The independent board set up to recommend new Senators to the prime minister has done its job and suggested more than 100 candidates, but the government is still asking more people to apply to be Senators, while the board that vets those applications sits nearly empty.
A dozen seats in the Senate are vacant, and the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments—which nominates replacement Senators—is almost empty as well. Twenty-eight of the first 29 Advisory Board members have left after their terms expired, and the government has failed—so far— to replace them.
Indira Samarasekera, a former member of the advisory board, criticized the government’s decision to ask more people to apply to the Senate when there are no board members to vet them. She said the Prime Minister’s Office could pick from the board’s recommended candidates who have not yet been appointed to the Senate—132 names in total.
“They are all very good. Why don’t we give those people on that list a fair shot before we call for new nominations?” said Ms. Samarasekera, who served for 18 months on the advisory board and, along with the other members, pored through more than 4,000 applications from would-be Senators.
“You are sending a very, very negative signal to some very capable Canadians on that list,” she said.
The government created the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments in 2016. The stated goal was to make the Senate less partisan, by having Senators recommended by an arm’s-length body of accomplished Canadians, and selected based on their personal achievements outside the realm of partisan politics. The chair and two members of the federal advisory board work with two members appointed for each province and territory to come up with a shortlist of candidates to fill vacant Senate seats for each province and territory. The prime minister still ultimately decides who is appointed to the Senate.
The Advisory Board operates in cycles, reviewing applications and recommending five candidates for each empty or soon-to-be empty seat in the Senate during that time period. The board put forward 35 candidates for seven vacancies in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario last August. It had recommended 105 candidates to fill 21 vacancies in December 2016, and 25 candidates to fill five vacancies in March 2016, giving a total of 165 recommended candidates since the Board was created.
Since March 2016, 33 new Senators have been appointed, leaving the names of 132 approved candidates in the hands of the PMO.
Nonetheless, the Senate Advisory Board website, which is run by the Privy Council Office, is asking for more applications.
“We are looking for Canadians to fill current and upcoming Senate vacancies. Apply now,” says a banner on the landing page of the website. It says the advisory board would review applications sent in before April 3, 2018, and hold onto them for two years for “consideration for future opportunities.”
However, there is currently only one serving board member, retired civil servant Huguette Labelle, who serves as the advisory board’s chair.
“It’s been too slow,” said Ms. Samarasekera, a former president of the University of Alberta and recipient of the Order of Canada.
“We did all that work, we had sent in a great list … for all the provinces, why call for another round of applications? And get the committee, that now doesn’t exist, to read another 2,000 files?”
The advisory board’s mandate requires members to keep the names of candidates submitted to the prime minister confidential, and Ms. Samarasekera declined to give any. She said the board had not interviewed or contacted the applicants it reviewed, since doing so would lead to their names being made public, and open the possibility of applicants lobbying the PMO for Senate jobs.
Ms. Samarasekera said the advisory board had met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) twice during her tenure, and he had encouraged and “empowered” them to recommend independent, meritorious candidates. She said the PMO and PCO had never interfered with the board’s work, and that all of the Senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau so far had been recommended by the advisory board.
New Senators didn’t fit what Senate needs: Samarasekera
However, Ms. Samarasekera said she believed the government had not been appointing candidates best suited to fill the Senate’s needs lately, particularly a need for Senators who have a knowledge of business, foreign affairs, trade, and policy.
“I was personally pleased to see that there was a good mix,” she said. “And then I noticed that more and more of the appointments…didn’t reflect my sense of what I thought the Senate needed.”
“We put them on the list and we figured the prime minister had selected people with business experience before and we thought he’d continue to do that. So I don’t know why [people with that experience] weren’t selected.”
Ms. Samarasekera also said the PMO had been “slow” to renew the Advisory Board that now sits empty, and that the PMO had seemed to change its approach to the board after Cyrus Reporter, a former senior PMO adviser, had left for the private sector in January 2017.
