Trudeau blames Conservative senators for acrimony in Senate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his push to reform the Senate along independent lines is playing out as planned, blaming recent acrimony on Conservative senators who stood in the way of government legislation in the Red Chamber.

'He wants to have a parliamentary body similar to one in North Korea, or Iran, or Cuba,' Tory senator says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Conservative senators are to blame for some acrimony between his government and the Senate. (Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his push to reform the Senate along independent lines is playing out as planned, blaming recent legislative squabbles on Conservatives senators.

"We are stymied a bit by a bloc of partisan Conservatives who vote against the government every chance they can get. [That] simply means there is more to do to create a more independent and thoughtfully reflective Senate," Trudeau said at a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday to mark the summer recess.

The remarks immediately angered Conservative senators, who saw it as another sign the government is intent on dismantling the Official Opposition in the Red Chamber, morphing the parliamentary body into a sort of "debating society" that will roll over in the face of pressure from the Liberal government.

"When you have a majority government talking about abolishing opposition in the legislative chamber ... it is really dangerous rhetoric. What does he want to do? He wants to have a parliamentary body similar to one in North Korea, or Iran, or Cuba. That is what this prime minister is really proposing," Conservative Leo Housakos said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

The comments follow a stormy finish to the parliamentary spring sitting.

The government's budget bill was amended by the Senate last week, and some senators threatened to delay its passage unless a plan to hike alcohol taxes each year with the rate of inflation was removed. Liberal and Independent senators ultimately relented while pushing back against a suggestion from the prime minister that the Senate does not have the right to amend, or defeat, budget legislation.

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Independents vote with government

While some of the Trudeau-appointed Independents have stood in opposition to aspects of the Liberal agenda — notably embedding the creation of the infrastructure bank in the budget bill — an analysis by CBC News shows they have so far voted with the government 95 per cent of the time. That number is actually higher than those senators who identify as Liberals (78 per cent).

The Conservatives have delayed the passage of some legislation, but they, too, have voted with the government on occasion (25 per cent). Thus, Conservatives have voted more often with the Liberal government than Independents voted against it.

"Nearly 100 per cent of the time his appointees have been ultra, super partisan and blindly supportive of his legislation, without any question," Housakos said. "The appointees he put in place, above all else, have one thing on their mind and that's abolish the opposition."

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, the chair of the Senate's powerful internal economy committee, said Liberal and Independent senators 'caved' to the government by accepting the budget bill. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

After appointing 27 senators in 18 months, the prime minister will have a further 11 seats to fill before Parliament returns in the fall. Independent senators will then hold a numerical majority in the upper house, and the leeway to implement fundamental reforms.

Indeed, Independent Manitoba Senator Marilou McPhedran said Monday in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current that she no longer sees a need for political "dichotomy" in the Senate.

"I can't quite figure out why we'd still be designating an Official Opposition. I think the job of all of us, as senators, is to focus on what is in the best interest of our nation, and be much less partisan," she said.

Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, has also said there shouldn't be "organized and disciplined" government and opposition caucuses in the Red Chamber. "Reproducing a government-versus-opposition dynamic in the Senate… is detrimental to independence, non-partisanship and complementarity," he said at a meeting of the Senate's modernization committee.

'A growing independence'

McPhedran, who Conservatives have pointed out is a former donor to the Liberal Party, said there is "a growing independence" and voting patterns only tell one part of the story.

"I haven't really had the same experience as Senator Housakos," she said, pointing to her work to amend the government's legislation to redress the discrimination Indigenous women face when registering under the Indian Act.

McPhedran changed the government's Bill S-3 to open up registration to far more women than the government had initially intended. The amended bill was rejected by the House of Commons, but was not dealt with by the Senate before Parliament rose for the summer.

Independent Manitoba Senator Marilou McPhedran, centre, stands with Senator Peter Harder, left, and Senator Murray Sinclair. McPhedran has amended the government's bill that makes changes to the Indian Act registration process. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"The government is going to have to handle this bill very differently than what they planned to do," she said, as a result of lobbying efforts from Independent Indigenous senators and their allies.

Despite those efforts, Housakos said tinkering with government bills will not replace a properly constituted opposition and he is prepared to stand strongly against the government's reforms.

"We will go as far as necessary ... this government, Peter Harder, Trudeau, they are going to have a huge political price to pay if they continue to infringe upon fundamental principles of democracy by not respecting our British parliamentary system and the fact that you need strong opposition represented in both chambers."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.