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Your Question Period

SENATE INITIATIVE OFFERS NEW OPPORTUNITIES TO THE PUBLIC

Sam Michaels
Can a recycled US initiative, repackaged for a Canadian audience, be the hail mary the Senate needs to redeem themselves in the public’s mind?

This year, following a tumultuous period in which Justin Trudeau cast off his thirty-two Liberal senators in favour of younger, more PR-friendly caucus members, the newly self-styled Liberal caucus has launched a public campaign hoping to reinvigorate both the Senate and themselves. Led by caucus leader James Cowan, the Liberal senators have introduced a series of initiatives in order to open the Senate to the public and prove the upper house’s worth as a source of open discourse, informative research, and progressive policy suggestions.

Spearheading this effort is the “Your Question Period” program, a website deriving its concept from the hugely successful “We the People” platform in the United States. For those unfamiliar with either site, both offer an online form that individuals can fill out with a question which government officials can subsequently bring to the floor. “Your Question Period” offers Canadians the chance to submit their questions to the Liberal caucus, whose office reads the questions and selects some to be read aloud to the Senate during the question period. I had the opportunity to interview Senator James Cowan about the initiative, and he offered some interesting insight on its value and potential.

Speaking about the inspiration behind this approach to public interaction, Senator Cowan discussed his caucus’s new found independence, its freedom from the Liberal party, and its desire to do things differently in the Senate. The Senator spoke of the “Your Question Period” site, and the other caucus initiatives, as new platforms through which social issues can be brought to the forefront. It’s a welcome idea for the Senate, whose uses are generally convoluted, confusing, and unknown to the public.

When I asked about how the process for the new website works, Senator Cowan explained that all questions submitted are reviewed by the Liberal caucus office, which selects appropriate questions to bring to the floor. Those questions are then sent to a senator who is well positioned, both in terms of experience and personal interest, to read the question. Though the Senator seemed unclear on the exact vetting process for the questions, he stated confidently that questions submitted by the public would make their way into the upper chamber.

In the lead-up to my interview with the Senator, I submitted my own question through the website. Senator Cowan’s confidence proved justified, and my question was brought to the floor in late September. After the question was read, I received an email linking me to the audio recording of my question being asked. It was actually quite neat to hear Senator Jane Cordy ask my question, and defend my position admirably during the ensuing debate. Though nothing tangible came of the experience, it still struck me as a step in the right direction and an indication that this program is indeed being followed through from start to finish, at least for now.

In my interview with Senator Cowan, I also took the time to ask him how senators feel about the public perception of the Senate. His response was, fortunately, informed and insightful. Senator Cowan felt that the problem was twofold: “A mix of a lack of understanding from the public, and a lack of effectiveness from the Senate itself.” He defended the upper chamber based on its presence in every common law nation, and its important role in reviewing legislation. I felt Senator Cowan aptly described how the Senate “doesn’t do a good enough job explaining itself,” while senators are overly concerned with party-affiliation and consistently failing to perform unbiased legislative reviews. He seemed, overall, well aware of the many problems the Senate faces, and put forth an admirable effort listing the problems and trying to defend the upper house.

Unfortunately, nothing in the “Your Question Period” program, or any of the other Liberal caucus initiatives, will solve the problems Senator Cowan described. The programs are a step towards fostering a better public perception, but they will not bring accountability to the Senate, initialize procedural reform, or clarify the upper house’s role. Though it was nice to hear the Senator speak so articulately about the issues, I was left wondering whether he really felt they could be addressed at all.

Having seen my question asked, answered, and cast aside, I couldn’t help but wonder if this program will backfire on the senators who designed it, as Canadians get a first-hand look at the inability of the Senate to do more than raise important issues among themselves. It could be the case that, when Canadians hear their questions responded to by limited Senate action, they will feel further alienated. However, the problem of inaction is not inherent to the Liberal caucus’s initiatives, but rather to the Senate itself. Overall, I have to think my concerns are misplaced and that the “Your Question Period” website will be accepted and appreciated.

The program offers an opportunity to see inside the Senate and have your voice heard, if only for a moment. It is a chance to connect with senators on a personal level and engage with the political process first-hand. Further, submitting a question gives one the chance to think about and articulate the issues which matter to them, and to see those issues reviewed by the government.

These benefits do not negate the problems the Senate faces, but they are significant nonetheless. Having made use of the website and spoken to Senator Cowan, I feel the “Your Question Period” initiative is a progressive development, one which addresses the divide between the public and the upper house. My hope is that this effort will inspire more ideas and programs which will further narrow the gap between the people and their government and, ideally, improve the Senate overall.