Independent senators given $700K budget as non-partisan vision for Red Chamber takes hold

Independent senators have been given a budget of $722,000 to build a new caucus from the ground up and hire staff to help them carry out their duties as members of the Red Chamber, CBC News has learned.

Trudeau's point man in the Senate says changes are coming to Parliament of Canada Act

New Brunswick Senator Nancy Hartling, centre, stands with senators Peter Harder and Elaine McCoy before being sworn in back in November. The Independent Senators Group, which McCoy leads, has been given a budget of $722,000. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Independent senators have been given a budget of $722,000 to build a new caucus from the ground up and hire staff to help them carry out their duties as members of the Red Chamber, CBC News has learned.

Senate sources, speaking on background because the decision has not yet been made public, said the subcommittee on estimates has allocated the money for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which will allow the Independent Senators Group (ISG) to create a "secretariat" of staff to support its 35 members.

The ISG, which includes most of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 28 recent appointees, has been granted a pro-rated amount of $180,500 for the first three months of 2017 so it can start hiring staff right away. The offices of all senators will receive an additional $40,000 a year for research.

It's another key victory for Independents as they push to reconstitute the chamber along non-partisan lines and wrest power from the Conservative and Liberal caucuses, who have controlled the chamber's business since its inception.

Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of his national caucus in January 2014, at the height of the expenses scandal, and promised to appoint only non-partisan, Independent members to the upper house.

Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, told CBC News in a year-end interview that he will also give "higher priority" during the winter sitting to rewriting parts of the Parliament of Canada Act — the legislation that lays out the rules for Canada's bicameral system of government — to better reflect the new realities of the Senate.

Senator Thomas Johnson McInnis, right to left, and senators Serge Joyal and Elaine McCoy present the Senate committee on modernization's report, which recommends televising chamber proceedings and changes to the definition of 'caucus.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He said there will be major debates about how the Senate functions, including redefining what exactly is a "caucus," televising the chamber's proceedings, electing a Speaker of the Senate and reforming question period in a non-partisan era.

"There will be amendments ... to give expression to the reforms that are underway, how ultimately the Senate decides on some of the modernization committee recommendations that affect the [act]," Harder said.

"I think, in this Parliament, we have one kick at this and it would be wise to accumulate those amendments over the next while."

Independents get less money

Money allocated to the ISG will be used to hire a chief of staff, two legislative assistants, a logistics clerk, a senior special assistant or rules person, a communications assistant, a translator and two other assistants, according to Senator Elaine McCoy, the self-styled "facilitator" of the group.

While the 43 Independents now form a plurality in the upper house, they receive the least amount of funding of any group in the Senate.

By comparison, the 41 Conservative senators have access to $1.3 million in annual funding while the 21 Senate Liberals have $1.1 million, although that figure will decline by $200,000 next year when the caucus loses two more members to retirement.

Because the ISG isn't formally recognized as a caucus under the Senate's rules — only political parties registered by Elections Canada are eligible — the chamber had to explicitly authorize the estimates committee to hand out the money.

The ISG isn't a caucus per se because it's not whipped and members are free to vote as they please.

However, during this past sitting, most Independents were supportive of government legislation and voted in lockstep with Harder.

The new money is in addition to the $800,000 given to Harder, who is not a member of the ISG, to carry out his duties as Trudeau's point man in the Senate.

Proportional representation

The non-affiliated group of senators has also secured proportional representation on the Senate's committees, where much of the chamber's "sober second thought" work is actually done by reviewing legislation and drafting reports.

Senate committees will be expanded so 40 per cent of all seats will be occupied by Independents, 40 per cent by Conservatives and 20 per cent by Senate Liberals. (Committees with nine members will see their numbers grow to 12 to accommodate.)

"We passed that hurdle," Harder said. "It's a significant achievement done without rancour, a divisive vote, [or] using authorities that could be interpreted as a more forceful demonstration of power. The committee work can get on."

Harder had previously said if a deal couldn't be negotiated with the partisan caucuses, he would be willing to introduce a "sessional order" to force a vote.

Harder promises more changes

He said the winter sitting will also include debates about changing the order paper process and rewriting official titles. 

Harder, for example, has all the trappings of the government "leader" in the Senate, but has chosen to call himself the "representative," a seemingly minor but important distinction for the Ontario senator who insists he has every right to call himself an Independent even though his primary function is shepherding Liberal legislation through the upper house.

"I understand that my independence is different than the independence of those that are part of the ISG. But it is an independence from partisan adherence, but I am, yes, completely comfortable with the notion of representing, as best I can, the interests of the government in the Senate."

There will also be further debate on reconstituting the Senate along regional lines, as opposed to partisan divisions, something Harder has previously endorsed.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

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.