A B.C. senator who last year was accused by Conservatives of being a sympathizer with communist China is the sole candidate in the running to lead Independents in the Senate.
Malaysian-born Yuen Pau Woo, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last November, has put his name forward to lead the Independent Senators Group (ISG), which is expected to soon become the largest bloc in the Senate, displacing the Conservatives for the first time.
Woo sponsored the government's budget bill in the Senate last spring and successfully fended off attempts to split the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
Prior to joining the Senate, Woo was a senior fellow in public policy at the Asian Institute of Research at the University of British Columbia, and is the former president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He has long been a supporter of closer trade ties between Canada and China.
Other candidates for the top job must come forward by Friday. Another would-be contender, Sen. Larry Campbell of B.C., has pulled out.
Campbell, a former mayor of Vancouver who was appointed as a Liberal in 2005, recently suffered a heart attack. The current caucus leader, Elaine McCoy, has signalled she will not reoffer.
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Woo is a political neophyte, but has already faced attacks from Conservatives over his perceived ties to the Chinese regime.
Defender of China
Conservative MP Peter Kent called Woo an "apologist for the Chinese dictatorship," after the senator spoke against a motion that would condemn China for territorial encroachments and a massive military buildup in the South China Sea.
"It seems every week we hear new evidence of the cozy relationship the Liberal government has with the Chinese communist dictatorship. Now Liberals are using the Senate as a platform to undermine our allies and the foundation of international law," Kent said in a statement after Woo delivered his speech on the matter in November.
Woo said the Conservative comments are unfair.
"That kind of accusation is just ludicrous. It's a very serious allegation. Of course I'm not. I'm a member of the Senate of Canada," Woo said in an interview with CBC News Tuesday when asked about Tory claims.
Woo, who said he is "not a political animal," did not want to discuss the matter in detail.
"If someone has beef with me, or has chosen to call me particular names, I'll respond at that time. I don't really care what names people throw on me."
The motion in question, introduced by Conservative Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo, calls on China to "cease all activities that would complicate or escalate the disputes, such as the construction of artificial islands, land reclamation, and further militarization of the region."
The motion is also supported by the government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, and demands countries in the region find a "peaceful and diplomatic solution" to disputes over navigation in the area. As of Sept. 19, the motion is still on the Senate order paper.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all maintain they have sovereignty in the area. An arbitration court in The Hague has found China does not have historic rights to the South China Sea, but the government in Beijing has ignored the ruling.
"A dogmatic and trenchant insistence on international law could … be the very precipitant of conflict," Woo cautioned fellow senators in his speech.
"I do not believe that Motion No. 92 is helpful in steering us away from great power conflict. On the contrary, it will come across at best as an anachronistic pronouncement that embarrasses this chamber or, worse, one that damages Canada's long-term interest as an informed, credible and engaged player in the region."
Woo said Kent failed to note that a fellow Conservative caucus member, Sen. Victor Oh, also spoke against the motion for much the same reasons.
"It's curious that he would pick on me and not on his colleague that took virtually the same position as I did," he said.
Woo will fight for more money, proportionality
Ten more senators will be soon be appointed to fill vacancies left by those who have retired or resigned. Despite being appointed by a Liberal prime minister, those new senators are expected to join the ranks of the ISG. Trudeau booted Liberals from the national caucus at the height of the Senate expenses scandal in 2014.
Woo said that if chosen as leader, or "convener," of the ISG, he will fight for more money to help build the group's secretariat to conduct research on behalf of the caucus. He will also demand proportionality on Senate committees for his members.
The three causes in the Senate — Conservative, Liberal and Independent — reached a truce of sorts last fall when it was agreed Independents would get a proportional share of seats on committees, where most of the chamber's "sober second thought" function is carried out. That deal is set to expire in October, with another round of negotiations with the partisan caucuses expected to soon follow.
There is also the matter of committee chairs — the person who presides over a meeting, and helps organize the committee's affairs — and Woo says those too should go to Independents along proportional lines.
The Independents have a budget of some $700,000, a sum less than what is allocated to the considerably smaller Liberal Senate caucus. (There are currently 35 members of the ISG, and 16 Liberals. The Liberals have a budget of $760,000.)
"A huge priority for me is to get the recognition that the Independent senators, as a recognized parliamentary caucus, deserve in terms of the privileges, the resources, the allocation and all other benefits that ordinarily accrue to political caucuses," he said.
"I would not like to frame it as a 'money grab.' It's about fairness, proportionality of senators. It's not that we're trying to grab power and demand this and that."
Woo is running on a ticket with another self-described "newbie," Independent Quebec Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain, as his designated "deputy convener." Together, they will focus their energies on bringing change to a place long dominated by partisan interests.
"It is not sufficient that Independent senators do well in discharging their duties as individuals; our success will depend also on the extent to which we, as a group, can bring about change in the entire institution, working with colleagues across the whole chamber," they wrote in a letter to colleagues announcing their run.