Politics

Conservative senators bristle at Trudeau Senate reforms

The ousted speaker of the Senate accused the Liberal government of being in "contempt" of the dignity of Parliament for not naming a government leader in the red chamber. It was among several unusual moves Tuesday on the Senate's first day in session with a healthy opposition but no one officially representing the government.

Ousted Senate speaker slams Liberal decision not to name government leader in upper chamber

The Senate's first sitting day of the session got off to a rocky start, with Conservative senators arguing the lack of a government leader prevents the upper chamber from conducting question period. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The ousted speaker of the Senate on Tuesday accused the Liberal government of being in "contempt" of the dignity of Parliament for not naming a government leader in the red chamber. It was among several remarkable moves in the upper house, where there is a healthy opposition but no one officially representing the government.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who sat about as far away from the Speaker's dais as one possibly could in the Senate, raised a point of privilege relating to the government's refusal to appoint a leader in the Senate. He said it was "an affront to Canada's parliamentary system and infringes on our ability to perform our parliamentary duties."  

Housakos said not having a leader of the government in the Senate is a clear violation of the rules, which state that any senator may without notice ask that person questions.

"Question period is our opportunity to hold the government to account and ask questions about government policy," said Housakos.

The former speaker was taken aback last week when he learned through the grapevine that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had replaced him with Senator George Furey.

Concern for regional interests

On Tuesday, Housakos also raised the point that the Senate is left to find alternatives to established rules and procedures that "presupposes both a government leader and opposition leader."

The only opportunity for Atlantic opposition representatives to hold the Liberal government accountable in the Atlantic provinces is in the Senate.- Conservative Senator Denise Batters

Another Conservative appointee, Senator Denise Batters, supported Housakos' point of privilege and extrapolated what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Senate reform plan could mean going forward.

The government has said it would select a "government representative" to help champion government business in the Senate from a group of five independent, non-partisan senators who will be selected by an independent panel early in 2016.

"No matter their other worthwhile credentials, these new senators will presumably be individuals with zero experience in this chamber," said Batters.

Having no true partisan leader of the government in the Senate, she said, would doom question period in the upper house and hurt senators' ability to protect regional interests.

"There are currently no opposition members from Atlantic Canada in the House of Commons. The only opportunity for Atlantic opposition representatives to hold the Liberal government accountable in the Atlantic provinces is in the Senate," she told her peers.

But Senate Opposition Leader Claude Carignan appeared willing to roll with the punches and adapt to the new reality. He introduced a motion to authorize the chamber to invite any cabinet minister to respond to questions relating to his or her ministerial responsibilities. "This will allow senators to directly ask ministers questions about their departments on behalf of Canadians."

Liberal Senator James Cowan supports the idea, as does Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc.

Guffaws and improvisation

Of course, it was too early for that today. So when Furey called out that it was time for Senate question period, there were loud guffaws from the floor and he quickly moved on to other business.

Ousted Senate speaker Leo Housakos has moved a point of privilege, arguing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Senate plan shows contempt for the dignity of Parliament. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

That too required some improvisation today.

Again, with no government leader and "notwithstanding usual practice," Liberal-appointed Senators Serge Joyal and Joan Fraser tabled documents. Later, Fraser announced the membership and sitting schedule of the Senate's national finance committee.

With 22 vacancies and several absences Tuesday, there were plenty of empty chairs in the red chamber. Last week, the Liberal government unveiled a new process for appointing senators in which an independent panel would recommend a short list of candidates for the prime minister's consideration.

The first phase will be an expedited process to install five senators by January to improve regional representation in light of a legal challenge, two each from Ontario and Manitoba as well as one from Quebec.

​As for Housakos' point of privilege, senators are expected to vote on it later this week.

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