'It's groundbreaking': Independent senators gain more resources, committee clout

A group of independent senators has gained more political power in Parliament.

New agreement between parties grants financial resources, positions based on principle of proportionality

Yuen Pau Woo is facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, which has gained more resources and power on committees. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

A group of independent senators has gained more political power in Parliament.

Senate caucuses and the Independent Senators Group (ISG) reached a deal Tuesday on the distribution of committee seats, leadership positions and financial resources.

The agreement provides proportional representation for Senate resources and responsibilities in relation to the size of parties and parliamentary groups.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the ISG, said exact resource levels are still being worked out, but the fair share principle has significantly been adopted as the new norm.

"It's groundbreaking," Woo told CBC News in an interview. "It entrenches the principle of proportionality, which in turn legitimizes and more fully recognizes the role of parliamentary groups ... as a legitimate and full player in the Senate."

Woo, an academic and former president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, was elected facilitator to the ISG in September, with Quebec Independent Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain serving as his deputy facilitator.

'Coalitions of the willing'

Woo said independent senators will continue to act and vote how they want, but he expects there will be continued co-operation among independent senators, between independent members and those of political caucuses, and a variety of permutations that can't be predicted.

"We believe in coalitions of the willing, if you will, and because we do not take a common position on any legislation, the independent senators have the ability and the liberty to work with other senators of all stripes on issues they have a special interest in," he said.

Talks will continue on proposed changes to senate rules to advance "full equality" of independent senators relative to those who belong to political caucuses.

There are currently 39 ISG members, outnumbering the 35 Conservative senators. There are also 15 independent Liberal and 5 non-affiliated senators, and 11 vacant seats.

Opposition powers protected

Larry Smith, the Conservative leader in the Senate, said the deal was negotiated in good faith and enshrines the powers and position of the Loyal Opposition in the committee composition.

He said the negotiated agreement will expire with the next election in 2019.

Smith said voting patterns of the ISG members so far have been closely aligned with the Liberal government, raising questions about the true independence of the senators. 

"As we evolve through this process and get to know Senator Woo's group better, we have to find out from them not only their voting patterns, but how independent are they? Who are they accountable to? How do they form policy? Do they have a policy? What defines them?" he said in an interview with CBC News.

"These are the questions that are going to go through growing pains as we evolve in this particular situation."

There are now 39 members of the Independent Senators Group. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)