Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's representative in the Red Chamber is tapping two veteran senators to serve as his deputies in the Senate, CBC News has confirmed.
Former Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, who only yesterday left his caucus to sit as an independent, will be Senator Peter Harder's whip to help coordinate independents in the Senate. Senator Diane Bellemarre, who was appointed as a Conservative by Stephen Harper, will take on the role of deputy government representative.
"The single objective that I hope to achieve in working with senators in every corner of that house is to establish, re-establish the credibility of the Senate, so we can sustain our effective work," Mitchell said in an interview with CBC News. "I'm listening to Canadians. The Senate has a problem with its credibility, clearly."
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The newly independent senator says he was chosen for the job — over the new Trudeau appointees — because of his institutional knowledge and familiarity with the workings of the upper house.
Bellemarre will collect extra an $38,700 a year, and Mitchell is entitled to $11,800, on top of their standard senator's salary of $142,000.
Harder also met with P.E.I. Senator Mike Duffy in his office after the Senate session ended Tuesday. The two men were spotted earlier shaking hands in the Senate chamber, and sharing some words.
Duffy sits as an independent, and does not yet have any committee assignments. Harder has previously said there are "lots of ways the Senate can welcome him" back after his leave of absence.
Mitchell, a former Alberta MLA who was appointed by Paul Martin in 2005, also opened the door to the possibility of independent senators caucusing together now that their numbers are growing. By year's end there will be as many as 42 independents.
"I can't say whether independent senators will caucus together. I suspect that they will. It could be on specific issues, it could be on regional grounds ... but I don't think they'll go back to party-affiliated structures because Canadians are not happy with partisanship generally, and especially in the Senate."
Traditionally, a party whip acts as an enforcer-in-chief, ensuring their are enough party members in the chamber for debates and votes. The whip also determines which committees a senator will sit on, assigns office space and seats in the chamber.
But Mitchell is distancing himself from that definition.
"There's still a holdover from the past. In this context it's a very old, archaic and tired term. So I'm more like a government liaison. I won't have any levers to force anybody to do anything. And even if I did, I wouldn't use them because it is inconsistent with where we're going and what we're hoping to create," he said, although Mitchell acknowledged he will still be tasked with convincing senators to vote for Liberal government legislation.
He will also help write amendments and clear away issues that might impede the passage of a bill.
"There are going to be obstacles. There are challenges," Mitchell said of the newly reconstituted Senate. "More care and attention has to be taken to build support for a bill because support can't taken for granted." He added there will likely have to be more wooing to get independent senators onside.
Conservatives question Harder's independence
Harder, who was among the first batch of senators appointed by Justin Trudeau in March, has been tasked with ushering government legislation through the upper chamber, although he identifies as an independent and does not have a seat at the cabinet table.
He is, however, a member of the Privy Council and will attend cabinet meetings when appropriate.
Mitchell said that "partisan shots" from the Conservatives directed at Harder, and their persistent questioning of his self-declared independence, are unhelpful.
"I was struck by how old that seems and how inappropriate that seems because Canadians don't want it," he said.
The Tories have argued that Harder's role in leading the Liberal party's transition to government have tainted his nonpartisan stance.
Harder, a former top bureaucrat and deputy minister, recently requested some $800,000 from the Senate's internal economy committee — the body that doles out budget money, and deals with the administration of the chamber — to hire eight or nine staff members.
Ultimately, he received half of that request, some $400,000, to get his office up and running, but the committee is still reviewing its allocations.