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Opinion

Who would have guessed Senate and innovation could be used in the same sentence?

By Tim Powers      

Trudeau’s Senate experiment is one of the most interesting things to happen to federal institutions in ages.

From left, Senators Claudette Tardif, Chantal Petitclerc, and Peter Harder enter the Senate on April 12. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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OTTAWA—What may have started as a communications exercise by the Liberals to differentiate themselves from their public opponents on Senate reform has turned very real, very fast. Institutional change is at hand.

Disruption and disruptive behaviour is all the rage in business these days. It might be the approach, either deliberate or not, that the prime minister has constructed with his ongoing strategy on the appointment of independent Senators. Lots of them have been given sinecures in the last week.

A disruptive innovation creates a new market and value network, displacing existing market leaders and alliances. Putting Senators in the Senate who don’t come with partisan allegiances has disruption written all over it. The key question to be answered over time is: will it enhance the value of the legislation coming out of this institution, to the benefit of Canadians? Frankly, little else really matters.

All of the independent Senators Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed appear to be highly able individuals who have made significant contributions in numerous aspects of Canadian life. They will have a plurality of representation in the Upper Chamber very shortly.

An immediate challenge, though, for this axis of the unaligned senators is that, according to different reports, the governance structure of the Senate itself is still skewed to the old system of organization. This means in some instances it has been difficult for non-affiliated Senators to sit on committees of their choosing because membership is controlled by the Conservative and Liberal Senators. The Independents also are awarded much less money for research.

These challenges can all be overcome and should be addressed. The status quo Senators will not want to be seen to be resisting change or adhering to old practices. It was that devotion to past culture that caused some in the institution to nearly burn the place down. If they continue to play with matches they will be remembered as the arsonists who flamed the Senate.

It is kind of appealing to watch this from the outside and see what kind of organizational behaviour will take hold. You have groups of leaders and doers who have been thrown into a place previously governed by appointees of reward and loyalty. That is not to say good things didn’t come out of the old Senate, or the place didn’t have top-quality performers. For example, real mental-health reform came from the Senate and has shaped the public agenda today.

All of the people in the Senate are now going to be tasked with making sure things still come out of the Senate. They are going to have to find new ways to team up and oppose as perspectives unfold. More persuasive powers as opposed to caucus cajoling are likely required. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking it will be some sort of utopia, but neither should it be dystopian.

If the Senate becomes a glorified think tank and legislation can never get through then Trudeau’s independent experiment will fail. But it is hard to imagine that many of the savvy operators in there who have advocated in diverse environments before will let that happen.

This Senate experiment is one of the most interesting things to happen to our federal institutions in ages. By circumventing the regular natural governance model, the Canadian Constitution, and applying some basic modern business practices, a real fascinating operating model might take hold. What potentially began as a branding exercise could evolve into so much more.

Liberals will no doubt claim this sort of reform was always part of their grand design, not a reaction to the circumstances of the day. Who would have ever guessed the words Senate and innovation could be used in the same sentence? Probably no one; but that is where we are now.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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