The Liberal government is creating an independent board to suggest the names of Canadians who would make good senators and plans to fill the large number of vacancies in the scandal-plagued chamber quickly.

It is the next step in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to eliminate partisanship in the Upper House and make appointments based on merit.

But the proposal hit a snag within hours of being announced, when British Columbia said it would not participate in the process for recommending senators.

Premier Christy Clark issued a statement saying the Senate must either be fixed or folded, not something in between. “Today’s changes do not address what’s been wrong with the Senate since the beginning,” Ms. Clark said. “It has never been designed to represent British Columbians or our interests at the national level.”

British Columbia is underrepresented in the Senate, but the seats cannot be redistributed without opening up the Constitution, which would create another set of problems for Mr. Trudeau.

Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan said he and his government would take a look at the appointments process put forward by the federal Liberals but he still favours abolition. In 2015, said Mr. Wall, public decisions should not be made by appointed bodies.

Earlier in the day, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said at a news conference that the Prime Minister will appoint an independent advisory board on Senate appointments. After significant consultation, that board will create non-binding short-lists of five candidates for each vacancy that will be presented to the Prime Minister, who will choose people to sit as independent senators from the among those recommended.

“This important initiative responds to the Prime Minister’s initiative to end partisanship in the Senate and to reinvigorate an institution that plays a vital role in our parliamentary democracy,” Ms. Monsef told reporters. “Despite much good work done by individual senators, the effectiveness of the Senate has been hampered by its reputation as a partisan institution.”

Mr. LeBlanc said if provincial governments decline to be part of the consultation, the Prime Minister will appoint members of the advisory board after conferring with other groups and experts in that province.

The Senate has been plagued by scandal in recent years – mostly over alleged abuses of expense accounts. Conservative-appointed Senator Mike Duffy is being tried on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over his expenses, and the Auditor-General has called out 30 current and former senators for questionable claims.

Mr. Trudeau attempted to distance himself from the problems nearly two years ago by declaring that all senators who were then sitting as Liberals would become independent and no longer be part of his caucus.

The members of the new advisory board will serve terms of varying lengths. Three will be considered federal members. Two will be ad-hoc members from the province or territory with a vacancy, and will be appointed in consultation with the jurisdiction affected, the ministers said.

The Senate has 22 vacancies, most of them for Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

The empty seats will be filled in two phases.

During the first phase, which will take place early in the new year, the new advisory board will recommend candidates for five vacancies from the three provinces with the most empty seats. One of the first five new independent senators will become the Government Representative in the Senate.

Mr. LeBlanc said asking someone who is officially independent to introduce Liberal government bills in the Red Chamber is not a contradiction. “I don’t see it as a partisan role,” he said. “We see that person as a facilitator, as someone who will be able to work with the other senators in order to move the government’s legislative agenda forward.”

In the second phase, which the government aims to complete before the end of 2016, individual Canadians will be permitted to apply to become senators.

The new board will assess candidates on their knowledge, personal qualities, experience and lack of partisanship. Bilingualism will be an asset.

Mr. LeBlanc also announced that George Furey, an independent senator from Newfoundland who was appointed as a Liberal and is a unilingual anglophone, will be the new Speaker of the Senate. He replaces Conservative Senator Leo Housakos.

Mr. LeBlanc said the Senate will be expected to decide on some basic matters of its own structure, including how it organizes its Question Period and how legislation will be pushed through the chamber.

Meanwhile, Jacques Demers, a former NHL hockey coach who was named to the Senate as a Conservative in 2009 by Stephen Harper, said he is quitting the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 03, 2015 10:13AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Dec. 03, 2015 10:50PM EST