Tory Senator Pierre Claude Nolin urges colleagues to be less partisan

A long-serving Conservative senator is calling for his colleagues to be less partisan in the Upper Chamber just days after Justin Trudeau declared all Liberal senators were independent.

Warns fellow Conservative senators they cannot be partisan at all costs

Party lines in the Senate

10 years ago
Duration 2:05
A Conservative senator has encouraged his colleagues to be less partisan, Rosemary Barton reports

A long-serving Conservative senator is calling for his colleagues to be less partisan  in the Upper Chamber just days after Justin Trudeau declared all Liberal senators were independent.

Senator Pierre Claude Nolin warns his colleagues they cannot be partisan at all costs.

“It’s easier for a senator to do his job if he makes decisions less based on partisanship,” Nolin said in a speech to the Senate on Tuesday. “Free choice for everyone is often a better guide.” 

The conclusion of Nolin’s remarks was greeted with broad applause. Trudeau astonished the 32 senators under his direction last week by banning them from his national Liberal caucus and from formal campaign roles without any notice or discussion.

The Liberal leader also said he would appoint a blue-ribbon non-partisan panel to select senators should he be elected prime minister.

Nolin’s appeal for a fading of party colours in the Senate comes just one week after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and much of the Conservative front bench ridiculed the Liberal plan, saying it changed nothing.

And yet, the new-found independence for 32 previously Liberal senators has got some Conservative senators thinking and talking more about freeing themselves from a lock-step march with their party and how they might be able to use any new-found liberty.
Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin's appeal for a less partisan Senate comes just one week after the prime minister and much of the Conservative front bench ridiculed Justin Trudeau's decision to ban senators from the Liberal caucus. (Parliament of Canada)

Some Conservative senators did exercise some autonomy from their party in a hard-fought battle last June. Senator Hugh Segal managed to get enough senators on board to gut a Conservative MP’s Private Member’s bill that would have forced unions to publicly disclose salaries and spending. 

Nolin, who was appointed by Brian Mulroney in 1993, has never shied away from going against his party in the Senate. He has long been an advocate of legalization of marijuana, which flies in the face of the Harper government’s position on the issue.

But Tuesday’s speech constituted an impassioned plea to his colleagues to consider the benefits of being a senator who can speak his mind. And the timing of his speech – on the heels of Trudeau’s move – is bound to prompt questions about other Conservatives who may be chafing at party leashes.

'Lose sight of your responsibilities'

“Senators are partisan and that is a very good thing,” Nolin said. “What causes problems is not that one is partisan; what is a problem is if you are partisan to such an extent that you lose sight of your responsibilities.”

Diminished partisanship and looser party discipline would allow for less confrontational debate and more fruitful investigations, he added.

Nolin has presented a series of seven issues to be discussed in the upper chamber, aimed at better understanding the Senate, its role, history and function within Canada’s parliamentary system.

In a speech delivered to the Senate last week, Nolin argued that in order to keep the House of Commons in check, “…the Senate cannot be a mere duplication of that House.” 

He concluded that if the Fathers of Confederation were to evaluate whether the Senate is doing what it should, they would have to conclude it has not met their expectations.


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.