Will Justin Trudeau appoint only women to fill the Senate’s 22 vacancies? I expect he’d like nothing better.
But there are other issues at play as the prime minister contemplates who should sit in the upper chamber. And gender parity is only one of them.
The issue of promoting women in politics has been around for a long time. Equal Voice, one of the more recent organizations doing this, was started 15 years ago by a small group that included pollster Donna Dasko (as well as former Star columnist Rosemary Speirs).
In December, Dasko teamed up with former Toronto city official Ceta Ramkhalawansingh to lobby Trudeau for gender parity in the Senate.
They pointed out that if he appointed women to all of the 22 vacant seats, these plus the 30 female senators already ensconced would represent half of the 105-seat chamber.
Gender parity at one blow.
Dasko and Ramkhalawansingh’s Dec. 21 public letter to the prime minister was co-signed by more than 80 women across the country. Initially, it was ignored by most media.
But this week it made the front pages and Senate gender parity officially became news.
The Senate’s current 22 vacancies exist largely because former prime minister Stephen Harper — in a fit of pique over a Supreme Court ruling that didn’t go his way — refused to fill them.
Since a functioning Senate is required to pass legislation, Trudeau has pledged to fill all 22 slots this year.
He has also promised to use a new selection method that involves an advisory board, consultation with provincial governments, “a view to considering gender balance” and a focus on picking non-partisan senators who represent “aboriginal peoples and linguistic, minority and ethnic communities.”
In the end, though, the Liberal government has made it clear that Trudeau will choose whomever he wants.
Which, according to Canada’s Constitution, is his right.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the prime minister’s Senate reforms are meaningless. But it does mean that he is also constrained by the practical requirements of Parliament.
Among other things, he’ll have to appoint people amenable to passing bills the Liberal government wants enacted.
Right now, 28 members of the 105-seat upper chamber identify themselves as Liberal senators open to supporting the government’s agenda. Trudeau needs 25 more.
The 45 existing Conservative senators are not likely to back the Liberal government. Some of the 10 Independent senators might. But Trudeau may be loath to rely on Independents such as Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy, both of whom face criminal charges, or Pamela Wallin and Don Meredith, against whom allegations of impropriety have been made.
Government ministers have said Trudeau will appoint only non-partisans. But if Parliament is to avoid stalemate, these non-partisans will have to support the Liberals.
Of the 22 to be appointed this year, five are to be chosen in short order. The government says this is meant to “immediately reduce partisanship” as well as improve the representation from three provinces — Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — that face the most vacancies.
I suspect the real reason is to quickly find someone who can act as the government’s “representative” in the Senate and shepherd bills through the upper chamber.
By insisting on a non-partisan for this task, Trudeau has walked himself into a corner. He needs a government Senate leader who, to all intents and purposes, is a Liberal supporter but who can plausibly argue that he — or she — is not.
None of this means that Trudeau need be stymied if he chooses to fill his 22 vacancies with women.
There are already tough, wily, competent women in the Senate. It should be easy to find more.
True, there might be a problem if Trudeau’s as yet unappointed advisory panel fails to co-operate and, for some vacancies, recommends only men. But the prime minister could simply ignore it.
A more interesting question occurs if the goal of gender parity is achieved this year. What happens if two male senators retire next year? In order to preserve sexual balance, would at least one of their seats have to go to another man? Would a perfectly qualified woman be denied consideration?
Would that be seen as fair?