Independent senators growing restless with pace of change

The Liberal government's representative in the Senate tried to appease members of the Red Chamber Tuesday by hosting an all-party meeting to discuss the onslaught of legislation headed their way before Christmas — but few partisan senators actually showed up.

Conservative, Liberal caucuses holding on to power despite arrival of new senators, Trudeau appointee says

Ontario Independent Senator Frances Lankin, left, says she's 'very impatient about the change,' accusing the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses of holding on to power. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government's representative in the Senate tried to appease members of the Red Chamber by hosting an all-party meeting to discuss the onslaught of legislation headed their way before Christmas — but few partisan senators actually showed up.

It was far from a full complement of senators, as roughly 40 of 105 members made an appearance, and nobody in a leadership position in the Liberal or Conservative caucuses was there to discuss the agenda.

Peter Harder, who is tasked with shepherding legislation through the upper chamber on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has been accused by Liberal Senator Jim Cowan of being a "radical" and "slyly subversive" for hosting this meeting, in private, outside of the chamber.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos echoed those sentiments, telling CBC News the meeting was an attempt by Harder to turn the Senate into a bureaucratic extension of the Liberal government but with less transparency.

You know when I join a club, or a when I join a hockey team ... I don't offer myself up as the captain the first day.- Conservative Senator Don Plett

Ontario Independent Senator Frances Lankin said the Harder bashing and "gamesmanship" was distracting from what senators are in Ottawa to do: pass legislation.

"Doing the business of the Senate, and the business of Parliament, is the reason we're here. Political theatre shouldn't be the reason we're here."

Slow progress

The arrival of 21 new Trudeau appointees has hastened the demand for seats on Senate committees, which is where most of the "sober second thought" work of the Red Chamber is actually done.

Lankin said she is increasingly frustrated with the pace of change, as partisan senators have been loath to yield power to the Independents, who now form a plurality in the chamber.

If a senator does not sit on a single committee, their workload is rather light — they are only expected to be present in the Senate chamber for the three weekly sittings. (Additional sitting days can be added as needed.)

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)

Asked Tuesday if the alleged delay was the result of an old boys' network trying to hold on to power, the former Ontario NDP cabinet minister said she would not use those words exactly although she said, "I believe them strongly."

All Senate committees currently have a Conservative majority. Committee membership was determined when Parliament returned after the last election, and the Tories still had a plurality in the chamber.

"I'm very impatient about the change, I've been here since April, I haven't seen, myself, a lot of progress," Lankin said.

However, two seats on each Senate committee have already been set aside for "non-affiliated" senators, but some have yet to be filled.

The partisan caucuses still control membership on committees — there isn't a single Independent on the selection committee, which decides who sits where — and research budgets are out of whack, Independent senators have argued.

Don't be in a rush, veteran senator says

Conservative Senator Don Plett, who chairs the selection committee, said in an interview that Lankin and other Independent senators need to put "a little water in their wine," as the process to divvy up seats is underway.

He said most of the new senators were only sworn in the over past two weeks, and change doesn't happen overnight, adding the new Independent senators have not shown a lot of deference to the more experienced members of the chamber.

"Does she want us to be all helter-skelter? They seem to want to come in one day, and take control of everything," he said.

"You know when I join a club, or when I join a hockey team, I try to get to know the people, feel them out little bit, I don't offer myself up as the captain the first day I'm in with the new team."

Conservative Senator Don Plett said change is underway to change the composition of Senate committees, telling Independents not to be in such a rush. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As for the "old boys' club" charge, Plett said, "We've got just as many young girls in our caucus as any."

The jury is still out, the Manitoba senator said, if committees will be completely reconstituted to be fully reflective of the new chamber's composition.

"I think we have to find a way of making them accountable," he said, noting the Independents do not sit in a caucus and are not whipped or forced to show up to a committee assignment.

"We need to get some other rules in place before we simply dive in and put more committee members in."

Harder said Tuesday decisions on committee membership, and budgets, will be decided by consensus among the leadership in "a very short period of time."

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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