Senate Conservatives insist their influence isn't fading as two members quit for new Senate group

Tory members in the Upper House say they do not believe their influence has diminished with the creation of the Canadian Senators Group.

Sen. Don Plett of Manitoba elected Senate Opposition Leader by Tory caucus

Conservative senators say their caucus remains strong, even though two members left to join a new group. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservative senators are hitting back at claims their caucus is losing influence after two of their colleagues left to form the new Canadian Senators Group.

Conservative membership in the Red Chamber dropped from 28 to 26 senators on Monday following the departure of senators Scott Tannas of Alberta and Vernon White of Ontario.

"I've always believed that you don't fix a problem by leaving. You fix a problem by staying and working at the problems," said Sen. Don Plett of Manitoba, after being elected Leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Senate Tuesday evening.

"Senator Tannas and Senator White decided they didn't have the patience to do that and decided to pick up and leave ... certainly that's not something that I would want to do."

Despite the loss of two of their own, Sen. David Wells of Newfoundland and Labrador said the Conservative caucus is not worried about its future.

"Our caucus remains strong and united," said the senator from Newfoundland and Labrador. "We want to uphold the values of the Senate, which includes the constitutional obligation of loyal opposition."

A man wearing glasses is shown in a shirt and tie.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett of Manitoba was elected by his colleagues on Tuesday evening as the new Senate Opposition Leader. (Chris Rands/CBC)

Wells — who ran against Plett in the leadership race — said he doesn't expect to see any more of his colleagues step away from caucus.

'I don't like the fact that these 11 people left'

Tannas said he decided it was time to say goodbye after experiencing a difficult last session of Parliament, which saw the passage of C-48, the legislation that bans oil tankers in northern B.C., and C-69, the legislation that overhauls Canada's environmental assessment process, which is seen by many in Western Canada as anti-pipeline.

"What I did notice in those debates is that we were talking past each other a lot and I felt that some of those votes were very, very close," Tannas said.

"If I were a strong, independent voice, could I have influenced better one or two more people? Maybe. That was one of my considerations, strong considerations."

Tannas created the CSG with 10 other like-minded senators who felt they could better represent their regions in a small group.

"I don't like the fact that these 11 people left," said Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk of Saskatchewan.

"If they haven't been dealing with regional issues up until now, then they should look back at their Senate career because that's what we all do ... I think they're going to have way less influence than they think."

Although he isn't happy with losing Tannas and White, Tkachuk said he expects CSG members will vote in line with the Conservative caucus because its members tend to lean right.

'Inevitable consequence' of Senate reforms

"I don't love the name they've chosen for themselves because it suggests they're Canadian and other people in the Senate are not," said Conservative Sen. Linda Frum of Ontario.

"It is an inevitable consequence of the reforms Prime Minister Trudeau enacted in the Senate."

Sen. Linda Frum of Ontario called the formation of the Canadian Senators Group a consequence of the Trudeau government's reforms to the Senate. (Prime Minister's Office)

Frum said she expects the emergence of the CSG could complicate the Senate's work and slow down the passage of legislation.

"I don't see this as a significant material change for us," said Sen. Frum. "I do see it as a material change for the government."

In 2014, before Justin Trudeau became prime minister, he expelled every single Liberal member of the Upper House from the party caucus in an attempt to make the Senate less partisan.

After coming to power, Prime Minister Trudeau introduced a system to appoint independent senators named by a nonpartisan review panel.

Tkachuk said the creation of CSG is a sign that Prime Minister Trudeau's Senate reforms were not thought out. 

"To me, this just shows the failure of this whole thing," Tkachuk said.

"You can't cover up ... that we have a left-of-centre group of senators who support Trudeau and we have people who don't. One of which is the loyal Opposition, which is us, and obviously now another group of senators."

Call to do away with an independent Upper House

Tkachuk said he's troubled by the emergence in the Senate of what he calls "special interest groups," which he said could mute conversations about national caucus matters.

Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk of Saskatchewan said he does not think the newly formed Canadian Senators Group will have as much influence as it claims. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"It may evolve [to] where we're all going to be sitting around talking about nothing," he said. "That's not the way to run a Senate and that's what's happening."

Frum also said that independent senators are problematic.

"When you further and further remove senators from the elected people who appointed them, it empowers senators," Frum said.

"It's not the direction that most Canadians want to see the Senate go, which is less accountability and less transparency."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.