have an internal momentum and structure that makes such change difficult.
And while at times that may seem frustrating, it is exactly that institutional feature which gives them strength. Changing them can be hard work, and that's a good thing. Skip the quick fix—institutions are important for social flourishing and their renewal and reform is something that needs to proceed with diligence and care.