“I noticed an immediate change…my sense was that they were, you know, they had a lot of other irons in the fire. And I don’t know actually who in the Prime Minister’s Office was looking after this,” she said.
Hilary Leftick has served as the prime minister’s appointments director since May.
Members of the advisory board are paid between $375 and $450 per day for the time they work, and the chair is paid between $550 and $650.
The government had tried to avoid having an empty advisory board when it first filled the positions in January 2016. It varied the length of each of the three original members of the federal board, appointing Ms. Samarasekera to an 18-month term, Daniel Jutras to a two-year term, and Ms. Labelle to a 30-month term. After those first appointments were complete, federal members would serve two-year terms. Provincial advisory board members serve one-year terms. All terms can be extended.
Ms. Labelle’s term is set to expire at the end of June. The advisory board referred a request to interview Ms. Labelle to an anonymous media relations email linked to the PCO.
The PCO said Ms. Labelle was unavailable for an interview. Spokesperson Stéphane Shank said appointments to the Advisory Board would be made “in due course.” The PCO did not respond to questions about why it had called for more people to apply to the Senate while the board sat empty, or why it was taking so long to fill the empty Advisory Board and Senate seats.
When contacted by The Hill Times, neither of the former board members for Ontario answered questions about their time on the board. Both Dawn Lavell-Harvard and Murray Segal, the former board members for Ontario, referred questions to Ms. Labelle.
Donald Savoie, a public policy researcher who served as a provincial advisory board member for New Brunswick from January 2016 until January 2018, said he had found the government’s approach to the board “quite professional.”
Ms. Samarasekera rejected the notion floating in some corners of Ottawa that the government had largely appointed ideologically liberal Canadians to the Senate.
“I would argue that everybody comes with their own views, and Canada is a fairly liberal country,” she said.
The board was mandated to ensure it did not recommend applicants who had ties to any political party.
“We were very concerned about that very fact,” said Ms. Samarasekera.
“The prime minister wanted, clearly, people who were independent.”
Alberta should get elected Senator: Richards
Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff—Airdrie, Alta.) called on the government last week to fill the Senate vacancy for Alberta with one of the winners of Alberta’s Senate elections.
Albertans have voted four times on who they want to represent them in the Senate, most recently in 2012. Calgary businessman Mike Shaikh placed third in that contest, behind two men who were later appointed to the Senate by prime minister Stephen Harper: Sen. Doug Black and Sen. Scott Tannas.
Mr. Richards issued a press release last week that said Mr. Trudeau should “respect Alberta voters by appointing the democratically elected candidate to fill this Alberta Senate vacancy.”
Vacant Senate seats
Alberta (1), Newfoundland and Labrador (1), Northwest Territories (1), Nova Scotia (2), Ontario (2), Prince Edward Island (1), Quebec (2), Saskatchewan (1), Yukon (1)
Senators appointed by Trudeau Liberals
Source: Senate of Canada
|Name||Affiliation||Province (Designation)||Date of nomination||Date of retirement|
|Coyle, Mary||ISG||Nova Scotia||17-12-04||29-11-05|
|McCallum, Mary Jane||ISG||Manitoba||17-12-04||27-05-01|
|Richards, David||ISG||New Brunswick||17-08-30||25-10-17|
|Christmas, Dan||ISG||Nova Scotia||16-12-06||31-09-10|
|Bernard, Wanda Elaine Thomas||ISG||Nova Scotia||16-11-10||28-08-01|
|Cormier, René||ISG||New Brunswick||16-11-10||31-04-27|
|Griffin, Diane F.||ISG||Prince Edward Island||16-11-10||22-03-18|
|Hartling, Nancy J.||ISG||New Brunswick||16-11-10||25-02-01|
|Woo, Yuen Pau||ISG||British Columbia||16-11-10||38-03-02|
|Lankin, Frances, P.C.||ISG||Ontario||16-04-01||29-04-16|
|Harder, Peter, P.C.||Non-affiliated||Ontario||16-03-23||27-08-25|