The Current

How independent is the Senate under Justin Trudeau's rule?

Last week the Senate passed the Liberal government’s controversial budget bill. Liberal-appointed Independents voted with the party prompting Conservatives to say their red is showing.
In January 2014, Justin Trudeau booted Liberal senators from his caucus. That was before he was elected as Prime Minister and in the wake of the Senate expenses scandal involving Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and others. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Late last week, 50 Independents and Liberals voted to pass the budget bill without amendment, while all 33 Conservatives rejected it.

It was a process that was delayed and debated, but eventually the Independent Senate Group voted with the government despite displaying previous objections — prompting Conservative senators to call them out for rolling over. 

Even though the Liberals and Independents voted as a block, CBC's Parliamentary Bureau reporter John Paul Tasker, who covers the Senate, says the Independents made sure to send their own clear message to the prime minister.

"And that was, we have every right to amend or to feed for that matter any piece of government legislation. And we might just do so in the future," Tasker explains to The Current's guest host Mike Finnerty.

"They said, 'Let's be very clear here: We knew our constitutional rights and you should, too.'"

Back in January 2014, Justin Trudeau surprised both politicians and the public when he kicked out Liberal senators from his caucus. This happened in the wake of the Senate expenses scandal involving Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and others. 
The recent Senate vote to pass the Liberal government’s controversial budget bill has Conservatives saying their red is showing. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Tasker describes the move at the time as momentous, upending "the whole political order that has defined this country for nearly 150 years."

"It really was the first step in a push to dismantle party politics in the Senate ... a place that's known for its relative independence compared to the House of Commons  — but it was always a place very much defined by partisanship," Tasker explains.

He says voting patterns show the Independents appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have "essentially toed the line."

"Ninety-five per cent of the time they have voted with a government — 95 per cent. That's compared to 78 per cent of the time for those who actually call themselves Liberals. So you know, those who are a bit skeptical of this whole independence thing point to those numbers, and that's why the Conservative senators say independents are really just Liberals in disguise."

At the end of the day, rhetoric is all good — but when you get up and vote, it's crystal clear where they all stand..-  Conservative senator Leo Housakos criticizing Independent senators

Conservative senators as the true independents

The only true independent senators, according to Conservative senator Leo Housakos, are Conservative members.

He refers to the voting patterns outlined by Tasker as an example that clearly shows Conservatives aren't bound by a prime minister who has named most of the Senate seats.

"In practice, we've shown that if government legislation is found to be appropriate and something we can support based on our principles, we have done so in this parliament," Housakos explains. 
Conservative Senator Leo Housakos said Liberal and Independent senators "caved" to the government by accepting the budget bill. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"And when we found legislation needs to be amended or needs to be upgraded, we have done what needs to be done as well."

In the case of the Conservative caucus, Housakos says it's "crystal clear in terms of where our principles and values lie." But when it comes to the Independent senators, he says that, in his experience, they have shown to equivocally support the Trudeau agenda.

Housakos argues the proof is in the votes. 

"At the end of the day, rhetoric is all good — but when you get up and vote, it's crystal clear where they all stand."

A growing independent Senate

Lawyer and human rights advocate Marilou McPhedran describes the Senate as a "growing independence." Prime Minister Trudeau named McPhedran as an Independent to the Senate last year.

[The Senate] should be independent across the board.- Independent senator Marilou McPhedran

While the recent budget bill was passed with Independents supporting the Liberal government, McPhedran says the extensive decision-making process ahead of the vote should be taken into account. 

She tells Finnerty that moving forward, the Senate should consider abolishing the dichotomy that has governed the Senate, and suggests letting go of the official opposition designation.

"If the job of all of us as senators is to focus on what is in the best interest of our nation, to be much less partisan, to think in terms of the big picture, to pay particular attention to minorities whose voices are not necessarily heard— that is much more our role, and that means it should be independent across the board."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien, Samira Mohyeddin and Kristin Nelson.