Politics·Analysis

Senate defections could solidify Trudeau's upper house reforms

The announcement Monday that 11 senators were breaking away from their respective groups to create a new entity — the blandly named Canadian Senators Group (CSG) — is a welcome development for those looking to hasten the demise of an explicitly partisan upper house.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed only 'Independent' senators — now Conservatives are peeling away

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber as seen in Ottawa in April, 2019. (Benoit Roussel/CBC)

The announcement Monday that 11 senators were breaking away from their respective groups to create a new entity — the blandly named Canadian Senators Group (CSG) — is a welcome development for those looking to hasten the demise of an explicitly partisan upper house.

What was once a place strictly organized along party lines has been fundamentally changed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reforms. Trudeau has kept his promise to only appoint Independent senators who do not formally align with the Liberal Party of Canada, a promise that has left a small Liberal rump and a burgeoning Independent Senators Group (ISG) caucus in the Red Chamber.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper let vacancies pile up as the Senate expenses scandal raged on. Trudeau subsequently went on an appointments spree — naming nearly half of the current Senate contingent in just four years' time.

Some of those Trudeau appointees are now ditching the ISG as the Trudeau reforms become more entrenched. Two Conservative senators have decided to join them in the new Canadian Senators Group.

While Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he'd return to the old system of appointments — with a focus on putting party members on the Red Chamber's benches — that promise was neutralized by his defeat on Oct. 21.

So the Trudeau Senate is here to stay for now — maybe forever. In addition to the 50 or so appointments Trudeau has already made, there will be roughly 24 more appointments over the next four years because of mandatory retirements. That means as many as three-quarters of the 105 members will owe their Senate seats to Trudeau.

Monday's development is a victory of sorts for Trudeau's reform agenda.

The ISG no longer holds a monopoly on senators who do not fit comfortably into the old-line party caucuses. Virtually all of Trudeau's appointees have joined the ISG to secure seats on committees (where most of the "sober second thought" happens) and money to hire a full contingent of staff.

But Harper appointees like Alberta Sen. Doug Black and former cabinet minister Sen. Josée Verner always made for strange bedfellows in the ISG with prison reformer Sen. Kim Pate.

In pitching his reforms, Trudeau said he envisioned a chamber of Parliament where senators could debate ideas free from the demands of partisan politics.

While independent in name, most of the ISG members are left-leaning progressive types who have sought amendments to government legislation but ultimately are inclined to back Liberal bills on the final vote.

By forming the new Canadian Senators Group, small-c conservatives can now shed their partisan stripes while still advancing an ideological agenda that differs from that of the governing Liberals.

And conservative-minded senators like these defectors can now sit in a group with like-minded people that is separate and distinct from the national Conservative Party caucus led by Scheer. It's no longer necessary to be a card-carrying Conservative to advance conservative ideas in the upper house.

"For me, clearly, we are at some kind of a tipping point and I think this is an exciting opportunity for the Senate to kind of, to reposition itself while doing the job that the founding fathers set out for it. I very much want to be a part of that," Sen. Scott Tannas, the interim leader of the Canadian Senators Group, said in an interview.

Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas: "We are at some kind of a tipping point." (CBC)

Rather than focusing on partisan politics, Tannas said group members can work at being more representative voices for the regions they represent.

"We're sent there to represent a region. We're sent there to make sure that all regions of the country are treated fairly at all times. We're the final gate for that and that's why many of us felt that we needed a new group that would allow us to focus on good research, robust debate, keeping it clear in our minds what the role of a senator is without extraneous noise," he said.

P.E.I. Sen. Diane Griffin, an Independent appointed by Trudeau, said she is leaving the ISG now for the CSG because she wants to be part of a smaller group of senators.

Many say the ISG has become unwieldy since it hit 58 members; its leadership has struggled to manage a divergent group of senators who are free from the confines of party discipline. Independent senators don't answer to a party whip on practical matters, such as when they speak in the chamber or how they'll vote on legislation. The result has been procedural chaos.

The other Senate groups have complained the ISG is hard to work with because its leadership doesn't speak for all members and there's little certainty on planning matters.

"This is not a case of me being a frustrated senator running away from a group. Far from it. I see this as an opportunity to form a new group in the Senate. The ISG is a very large group, which can be counter-productive in terms of being nimble," Griffin said in an interview.

P.E.I. Sen. Diane Griffin: "The ISG is a very large group, which can be counter-productive ..." (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Alberta Sen. Elaine McCoy, who initially created the ISG in the early days of the Trudeau reforms, said she is leaving for the upstart group because a smaller contingent will allow for more focused discussions on legislative matters.

She said the CSG's membership will be capped at 25 to ensure a less cumbersome operation.

The creation of the new group is also a blow to the Conservative caucus in the Senate and other traditionalists who say Trudeau's reforms to the place have undermined the role of the Senate in Canada's system of parliamentary democracy.

As more groups like this new CSG arise, the split between "government" and "opposition" will become increasingly muddled.

Forthcoming changes to the Parliament of Canada Act will end that government and opposition duopoly by adding new roles and titles — changes that some say will dilute the ability of the opposition to effectively hold the government of the day to account in the upper house.

In praise of partisanship

"I take no issue with senators who do not wish to sit as members of a caucus. And I take no issue with senators who do not wish to caucus based on political affiliation. I do take issue with anyone who denies or denigrates my wish and my privilege to do so. I assure you, I am no less independent than my colleague across the aisle," Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said in a recent speech.

"It is not partisanship that is inconsistent with the constitutional role of the Senate. What is inconsistent with the Constitution is the current prime minister's attempt to do an end-run in diminishing the opposition and reducing the Senate to nothing more than an echo chamber rather than the strong, responsible legislative body our forefathers intended it to be, with all the rights and privileges of the other chamber in our bicameral Westminster system."

A Conservative Senate source, speaking on background, said at least the new members of the CSG are open about their political leanings. Unlike the ISG, where members hold on to the fiction of being truly "Independent," CSG members have the courage to identify as right-leaning, the source said.

"These senators appear to have given up on staying with the ISG — where they were promised only an illusion of 'non-partisanship and independence,'" the source said.

To that end, there may be more defections to come from the ISG — this time to create a more blatantly progressive group in opposition to the conservative-leaning CSG. The Liberal rump — the Independent Liberal senators — will drop to seven members next February, meaning they'll lose official group status in the upper house. A new coalition of liberal-minded senators, separate from the ISG, could be what follows.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story suggested Sen. Kim Pate was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper. In fact, she was appointed in 2016 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
    Nov 05, 2019 9:12 AM ET

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.

With files from the CBC's Olivia Stefanovich

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