Independent senator defects to the Progressives as senators spar over committee seats

Manitoba Sen. Patricia Bovey has left the Independent Senators Group (ISG) and will now sit as a member of the Progressive caucus, a group composed of former Liberal senators.

Trudeau appointee to sit with group of former Liberal senators

Manitoba Sen. Patricia Bovey, an art historian, has joined the Senate's Progressive group. (University of Winnipeg)

Manitoba Sen. Patricia Bovey has left the Independent Senators Group (ISG) and will now sit as a member of the Progressive caucus, a group composed of former Liberal senators.

Bovey, an art historian and curator, joins a growing list of senators who have defected from the ISG in recent months to sit in other Senate groups.

Since his election in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed only independent senators who do not sit in partisan caucuses.

That means most of his appointees have joined the ISG, which gives members access to additional research money and seats on Senate committees.

Bovey, appointed in November 2016, was among the first members of the ISG.

Bovey recently put her name forward for the vacant Speaker pro tempore position — essentially the deputy Speaker in the upper house — but lost a caucus vote when Sen. Pierrette Ringuette was picked as the ISG's choice for the position. Ringuette still needs to be approved by the larger Senate.

Bovey was not available for an interview Friday.

"I look forward to working with colleagues in the Progressive Senate Group while continuing positive collaborations with all senators as we work on issues facing Canadians," Bovey said in a statement. She said she will focus her energies on issues related to the arts, the Arctic, Canada's oceans and fisheries, Indigenous and foreign affairs for the balance of her term.

Before Bovey made the switch, the Progressive group was composed entirely of former Liberal senators appointed by prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

The group changed its name in November 2019 in an effort to recruit more senators who were leery of joining a group with past partisan ties. Trudeau dropped all Liberal senators from the national caucus in 2014, at the the height of the Senate expenses scandal.

Nova Scotia Sen. Jane Cordy, the leader of the Progressives, welcomed Bovey with a tweet Friday.

"I am pleased to welcome Sen. Patricia Bovey to the Progressive Senate Group. She brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion, and makes a valued addition to the Progressives. We look forward to working collaboratively with her," Cordy said.

Senators spar over committee seats

Half of all sitting senators are members of the ISG. Its leadership has struggled to manage a diverse group of senators who are free from the confines of party discipline.

Independent senators don't answer to a party whip on practical matters, such as when they speak in the chamber or how they'll vote on legislation.

But after the recent departures, the ISG no longer holds the monopoly on senators who do not fit comfortably into the old-line party caucuses.

Seven ISG members left in November to form the small-c conservative Canadian Senators Group. Now, Bovey has paved a path for other liberal-minded senators to join the Progressives.

Manitoba Sen. Patricia Bovey stands with Sen. Peter Harder, left, and Sen. Murray Sinclair before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate Tuesday November 15, 2016 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Progressive Senate Group is not an official group under the Senate rules, as it has less than the nine members needed to be "recognized." Seven senators now identify as Progressives and one — Sen. Lillian Dyck — is facing mandatory retirement in August.

Much of the Senate's "sober second thought" function is carried out at committees, and committee seats are prized by senators. Non-affiliated senators, including the Progressives, do not have the access to seats guaranteed to Independent, Conservative and CSG members — so there's an incentive to stay in a group to keep a committee seat.

In an effort to stop defections, the ISG facilitator, B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, passed a motion in the chamber (before its pandemic-imposed recess began) to strip committee seats from members who leave a recognized caucus or group, with a few exceptions.

Asked to comment on Bovey's floor-crossing, Woo said: "We thank Senator Bovey for her contributions to the ISG and we wish her well."

The Senate hasn't been able to assemble most committees, some eight months after the last federal election. The various groups have sparred over how many seats should be allocated to each caucus.

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett has accused Woo of trying to block non-affiliated senators like the Progressives from seats on committees.

"Rather than valuing and seeking the input of some of the most senior members of the Senate who are currently unaffiliated, your motion excluded them and their wisdom," Plett said in an April letter to Woo, referencing a motion to constitute a COVID-19 pandemic oversight committee.

"Your refusal to demonstrate collegiality and civility at a time when the world is united in its efforts to defeat a common enemy — COVID-19 — is disappointing."

However, the Senate's selection committee, which is chaired by Woo, met May 1 and approved some seats for non-affiliated senators, but that report has not yet been adopted by the Red Chamber.

"The selection committee report is proof that non-affiliated senators were given seats on committees — from the ISG and CSG," Woo said in an email to CBC.

"We would also note that it was the [Conservatives] who objected to a meeting of the selection committee, which was called precisely to populate the committees with senators from all groups, including non-affiliated members," Woo said.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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