Ex-Liberal senators promise open meetings, free votes

The senators evicted from the Liberal caucus last month say they will hold occasional open caucus meetings, as well as host a website for Canadians to submit questions for the Senate's question period.

Former Liberal Senate leader asked about allegations of sexual harassment by Senator Colin Kenny

James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared Independent senators, speaks following Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's announcement to remove senators from the caucus, on Jan. 29, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The senators evicted from the Liberal caucus last month say they will hold occasional open caucus meetings, as well as host a website for Canadians to submit questions for the Senate's question period.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, they also faced questions about allegations of misuse of office resources and sexual harassment by one of their former colleagues, Senator Colin Kenny.

Kenny is now an independent senator and not a part of the new caucus.

Senator James Cowan, the leader of the Senate Liberal caucus, as the ousted senators call themselves, announced the first open caucus meeting will focus on the issue of missing and aboriginal women.

All votes by members of the Senate Liberal caucus will be free votes, Cowan also said.

Cowan further said his caucus will start a national conversation on what he called equalization, the notion that Canadians in all provinces should be able to access the same basic level of services without facing "wildly different tax bills."

Asked about Senator Colin Kenny

Asked about whether he'd ever heard stories about Kenny, Cowan said, "This town thrives on rumours." He added the Senate has hired an independent investigator to probe the allegations about Kenny, and he'll wait for that report.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, asked about Kenny, whom his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, appointed to the Senate, said he did not speak to Kenny personally when he heard the allegations about him first reported by CBC News.

"When we first found out about it we had a sitdown both with — I didn't personally — but people in my office had a sitdown with both Mr. Kenny and with the woman in question, and that was the first time I had heard about these allegations," he answered.

Trudeau was referring to Pasquale Brisson, a former assistant to Kenny, who told CBC News that half her day was spent tending to his personal affairs rather than taking care of Senate business.  She also alleged Kenny sexually harassed her.

Trudeau also responded to the Senate Liberal caucus proposal about open caucus meetings and free votes,  as he met with reporters outside the Liberal caucus room the senators are now banned from.

"They're trying to figure out how to move forward and it seems like they're doing it in a way that's consistent with an open and less partisan approach, which I think are steps in the right direction," he said.

Cowan: 'Doing politics differently'

Cowan said the initiatives are about doing politics differently in the Senate, and make it respond to the needs of Canadians, "rather than the needs of political parties and their leaders."

Asked by a reporter how he is faring since Trudeau expelled him and his colleagues from caucus, Cowan said there is "a real excitement about this independence he's given us." He explained that he and the other ousted senators no longer have to worry about the impact anything they say will have on Liberal MPs. 

Cowan was also asked how an open caucus meeting about missing and murdered aboriginal women would be different than a Senate committee, which is also public. He replied that there is no proper hearing of the issue going on anywhere in the country, pointing out the government has refused to hold an inquiry.

Senator Lillian Dyck conceded there is, in fact, a special House of Commons committee studying the subject of missing and murdered women, but said the committee has had "internal difficulties" and is hampered by the "current government's desire not to have an inquiry."

Kept Liberal name

The 32 senators, tossed from the Liberal fold by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, have formed their own caucus which has been recognized by the Senate speaker as an official opposition.

Trudeau had urged the ejected senators to sit as independents, but they have managed to hold on to the name Liberal by calling themselves the Senate Liberal caucus.

The senators Cowan leads are Liberals in terms of their party membership cards only. Under rules that hadn't been changed, however, a handful attended the Montreal convention as ex-officio delegates. 

At one point in the news conference, Cowan said they are not "former Liberal senators" but, rather, "the Senate Liberal caucus. We are still Liberal senators." At the same time, he said his group does not have to worry about the "electoral considerations" of the Liberal Party anymore.

Members of the Senate Liberal caucus are not allowed to attend Liberal caucus meetings and will no longer have a senior role, or any official role, in the 2015 Liberal election campaign.

Conservative talking points

The office of the Conservative Senate leader, Claude Carignan, issued a memo obtained by CBC News on talking points Conservative senators might use about reforms announced by the ex-Liberals. The memo begins, "May we suggest these lines to you?"

Conservatives should tell the media, the memo says, that the attendance of ex-Liberals in the Senate has been "sketchy" of late.

The talking points, written by Carignan's spokesperson Sébastien Gariépy, suggest Conservatives should say, on the subject of ex-Liberal senators taking question period questions from Canadians, "It is time for the Liberal senators to ask questions that affect Canadians rather than just their own pet peeves."

As for the free vote measure, Gariépy suggests Conservatives should say to reporters, "The Liberal whip's office receives a supplementary budget of more than $80,000. So now we have a leader who doesn't lead, and a whip who doesn't whip?"

"We have no doubt that the Liberal senators will continue to act as Liberals, will oppose whatever the government proposes and will work to elect Justin Trudeau rather than improve the life of Canadians," Gariépy suggests Conservative senators should say.