Q&A: Senator Grant Mitchell on Senate reform

Q&A: Senator Grant Mitchell on Senate reform

By Chris Moffatt Armes

February 12, 2016


On Thursday, Feb. 11, Senator Grant Mitchell visited Queen’s University School of Policy Studies to take part in the Policy Speaker Series. In a speech titled Senate Reform: Unlimited Possibilities, Senator Mitchell, a Queen’s alumnus, addressed the contribution of the Senate to the public policy debate in Canada, as well as possible avenues for reform. Communications Officer Chris Armes spoke with Senator Mitchell about his time at Queen’s as well as his views on Senate reform.


GAZETTE: You’re a Queen’s graduate with a Master’s in Political Studies (MA’76). Are you enjoying being back on campus?

SENATOR MITCHELL: It’s great to be back at Queen’s. I had a wonderful experience here. I met my wife of 40 years, played soccer, which I kept playing for 20 years after, and I got a great education in the Department of Political Studies. It’s had a great influence on my life and I’ve had a very fortunate, challenging career that Queen’s contributed to.

Senator Grant Mitchell addresses the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies, discussing the contribution of the Senate to the public policy debate in Canada, as well as possible avenues for reform. (Photo Credit: Chris Cornish/School of Policy Studies)

GAZETTE: You have served in the Senate for almost 11 years now – since March 2005. What changes have you seen in the Senate during that time, and what changes do you think we’ll see to the Senate in the future?

SENATOR MITCHELL: The most fundamentally significant change is the fact that (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau removed us from the national Liberal Party caucus. That is profound, it is real, and he meant it. We are distinct from the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. It has had a huge impact in how we view our role and our independence. I was the critic of Bill C-51 – the controversial anti-terrorism bill. While we voted against it, Mr. Trudeau and his Members or Parliament, before the election, voted for it. It was really a much more profound change than other parties would think it to be. That was, I think, the most significant institutional change, but there is much institutional change afoot due to that decision.

I think you’ll see, over the next year, once the independent senators are appointed whom, I expect but don’t know, will be progressives, they will tend to align with us, so we’ll have a switch from a conservative majority in the Senate to a progressive majority. Not only will that change policy initiatives to an extent, as well as the studies, emphasis, the kind of issues we pursue as a Senate, but it will also begin to rapidly restructure the Senate. You’ll have independent senators whose roles must be recognized much more strongly.

GAZETTE: Why is it important to you to make campus visits, such as this, and meet with students in person to discuss issues like Senate reform?

SENATOR MITCHELL: I’m a fundamental believer in our parliamentary institutions and in democratic institutions as a whole. To be successful, they need to have legitimacy. If they don’t have legitimacy, those who lead within them have a difficult time leading a population to do what needs to be done. You need to sustain the legitimacy of your institutions. To the extent that the Senate has lost its legitimacy through its recent reputational issues, that erodes the legitimacy of all government institutions. That’s one of the reasons I’m happy to come out and sell – if you will, to use a crass term – to sell the value of the Senate.

The other thing I like to do, particularly with students, is to talk about the importance of public service. I believe it is a calling. Some of the best things to happen in our lives are because of politics; some of the worst things to happen in our lives are because of politics. I’m a better person for having been in politics. I think about issues greater than myself and am driven to contribute. I encourage students, young people and women in particular, to go into politics. It’s a wonderful way to contribute to your country.

GAZETTE: What advice would you have for students who have an interest in entering public life?

SENATOR MITCHELL: Public service is a very high calling. That it’s rewarding, not necessarily financially, in many ways. The great richness in my life has come from doing things much greater than me. That’s what politics brings you to do. It’s stimulating, it’s varied, it’s challenging, it’s a remarkably interesting and worthwhile thing to do. My advice would be that people consider it and that students make an effort to study leadership. When I was in university, it wasn’t as structured and I didn’t really think about finding somewhere to study leadership. If you wanted to learn leadership you’d go into the military. Now there is a much greater emphasis on leadership. It’s fundamental to politics, it’s fundamental to business it’s fundamental to being an active member of society. There’s a great adage I heard that said, “You can be a leader without followers,” and I encourage students to study leadership because it has such positive impacts in what you can do in the world.

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