Independent Senators under fire as top Tory calls appointment process 'con job'

The gloves are off in the Red Chamber as Conservative senators lined up Wednesday to denounce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's picks for the Senate, branding them as "closeted" Liberals who will toe the Liberal party line.

Trudeau's new non-affiliated senators now form a plurality in 105-seat chamber

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, the former Speaker of the Senate, and the current chair of the powerful internal economy committee, says the Liberals' new Senate appointment process is a 'con job.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The gloves are off in the Red Chamber as Conservative senators lined up Wednesday to denounce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's picks for the Senate, branding them as "closeted" Liberals who will toe the party line.

"This is the biggest con job the Liberals have done in this country since the sponsorship scandal," Senator Leo Housakos, the former Speaker in the Senate, and current head of the chamber's powerful internal economy committee, said.

"[They] pretend they're somehow reforming the Senate of Canada, when they know they're not reforming anything, except naming a bunch of senators who are Liberal-minded, and they've asked them to be non-affiliated."

Trudeau has now appointed 20 per cent of all sitting senators in only a matter of months, after former prime minister Stephen Harper let vacancies accumulate while the chamber was rocked by scandal and police investigations.

The current count of non-affiliated (or Independent) senators stands at 44, meaning they are in a plurality in the 105-seat body. There are 21 independent Senate Liberals and 40 Conservatives.

Housakos calls the appointment of Independent Senators a "Con Job"

7 years ago
Duration 0:45
Featured VideoHousakos calls the appointment of Independent Senators a "Con Job"

'Smoke and mirrors'

Senator Bob Runciman, another Harper appointee to the upper chamber, said he is under no illusion that the government's move to brand these senators as "non-affiliated" is a sham.

"Even though they're being called Independents, they're really in the closet Liberals," he said, predicting they will be largely supportive of the government's legislation. "They'll be standing up and saying, 'Yes, sir.'"

"I think it is smoke and mirrors to some degree … they may not have the political connections that a lot of Conservative, and Liberal appointees have had in the past, but I think they share, philosophically, the views of most of the folks in the current government."

The Ontario Conservative said Trudeau's picks do not reflect a "real cross section of all Canadians," because they are an "elite group" that have spent most of their lives working in the public service.

Runciman, himself, spent 29 years as an Ontario PC MPP before he was tapped for the Senate. (Before that, he was a city councilor in his hometown of Brockville, Ont.)

Conservative Senator Bob Runciman said Wednesday that the Liberals' new appointment process is all "smoke and mirrors," and they will largely toe the government's line on legislation. (Dave Chan/Canadian Press)

Despite his criticisms, he said he has sympathy for the new senators because they won't have the supports of a traditional party caucus — to fight for their place on committee, to secure research budgets or to help them hire staffers.

They will not be able to sit with their colleagues in the House, or, under the Senate's current rules, create a formal caucus of their own.

"I'm also someone who spent a long time in politics, it was more comfortable for me adjusting to this life. People who've never had any real exposure to politics, and have no guidance in terms of a caucus, or a whip, helping them along the way, I think it poses a real challenge," he said.

The Senate's modernization committee recently recommended 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.

Senator Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, told CBC News that he will be pushing to reconstitute committees to reflect the new balance — something he hopes to accomplish through negotiations, but will introduce a "sessional order" to force change if talks are unproductive.

He also pushed back against accusations that the new appointees will be undyingly loyal to Trudeau, calling that characterization "unfair."

"We will be independent of the executive, the cabinet, and the House of Commons," he said Wednesday. "We are independent, in that nobody will use fear or favour to seek to have you vote in a particular way. Senators are being asked to use their judgment as they adjudicate and vote on government business."

Harder on the new Senate appointments

7 years ago
Duration 0:54
Featured VideoHarder on the new Senate appointments

Harder noted that the Independent senators appointed this spring by Trudeau have voted differently from one another, and there isn't a "predictable, uniform" outcome.

Liberal Senator Jim Munson struck a conciliatory tone Wednesday, saying the chamber is "entering a brave new world."

"I'm excited about it. I think it's exactly what the senate should be," he said of the push nonpartisanship. He also said the rules will likely be changed again to allow more Independent members on committees.

Chamber 'less transparent'

Senator Linda Frum, another Conservative from Ontario appointed by Harper, said the chamber is now less transparent, because the senators are not part of a national caucus, or subject to a party whip.

"A party caucus gives you a connection to a political platform, a political ideology, that you are then there to help enact, without that, there is no accountability," the former journalist said. 

"The appointees that Trudeau has put in have to pretend they're something they're not. They have to pretend they're not affiliated with the Liberal Party, when in fact I believe that's exactly what they are."

She said if one of the new senators abuses their power, or flouts the rules, they will not be properly disciplined — not to mention the new process hands a lot of power to individuals who have never faced the electorate, she said.

Harder said the chamber will be transparent, but more work needs to be done.

"We need to move forward more quickly, than we have, with an independent oversight body [of expenses] so that Canadians can be assured there will be oversight of our administration that meets the highest standards of governance."

All Conservative senators who spoke to CBC News said they support returning to the former system of partisan appointments, but with some tweaks.

Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters said real reform would involve electing members to the Red Chamber, and imposing term limits on appointees.


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.

With files from the CBC's Julie Van Dusen