On January 29th, 2014, Justin Trudeau, federal Liberal Party leader emerged from a meeting with his Senate caucus members and announced that these 32 senators would no longer be Liberal senators; that they would no longer be a part of the National Liberal Caucus – which is typically composed of both elected Liberal members of parliament and appointed Liberal senators. Instead senators would now sit as independents in the Upper Chamber, would not attend the weekly Liberal caucus meetings and would not be allowed to help party fundraising efforts. Funnily enough though, these senators would still be members of the Liberal party- there was no getting around that!
Mr. Trudeau justified his surprising decision saying that he wants the Senate to be a non-partisan House of parliament, independent of the prime minister’s (and supposedly other party leaders’) reach, to remove party politics from the troubled Upper Chamber.
“If the Senate serves a purpose at all,” Mr. Trudeau said, “it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government” and that party structures “interferes with this responsibility.”
Of course, we know from previous posts on the Senate, that Mr. Harper’s government has been trying to reform the Senate and is now awaiting a response to the government’s reference case from the Supreme Court of Canada to determine how and whether the government can make its proposed changes. At the same time, Mr. Harper has increased the number of Conservative senators by filling vacancies via appointment.
But, what does Mr. Trudeau hope to accomplish with this move?
Looking at various news stories, we can see that it has certainly upset the now former Liberal senators, who have been allies to the Liberal party, people who have had important roles with the party (past national party presidents and fundraisers for example), many of whom say that they will continue to refer to themselves as Liberals and adhere and promote Liberal objectives and policies.
Interestingly, Mr. Trudeau’s booting of the senators from caucus does three things if nothing else:
- We finally see some decisive activity from Trudeau as party leader. It is his most significant policy decision since he came leader;
- The Auditor General (AG) – an independent, non-partisan agent/officer of parliament- is currently investigating Senate expenses. If the AG uncovers some improper expense claims or something else, made by the now former Liberal senators, it will come out in his much anticipated report. Mr. Trudeau then, buys himself some political cover, some distance (but not much) from the problem by referring back to this event, that these senators are independent members, who do not belong to the National Liberal Caucus.; finally,
- It keeps the Senate scandal, which has negatively impacted the Conservative most of all, in the news cycle. Stories are written, news is broadcast and the recent and on-going expense scandal remains fresh in the minds of Canadians who abhor the Senate and have little sympathy for senators who waste the tax dollars of Canadians.
Items of Interest:
- Parliament 101: What’s a caucus anyway? http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/parliament-101-what-s-a-caucus-anyway-1.2515858
- Conrad Black: The Road to Senate Reform Starts with Quebec http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/02/01/conrad-black-the-road-to-senate-reform-starts-in-quebec/
- Chantal Hebert: Under Trudeau’s System The Senate Might Roll Over ad Let the Commons Have Its Way http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/01/30/under_trudeaus_system_the_senate_might_roll_over_and_let_the_commons_have_its_way_hbert.html
- On Procedure and Politics Blog’s A Few Thoughts on the Liberal Party’s Senate Announcement http://thoughtundermined.com/2014/01/31/a-few-thoughts-on-the-liberal-partys-senate-announcement/