The partisanship of a non-partisan Senate plurality

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By Mark Bonokoski, Postmedia Network

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a WE day celebration in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a WE day celebration in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — While the Senate is not required to have a No Vacancy sign out front following Justin Trudeau’s most recent nods of approval, there will nonetheless be a trio of offices available in January when three senators reach their expiry date.

One is currently occupied by Ontario senator Nancy Ruth — once known as Nancy Ruth Jackman before she long ago renounced her famous surname — while the others belong to two Nova Scotia senators who are also about to hit  the mandatory retirement age of 75, Wilfred Moore and James Cowan.

Nancy Ruth may ring a bell.

It was during the Senate expense scandal that Ruth, born of privilege and sister of former Ontario Lt.-Gov. Hal Jackman, who famously said she expensed breakfast on travel days because she couldn’t stand the “ice-cold Camembert and broken crackers” that was served on her taxpayer-paid flights from Ottawa to Toronto.

She will likely forever be remembered for that quote, despite her strong feminist stands and being Canada’s first openly lesbian senator.

As for senators Moore and Cowan, hometown Haligonians may know their names, but not many households beyond that.

Besides, they’re old school, and a new game is in town.

If the new senators recently appointed at the behest of the prime minister to fill Harper government vacancies were expecting a warm welcome by their senate colleagues, they underestimated the chill that permeates the nation’s capital when it comes to partisan politics.

The new appointees can cry all they want that they are non-partisan, and that they were short-listed by a supposedly non-partisan search committee struck by the prime minister.

But no one is buying it, least of all anyone here.

And they also come stained with the optics that they may have actually applied for the job, as some 2,700 Canadians apparently did, rather than being chosen the old-fashioned way by first being a party bagman, or a henchman, or an obedient hack.

No matter how you cut it, these were Justin Trudeau appointments.

He gave the nod that had each of them walking into a $145,400 base salary, plus living expenses, plus the most incredible job security available to any Canadian— a job guarantee until the age of 75, and then whatever gold-plated pension that has been accrued.

No elections to fight, and no accountability requirements.

It’s the best gig in the land.

Officially, there are now 40 Conservatives, 21 supposedly independent Liberals and 44 “non-affiliated” senators in the 105-seat Red Chamber of purportedly sober second thought.

To believe the 44 “non-affiliated” are not closeted Liberals, however, is to believe fiction is reality.

“It’s the biggest con job the Liberals have done in this country since the sponsorship scandal,” fumed Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, former Speaker in the Senate, and presently head of the chamber’s powerful internal economy committee.

“They pretend they’re somehow reforming the Senate, when they know they’re not reforming anything, except naming a bunch of senators who are Liberal-minded, and asking them to be non-affiliated.”

All true, of course.

Once jealousy is overcome, however, one can almost feel some sympathy for the newcomers. Few have had any noteworthy political experience, and now find themselves facing a hostile crowd used to chewing up and spitting out opponents in the blood sport of politics.

But, in time, they will learn.

The newcomers, after all, now form a plurality and, once they learn the ropes, they can become both the bullies and the controllers.

This could end up being a big problem for Justin Trudeau.

What, for example, if these new senators are truly principled? What if they decide to be truly non-partisan?

Unlike MPs, they cannot be “whipped” to vote a certain way.

Their jobs cannot be taken away. They’re there until they die or reach the age of 75.

While they cannot propose money bills, they can decide if money bills coming from the Commons get royal assent.

This is real power — power than could backfire on the Liberals should they take these new appointees for granted.