In the aftermath of Justin Trudeau's big Senate-themed shakeup last week -- in which he booted all Liberal senators from his caucus (but apparently not his party) and announced it will be his policy as prime minister to have all new ones chosen by some "expert" panel -- I argued such manoeuvres will only help the man politically if the Canadian press agrees to "play along." Trudeau's Senate agenda is both confused and confusing, after all -- which makes sympathetic journalistic spin and explanation critical in shaping its public reception.
Judging from the nation's editorial pages over the last couple of days, however, this particular jury's still out.
Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe and Mail is certainly a fan. He calls the J-Tru Senate plan "brave, even imaginative," and a positive reflection on the Liberal boss' "willingness to take risks."
We all agree the current Senate is terrible, says Jeff, but what are the alternatives? Abolishment? That's "the stuff of fantasy." The constitutional burden -- unanimous provincial consent -- is just too high (Jeffrey is apparently a bit cocky about the way the Supreme Court's going to rule on this currently-disputed legal point). Elections? Bah, also too constitutionally difficult, and worse, might lead to a political system like the one (shudder!) "in the United States." Nope, for Jeff it's a non-partisan, expert-appointed upper chamber that's "perhaps better than all the other options." Sounds downright Churchillian.
Similar kind words were echoed by Postmedia star Michael Den Tandt, who deems the Trudeau scheme "a strategic and tactical masterstroke." Like Jeff, Mike thinks "the status quo isn't working" yet "constitutional change would be a mess" so what's wrong with just some mild tinkering around the edges? "Many Canadians," he guesses, "will quietly agree with the approach." Or loudly agree, if they happen to have a newspaper column.
Chris Selley over at the National Post, meanwhile, is bluntest of all in his praise, dubbing Justin's vision "not just a good political play, and the best realistic option for Senate reform currently on offer, but a pretty good way to build a better chamber of sober second thought." And you don't need to take my word for it, says Chris -- a non-partisan, expert-appointed upper chamber is what the British recently turned their useless House of Lords into, and certainly no one's better at being sober and second-thinking than those Brits! Well, at least British Lords. Actually even that's a stretch.
But Justin-haters never fear -- the press love has not been unanimous! The consistently ornery John Pepall, for instance, a man who hates all political reform so much he literally wrote a book called Against Reform, thinks Justin's scheme is a "breathtaking confusion of stupidities." How's that for a rebuttal?
Writing in the Globe, Pepall says the "non-partisan" goal of Trudeau's ideal Senate tramples all over the "right of all Canadians to be engaged in politics as they see fit," since it basically amounts to banning senators from freely associating with political parties that share their views. "Most people who are interested in politics have a party affiliation because that is how politics works," he notes, concluding Justin's insistence on only hiring non-party people will invariably result in a chamber filled with "eccentrics and supposed experts from the universities" -- in other words, 105 Michael Ignatieffs.
And what's all this junk about getting some expert panel to appoint the Senators? Ol' Pepall thinks that sounds like the "Guardian Council in Tehran," and he's not in favour of turning Canada into a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy, which I think we can all agree is the real crux of this issue.
It was Warren Kinsella's Saturday column in the Toronto Sun that offered the most withering takedown of all, however. Kinsella, after all, has Liberal credentials up the wazoo: he held high rank in the Chretien administration and has written many painfully fawning pro-Trudeau editorials, including one where he literally suggested J-Tru'd make a better prime minister than Jason Kenney because Justin's had more sex.
But Justin's latest decree? It's "the stupidest thing, ever."
Warren's cross because not only does Trudeau's plan fail to "address the key problem" of the Senate -- ie: it's unelected, he "arguably makes the problem worse" by consolidating appointment power in the Guardian Council (or whatever) rather than the elected leader of the country.
Plus, if it turns out this whole expell-all-the-Liberal-senators business was just a way to butt-cover in fearful anticipation of what a looming auditor-general report on Senate corruption will reveal about Liberal misconduct (a conspiracy theory held by many on the right and left alike), then Justin's gambit may be destined to be "remembered as one of the most cynical political moves in a generation."
More interesting, however, is the amount of time Warren spends haranguing Trudeau for the fact his scheme was hatched "without any consultation with party members," and represented such a "cruel and callous" assault on the dignity of those 32 faithful Liberal senators who were briefly made non-Liberals for all of 15 minutes that faithful Wednesday morning.
I notice this is assault-on-dignity narrative is becoming an increasingly common complaint from big-L Liberals critical of the Trudeau Senate reforms. Which makes sense, given the Libs have long been the only party unapologetically cool with using Senate seats as retirement perks for warn-out party warhorses, basically making Justin's move the partisan equivalent of Minister Fantino closing all those veterans' centres.
Which pundit's spin do you find most compelling? As this little survey hopefully indicates, one's opinion of the proposed Trudeauvian Senate doesn't necessarily correlate with one's broader views of Justin, the Liberal Party, or even our embattled upper house -- but whether that's a good thing for J-Tru is another question.
Sometimes ideas that scramble the allegiances of traditional opponents and allies are a sign of brilliance.
And sometimes they're just scrambled.