The story behind Justin Trudeau’s Senate play

Year-end review inspired plan to start the new year with a bang


Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star/Getty Images

OTTAWA – Just three months ago, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals dismissed as “ridiculous” an NDP motion calling on the Grits and Conservatives to expel unelected senators from their respective caucuses.

Yet the Liberal leader did just that Wednesday, surprising everyone, particularly his party’s 32 senators who’d been kept in the dark about his plans.

Trudeau’s abrupt about-face left rival parties, cynics and conspiracy theorists to speculate that the move was motivated by the need to distance himself from senators who could be tarred with making inappropriate expense claims in an imminent interim report by auditor general Michael Ferguson.

But insiders involved in the decision-making process insist the truth is much more prosaic: expulsion was the only concrete action the leader of the third party could take that wouldn’t involve re-opening the Constitution or potentially be derailed by the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule sometime this year on the constitutional requirements for reforming or abolishing the upper house.

At no point, they maintain, did the looming AG’s report — which Ferguson’s office says it has shared with no one — factor into the equation.

For that matter, neither did the NDP motion. Trudeau’s contention last October that the motion was unconstitutional was based, insiders say, not on the expulsion of senators from party caucuses but on other aspects of the motion, which presumed to dictate how Senate resources could be used and to limit senators’ travel. In a bicameral parliamentary democracy, one chamber can not tell the other chamber how to conduct its business.

As for the timing of Trudeau’s bombshell announcement, that was strictly a case of wanting to start the new year with a bang.

According to insiders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the genesis of Trudeau’s dramatic move was a meeting of his tight-knit inner circle before Christmas to frankly evaluate what went right and what went wrong in 2013. Those involved — including national campaign co-chairs Katie Telford and Dan Gagnier, principal adviser and longtime friend Gerald Butts, chief of staff Cyrus Reporter and national Liberal director Jeremy Broadhurst — marvelled at how the Senate expenses scandal had dominated the federal political scene for most of the year, almost to the exclusion of anything else.

They concluded that Trudeau — who’d been painted as a defender of the status quo while the Conservatives championed an elected Senate and the NDP banged the drum for abolition — needed to be more aggressive about reforming the Senate.

Trudeau was willing but laid down two conditions: He would not propose anything that would require a constitutional amendment, with all the attendant, divisive wrangling with the provinces that would entail. Nor did he want to simply promise to do something if elected prime minister one day; he wanted to be able to “walk the walk” — a tall order for the leader of the third party, who has zero legislative power.

His inner circle consulted discreetly with more than a half dozen political scientists and constitutional experts. One of them, University of Waterloo political scientist Emmett Macfarlane, impressed upon them that they needed to be very careful not to propose anything that might run afoul of the Supreme Court, which he warned could well rule that anything that fetters the prime minister’s discretion to appoint whomever he pleases to the Senate would need a constitutional amendment, approved by at least seven provinces.

Based on those discussions and inspired partly by an op-ed article penned by former Ontario cabinet minister Greg Sorbara, Trudeau’s adviser proposed an independent process for nominating worthy, non-partisan Senate appointees, similar — but more open and transparent — to the process used to choose recipients of the Order of Canada.

Trudeau, who’d already floated the idea of seeking independent advice on Senate nominees, was agreeable. But he pointed out that the proposal was just a promise of future action and, moreover, did nothing to address the fact that the Liberal caucus currently included 32 highly partisan senators.

He wanted to do something concrete, as he had done last spring when he announced that Liberal MPs and senators would voluntarily begin disclosing more details about their travel and hospitality expenses.

His advisers ultimately concluded that booting Liberal senators from caucus was the only measure that would meet the leader’s criteria.

The decision was a closely guarded secret. Senators, many of whom have devoted decades of service to the Liberal party, were not consulted for fear of Trudeau’s move leaking out. But he did them the courtesy of meeting with them privately Wednesday for a half hour, personally delivering news of their immediate expulsion from caucus before making the announcement publicly.

His close advisers were well aware some senators would be hurt and angry. They were pleasantly surprised to find about half the senators instantly applauded Trudeau’s news, while the rest eventually came round after a couple of hours talking among themselves and getting over their initial shock.

His advisers were also aware that once the senators were cut loose, Trudeau would no longer be able to control how they might choose to regroup or how the Senate would deal with 32 suddenly independent senators.

Still, they were unpleasantly surprised when the senators decided to reconstitute themselves as the Senate Liberal caucus and to continue designating themselves as Liberal senators — a move that contradicted Trudeau’s assertion that there are “no more Liberal senators” and gave fodder to rival parties to dismiss his move as a meaningless gimmick.

They were even more surprised, and angered, when Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella agreed to recognize the 32 as Liberals. Kinsella’s decision flies in the face of convention, Trudeau’s advisers maintain, noting that whenever a senator has been expelled from caucus in the past, they have been forced to sit as independents.

Kinsella’s ruling suggests senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — expelled from the Conservative caucus over allegedly fraudulent expense claims and subsequently suspended without pay from the Senate — could still call themselves Tory senators.

Trudeau’s team believes Kinsella, a Conservative senator, was motivated by a partisan desire to embarrass the Liberal leader. Nevertheless, they see no point in trying to reverse his decision.


