Tensions mount in Senate as Trudeau's point man accused of 'insulting' partisan senators

As 14 newly appointed senators take their seats in the Red Chamber this week, tensions between Independents and the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses are boiling over, with accusations of gamesmanship and personal attacks.

Independents turning Senate into '$90M debating club,' top Liberal senator says

Independent Senator Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Red Chamber, waits in the Senate lobby on Tuesday for six of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new senators to be sworn in. Liberal Senator Jim Cowan said Harder has been 'insulting.'

As 14 newly appointed senators take their seats in the Red Chamber this week, tensions between Independents and the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses are boiling over, with accusations of gamesmanship and personal attacks.

Former Senate Liberal leader Jim Cowan, who is set to retire in January, said the government's representative in the Senate has been "insulting" and "demeaning" in his treatment of Liberal senators in recent weeks.

Cowan said that Senator Peter Harder's description of the Liberal Senate caucus as "party-controlled" is wholly inaccurate, adding he resents Harder's efforts to turn partisanship into a "dirty word."

Cowan said it is actually Harder, and his two lieutenants, senators Diane Bellemare and Grant Mitchell, who take direction from the government, and not his Liberal Senate colleagues, who he said vote and act in true independent fashion. (Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of the national Liberal caucus in January 2014.)

The Nova Scotia senator also accused Harder of being "radical" and "slyly subversive" in his push to reconstitute the Red Chamber along regional lines — a proposal that has been floated as a way to reorganize the Senate as it moves further away from party politics. Cowan said the proposal also threatens to undermine national unity.

In an appearance last month before the Senate's modernization committee, Harder said that "there should no longer be an organized and disciplined government caucus … [or] an organized official opposition caucus." Those remarks, Cowan said, point to Harder's drive to consolidate power behind him and do away with organized dissent.

"Senator Harder envisages his office as becoming the de facto leader of the entire Senate," Cowan said, adding that motive explains why Harder has requested an $850,000 office budget even though he does not formally lead a caucus.

Senator James Cowan, former leader of the Liberals in the Red Chamber, says 'Senator Harder envisages his office as becoming the de facto leader of the entire Senate.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We are not a new layer of the civil service with Senator Harder at our head. We are not a $90-million debating club. We are not a council of elders. We are not some sort of advisory panel," Cowan said.

"We are one of the two chambers of Canada's Parliament, a foundational political institution that is independent of the elected House of Commons and independent of the government."

He pointed to an invitation from Harder's office — sent to all senators late last week — to attend a private meeting, outside the chamber, to discuss upcoming government business.

"What does he want to discuss with all of us privately, in a closed committee room, that he is unwilling to discuss in the open chamber? Is he trying to transform the whole of the Senate into a government caucus by another name?"

'Inflammatory' remarks

Ontario Senator Frances Lankin, named to the Senate by Trudeau in April, jumped to Harder's defence and chided Cowan for "personalized" and "inflammatory" remarks, saying there was nothing "secretive" about the proposed all-party meeting.

Asked by CBC to comment on Cowan's remarks, Harder opted not to respond.

During debate on the modernization committee's report Tuesday, Lankin accused the leadership of both the Liberal and Conservative caucuses of dragging their heels on placing Independent senators on the chamber's committees.

Senator Frances Lankin, pictured here at an Order of Canada ceremony, said Liberal Senator Jim Cowan was mounting 'personalized' attacks against the government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Most decisions, including who sits on the committees where most Senate business is done, are still made by the leadership of the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses. Independent senators also are awarded less money for research.

"I have tried to patiently prod people into moving, but I believe we have hit brick walls in every step along the way and I believe some of the attitudes that are being professed are not simpatico," Lankin said. "We are left sitting in the cold."

That accusation was strenuously denied by Liberal Senator Joan Fraser, who assured Lankin the rules committee, which Fraser chairs, was broadly supportive of equitably distributing money and committee seats.

But Fraser also took issue with Lankin gesturing directly at her while she assailed the partisan senators for playing "games" with Senate modernization efforts.

"For the record, I strongly believe that as part of the rethinking of this place, and sooner rather than later, the non-affiliated senators … deserve not only individual but collective resources. I think it's insane to argue otherwise."

Senators Thomas Johnson McInnis, right to left, Serge Joyal and Elaine McCoy present the Senate committee on modernization's report, which recommends changing Senate caucus composition. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

recent report from the Senate committee on modernization suggested expanding the definition of "caucus" to include groups of nine or more senators "formed for a parliamentary purpose," which would give those senators access to Senate resources — namely bigger research budgets — and would make it easier for Independent senators to be represented on committees.

The committee's recommendations are currently before the chamber, but debate has been routinely adjourned to a later date, delaying further changes to committee composition.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, chair of the Senate's powerful internal economy committee, which effectively governs the chamber and adjudicates complaints, said the Independent senators are too impatient and reforms are well underway.

"I am at a loss as to how anyone can say, with a straight face, that we are dragging our heels," Housakos said in an email to CBC News.

He said that earlier this year, before the latest round of appointments, Liberals and Conservative agreed to give up two spots on each committee to be filled by non-affiliated senators.

While Independent senators have complained about a dearth of committee seats, Housakos said that they haven't yet filled those that have already been allocated to them, pointing to vacancies on the foreign affairs, official languages and Library of Parliament committees.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.