Trudeau's decisions on Senate could have far-reaching effects

Four issues that hang over Justin Trudeau and his relationship to the Senate, from which he ejected Liberal senators

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to reach out to top senators to let them know what’s next for the upper chamber, specifically whether there will a government leader there to oversee the Liberal legislative agenda.

That wouldn’t be an issue, except for a decision last year to kick senators out of the Liberal caucus as he tried to sever ties with the scandal-plagued Senate.

What Trudeau decides to do now with the upper chamber will have wider implications for the Senate and the Liberal legislative agenda.

Here are a few issues hanging on Trudeau’s decision:

1. No government leader, no government help

As it stands, Senate rules allow any senator to introduce legislation. Those same rules also allow enough leeway for senators to debate bills for months before they come to a final vote. Without a Senate leader, the Liberals would lose access to the levers governments have in the Senate to push through legislation, either by pushing it higher up the list of business or limiting the amount of time bills can be debated.

Senate Liberal Jim Munson said the Trudeau government has some allies in the upper chamber that would introduce legislation, but no guarantees it will be approved: “It is an independent instruction and people have the right to say yes or no to legislation.” Passing any bill, then, would require help from Conservative senators.

2. No government to hold to account

Question period in the Senate has been roundly criticized for yielding more talking points than answers. Senators have mused about doing away with the daily question period. Without a government leader, however, questions about government operations would dry up because the only person who could answer them is a representative of the government in the Senate. That raises questions about how senators can hold the government to account. “The situation before us here is far more complicated than people understand,” said Sen. Anne Cools, the longest-tenured member of the upper chamber.

3. No government, no money

The Senate’s budget for the government leader’s office dries up without a government leader. The people who work in opposition leader James Cowan’s office are still receiving a paycheque under transitory rules, but the money disappears once Parliament returns on Dec. 3. The annual budget for the government Senate leader’s office was about $855,000. That wouldn’t be the case for opposition funding. There would actually be an opposition even if there is no government member in the Senate. Senate clerk Charles Robert said the opposition is the largest group of senators who aren’t in government. In this case, that would be the Conservatives, so opposition funds, including about $400,000 in funding, would still flow.

4. Changing of the Speaker

The prime minister has the power to name a Senate Speaker because the Senate Speaker is considered a representative of the government. That person does not answer questions on government policy from senators, but represents the government of the day through hosting foreign dignitaries and taking part in soft diplomacy abroad. Senators widely expect Trudeau to name a new Speaker to replace Conservative Leo Housakos. Leaving Housakos there would mean a Conservative is acting at times on behalf of a Liberal government. Replacing him would mean Trudeau is tying himself back to the upper chamber.

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