The story behind Justin Trudeau’s Senate play

  1. Kinsella’s move is a poor one, as suddenly he has bestowed upon himself the power to eject and recognize Senators as a part of whichever parliamentary caucus he pleases. It was a purely partisan maneouvre since I doubt he would recognize Brazeau as a Conservative if Patrick suddenly stood up and insisted he was (which I fully implore him to do today).

    • Kinsella only really did what the 32 ‘Liberals’ asked him to do…which is actually based on a fairly sound interpretation of the Senate’s own rules – which say that any 5 Senators who are members of a party can form a recognized party caucus. The situation is arguably different from previous precedents where one or three Senators are expelled from an existing, recognized, Senate party caucus that does not want them back.Tellingly, the old PC party Caucus (and before they formed government, the Conservative Party Caucus) in the Senate elected its own leadership prior to the CPC forming government (one of the guys so elected was Senator Kinsella, in fact). All in all, not that much different from what the Liberals will be doing now.

    • If you read the current news stories you will see that the group of 32 now independent (former Liberal) senators have decided to form the opposition in the senate and vote together. They are even talking about having a party whip. They are still Liberal party members and they are still going to vote Liberal unless you think they will be crossing the floor and turn into CONS just because JT says they can’t publicly affiliate themselves with HIS party anymore.

      • Why can’t they form a voting block if they like. Trudeau cannot help the way the system worked the past hundred and fifty years or so, and PMs have appointed people from their own parties, for the most part. They are no longer attending national caucus meetings, they are no longer whipped and can vote with their own ideas, and he says he will not appoint himself once he is PM. So he is attempting to change the system, at a cost to his own future power and at a cost to having 32 devoted Liberals out fundraising for him. Fundraising is one of the main things harper appointed Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau to do for him.

        Harper could have done this but he did NOT and now he won’t because it is led by Trudeau. If Harper would follow suit, we would have a game changer for all Canadians. Harper will not do this, but nothing is stopping him except his own arrogance.

  2. This is journalism? This is a blatantly one-sided Liberal Party press-release.
    Media Party at it’s most horny…

    • At Least Trudeau shows he has some new ideas. Whether he carries through as PM remains to be seen. We KNOW Harper has done nothing but lie to us.

      • Right; Harper sends the question of the future of the Senate to the Supreme Court; while Trudeau plays word games?????? New ideas…not so much!

        • After 8years in power, Senate scandal caused by his desire to control everything and anything and after being caught in lies, deceptions, subvertion of Democracy, interferance in Senate affairs, Harper decided to seek the Supreme Court.s advice. So convenient, whatever happened to not naming any new Senator (named 59 beating Mulroney;s record). Majority Canadians can see through Harper and his blatant lies, He believes the more you repeat a lie the more the dunce (Cons. Supporters) will continue to buy it. Harper has zero credibility when it comes to the Senate among so many things when it comes to leadership.

          • You might try a history book, or read a newspaper….

          • You really should get your news from a source not named CBC, Macleans or Star.

          • who else pray tell is there, anything I have read over the last ten years has been weak.

          • Ha, nice comeback

      • This was not a new idea. It was stolen from the NDP.

        • it improved upon their idea by being only about LPC and not requiring years of Constitutional wrangling. Harper should follow suit. Would that make the NDP happier?

      • hardly baby Trudeau wants to keep the senate exactly how it is to appease Quebec, He’s just blowing wind and it makes for great press coverage and verbiage

      • Yeah, he has a new idea on how to distance himself from the liberal senate corruption.
        Oh, wait, he said it had nothing to do with the upcoming report!

      • You actually swallowed this nonsense?

        Why am I not surprised?

      • Lol…they always claim a Lib. media, while owning the majority of outlets. It’s their best lie.

    • I actually came away thinking little baby Trudeau came off looking over eager to be seen as serious, as well as looking useless. More evidence to the point that this pompous celebrity has no business trying to be a Prime Minister of this great country. I believe uninformed useful idiots may bring this joke into power. Dear Science help us all!!!!

  3. We have all of the analysis across the country on Trudeau’s move plus a column written special for Loonie Politics by Senator Patrick Brazeau on ‘senate reform.’

  4. Liberal Party throws 32 Senators under the bus. A tactic stolen from Harper.

  5. Liberal Senators are banned from fund raising and partisan activities.

  6. The Liberals say Liberals weren’t improperly claiming expenses in the Senate?
    Well that ends that. No need to look any further.
    I read Joan Bryden of the AP at the top and assumed it would be about what it was.
    How terribly sad and pathetic.
    Of course, if it wasn’t such a cunning strategic move, then it was gamesplaying worthy of the laughter it received in the house. But of course, Joan, “Bombshell” follows Wells, “Bold” in doing their best to convert this weird stunt into something high minded.
    Again. Sad and pathetic.

    • Hi Biff

      Would you like to direct us to the quote in the above article that says the Liberals say the Liberals were not improperly claiming expenses in the Senate?

      Because as you very well know, it is not there. The only reference to the upcoming report is that it did not factor into the decision to expel the Senate liberals from the Liberal caucus.

      I know you know you are lying. You are clearly articulate and literate. It is also clearly obvious that you have to lie, because you cannot criticize the liberals, or defend your own party, with the truth. Because the truth is on Trudeau’s side.

      This move by Trudeau has you scrambling. Your histrionics are kind of funny.

  7. Two words: Auditor’s report.

  8. Come on folks, swallow the pablum:
    This flip flop has nothing to do with the upcoming auditor’s report on senate corruption.

    Open wide…..here comes the train!

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