On Thursday, April 29, 1982, then Conservative MP John Crosbie stood in the House of Commons and challenged the prime minister.
Pierre Trudeau, Crosbie charged, was giving the country’s top jobs to his friends. In particular, the PM had just overturned the choice of a special selection committee and handed the contract to build a new Washington embassy to his friend Arthur Erickson.
“Caligula made his horse a senator,” Crosbie bellowed, referring to the Roman emperor, “and Mr. Trudeau is making his friends not only senators — and it’s only one end of the horse that he’s appointing — but he’s giving them the best work.”
Trudeau had few scruples when it came to patronage. It was his last-minute Senate stacking that left his successor John Turner in an impossible bind. Turner was compelled to rubber stamp the appointments, and was soundly condemned for it by then Tory leader Brian Mulroney in a televised debate.
Of course, Mulroney appointed his friends and party faithful, too. As did every other prime minister afterwards. And Crosbie himself was never above a little patronage or nepotism.
It’s no small irony, then, that Justin Trudeau would be the first to try to break the mould — at least symbolically.
Trudeau surprised friends and foes alike Wednesday by kicking Liberal senators out of the caucus. It was a bold move, and eclipsed all the lip service other politicians and strategists have been paying to Senate reform.
It was a particular kick in the arse to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who’s been embroiled in allegations of collusion among caucus members of both houses.
Stripping senators of caucus status hardly changes much on the ground. You dance with the one that brought you, after all. But Trudeau made no pretensions that his was anything more than a first step.
Under the current system, “senators … must consider not just what’s best for their country, or their regions, but what’s best for their party,” he told reporters.
“At best, this renders the Senate redundant. At worst — and under Mr. Harper, we have seen it at its worst — it amplifies the prime minister’s power.”
In that sense, he’s not so much booting them out of the party but freeing them of the constrictions of party loyalty — assuming they ever feel so constricted.
So much more is needed. If not elected, senators should be appointed at arm’s length. And the role of senators should be more clearly spelled out.
As for their call to abolish the Senate, the NDP may be echoing one popular battle cry across the country. But they may also want to be more circumspect about reducing the country to a one-chamber parliament with no checks and balances.
After all, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.