Justin Trudeau, senators differ on what independence means

Newly Independent senators seemed to differ from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on how much support they'll be able to offer during elections.

Liberal-turned-Independent senators unclear on party participation rules

Senators surprised Wednesday morning to find themselves removed from the Liberal Party's parliamentary caucus, including George Baker, say they're proud of party leader Justin Trudeau's attempt to make the Senate less partisan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Newly Independent senators seemed to differ from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on how much support they'll be able to offer during elections as they try to sort out what it means to no longer be part of the Liberal caucus.

Senators were shocked by Trudeau's announcement that they were no longer part of the caucus. He talked to them shortly before going in front of reporters to explain the move.

Trudeau said the country isn't ready for the years of constitutional debates that would likely be required to make the Senate an elected body or change its composition, but that this is one move he can make to try to bring down the partisan tone of the embattled institution.

James Cowan, who had been the party's leader in the Senate, says the formerly Liberal senators will continue to support Trudeau and call themselves the Senate Liberal caucus.

But when a reporter told Cowan the senators wouldn't be able to fundraise or do anything connected to the party, Cowan seemed unaware.

"He [Trudeau] hasn't said that ... You're saying 'what he said,' [but] that's not what he said to us," Cowan said.

Earlier Wednesday morning, Trudeau told reporters that the senators could remain party members, but that was about it.

"As far as political operatives, these senators will no longer be, you know, Liberal organizers, fundraisers, activists in any form," Trudeau said.

Still Senate Official Opposition

Cowan said they are still the Official Opposition in the Senate and that he will continue to be their leader, something Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella confirmed later in the day.

"They're still our friends and we share their values," he said about Liberal MPs.

"I think not a lot will change. I think that there is a perception perhaps that senators in our party and in the other party are under the control of folks on the other side. That's not been the case in our side. We obviously talk, consult with them and we have had the privilege of being part of their caucus up to now. We won't have that anymore. But we'll continue to talk to them and I suspect that not a great deal will change."

Cowan says Trudeau's move has nothing to do with an upcoming report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson, despite the accusation from Pierre Poilievre, the government's minister of state for democratic reform.

Poilievre alleged Trudeau suspects there will be bad news in the auditor general's report and is trying to pre-empt any criticism of the party.

Ferguson's office, which is looking at every senator's spending, said on Twitter that no one has seen an advance copy of the audit report. Trudeau said none of the now-Independent senators had approached him about any possible problems with their expenses.

Cowan says the caucus will still have the power to discipline its members.

Of 32 senators removed from caucus, about 20 of them were on the Hill Wednesday morning. Cowan said he couldn't speak for the others and whether they would join the new Senate Liberal caucus.

'Incredible surprise'

Newfoundland and Labrador Senator George Baker, who was named to the Senate in 2002, called it a fantastic announcement.

"It was an incredible surprise. A surprise to everybody, but it was something that Canadians have been asking for," said Baker, who was a Liberal MP from 1974 until he was appointed to the Senate.

"It is the most important announcement I think that's ever been made for the Parliament of Canada. The depoliticization of the Senate is one of the most important things that must take place at this moment in time."

Baker said he thinks the Conservative government will have to respond by making the same move.

He says he won't sit as a Senate Liberal because that defeats the purpose of Trudeau's decision.

Some senators took to Twitter to voice their support.

"Have [and] will always support Liberal values in Canada. To continue important work reviewing legislation for #PEI citizens [and] all [Canadians]," said Percy Downe, who was a chief of staff to former prime minister Jean Chrétien and named to the Senate in 2003.

"Mood upbeat in Liberal Senate caucus. Now we will serve Canadians more effectively," Mobina Jaffer said on Twitter.

Jaffer was appointed to the Senate in 2001 and was elected to two different roles on the Liberal Party's national council in the 1990s.


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