OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau is sweeping Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus in a bid to show he’s serious about cleaning up the Senate, a move sure to trigger turmoil among some members of the scandal-plagued upper house.
The surprise move — announced today after Trudeau personally informed the 32 Liberal senators — is aimed at reducing partisanship in the Senate and restoring its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
Extreme patronage and partisanship are at the root of the Senate expenses scandal, which has engulfed the upper chamber for more than a year, Trudeau told a news conference on Parliament Hill.
“The Senate is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said.
Making Liberal senators independent of the party’s parliamentary caucus is a first, concrete step towards reducing partisanship, Trudeau argued as he challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to similarly set free the 57 Conservative senators.
“If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government,” Trudeau said.
“The party structure in the Senate interferes with this responsibility. Taken together with patronage (appointments), partisanship within the Senate is a powerful, negative force. It reinforces the prime minister’s power instead of checking it.
“At best, this renders the Senate redundant. At worst — and under Mr. Harper we have seen it at its worst — it amplifies the prime minister’s power.”
If elected prime minister, Trudeau said he’d go further. He’d appoint only independent senators after employing an open, transparent process, with public input, for nominating worthy candidates — much the way recipients of the Order of Canada are chosen.
The Harper government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to advise whether it can unilaterally impose term limits and set up a process for “consultative elections” of Senate nominees. Most provinces maintain such reforms require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the country’s population.
It has also asked the top court to advise whether outright abolition of the Senate would require the approval of seven provinces or unanimity.
Trudeau said he believes his proposals are “the most meaningful action possible without changing the Constitution.” But he added: “If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more.”
Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister in charge of democratic reform, dismissed Trudeau’s move as a stunt designed to mitigate the impact of a forthcoming auditor general’s report on Senate expenses.
“He’s looking for a public relations manoeuvre,” Poilievre said. Kicking senators out of caucus does little to remedy the fundamental problems with the Senate itself, he added.
“The removal of senators from a weekly caucus meeting does not change the fundamental problem with the Senate, which is that it is unelected and unaccountable,” he said.
Fixing that, he continued, will require changes that ensure the Senate “reflects the democratic will of the people.”
“We have, for example, senators in our caucus who were democratically elected by the people of Alberta. That is the approach that we believe should be taken nationwide.”
Trudeau’s announcement likely came as a shock to some Liberal senators, who were given no advance warning. Many of them have long, illustrious careers of service to the Liberal party. Their ranks include senators who’ve run national election campaigns, overseen Liberal party headquarters, served previous prime ministers and been elected as MPs.
Sen. George Baker agreed the Senate needs to be depoliticized and praised Trudeau’s move as a courageous one; indeed, one insider who was on hand for the meeting said several senators broke into applause upon hearing the news.
There is nonetheless sure to be a sense of shock and “estrangement” among others, Baker acknowledged.
Under the party’s constitution, senators are considered members of the national caucus and enjoy a number of special privileges, including being automatically entitled to attend Liberal conventions and having an equal say with elected MPs in choosing interim leaders.
Trudeau is expected to eventually seek amendments to the Liberal constitution to reflect his new, non-partisan approach to the Senate, stripping senators of their special privileges although they’d be able to remain regular members of the party if they chose to do so.
The party is holding a national convention next month in Montreal but it’s too late to propose constitutional amendments for consideration at that gathering.
In the meantime, Trudeau will exclude senators from any role on national election or fundraising campaigns. And he won’t allow them to sit as Liberals in the Senate.
He’s leaving it up to the senators to decide how or if to reorganize themselves and up to the Senate to decide how to deal with the fact that his move effectively does away with the notion of an official Opposition in the upper house.
“The Senate will have challenges in terms of how it reorganizes,” he said. Harper could help the reorganization by removing partisanship entirely, he added.
Then there’s the question of the Liberal leader in the Senate, James Cowan, who is entitled to a budget of some $200,000 to employ staff to help the party’s senators review legislation and plot strategy. What happens to that budget, if there is no longer a Liberal leader or Liberal caucus in the chamber, is unclear.
“Any staff and budgets allocated by the parliamentary institution is now up for discussion between the independent senators and the parliamentary institution.”
The 32 Liberals will join seven senators who already sit as independents in the 105-seat chamber — including former Tories Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, who were suspended without pay last fall for allegedly making fraudulent living and travel expense claims.
The three suspended senators, along with former Liberal senator Mac Harb and Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, are under RCMP investigation but have not as yet been charged with any criminal conduct.
Last fall, the NDP, which has long championed abolition of the Senate, called on both Liberals and Conservatives to eject senators from their caucuses. The Liberals voted against the motion.
Trudeau has evidently changed his mind since then and now says his proposals “represent the most significant and concrete actions to reform the Senate in its history.”
By contrast, he said both Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair are indulging in “a lot of loose rhetoric” about reforming or eliminating the chamber.
“Canadians elected (Harper’s) party to bring change to this place. Instead they got a more virulent version of the status quo: a hyper-political, hyper-partisan Senate that is, more than ever, the prime minister’s private plaything,” he said.
As for Mulcair, Trudeau said his promise to abolish the Senate is “either deliberately and cynically misleading or empty and foolish,” given that it would require “the most significant amendment to the Constitution since the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” in 1982.
Poilievre acknowledged the constitutional challenges inherent in the idea of Senate reform, including ensuring that senators are democratically elected. The Conservatives have asked the Supreme Court of Canada to explore whether such reforms would require amending the Constitution.
“We believe the Senate is not democratic under the status quo, and that’s why this is the only prime minister who has made practical steps toward changing it.”