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Trudeau’s Senate appointments spark debate on political allegiance

New Senator Renee Dupuis, centre, stands with Senator Diane Bellemare and Senator Peter Harder before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate on Parliament Hill, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 in Ottawa.


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's latest wave of Senate appointments is bringing tensions to a boil in the Red Chamber as veteran Conservatives and Liberals accuse the government of trying to quash Senate opposition.

The debate could come to a head Tuesday as Senator Peter Harder – the Government Leader in the Senate – has invited all senators to a closed-door meeting to discuss the government's legislative agenda.

The invitation has infuriated some senators – particularly those who remain aligned with either the Conservative or Liberal parties – who view it as an attempt to co-opt them into a form of single government caucus. Politically affiliated senators have told Mr. Harder that such a discussion should take place in public on the Senate floor and are planning to boycott the meeting.

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Senator James Cowan, the former Liberal leader in the Senate, accused Mr. Harder of acting in a "slyly subversive" way to strengthen the government's hand, even though the Prime Minister insists he is making the chamber more independent.

Many Conservative senators agree. In an interview, Conservative Senator Leo Housakos accused Mr. Trudeau of creating a Liberal-dominated Senate in practice while claiming to promote independence. Mr. Housakos said the new senators appear to be "liberal-minded" even though they are not officially affiliated with the Liberals.

"When you weaken the foundations of a parliamentary system, that's when tyranny starts taking over and the executive spreads itself out," he said.

All senators are trying to come to grips with the practical realities created by Mr. Trudeau's decision to appoint senators as independents, breaking with past practice of naming partisan senators to represent the governing party.

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Mr. Harder, the government representative who sits in the Senate as an independent and is a former senior public servant, has said that the partisan structure will disappear.

"In my view, in a more independent, complementary and less-partisan Senate, there will no longer be an organized and disciplined government caucus, and, correspondingly, there should no longer be an organized official-opposition caucus," he told senators during a September committee meeting.

Some of Mr. Trudeau's new senators have yet to be sworn in. Once they are all in place, there will be 44 "non-affiliated" senators, 40 Conservatives and 21 Liberals.

The "non-affiliated" senators include Mr. Harder and two others who have agreed to represent the government in the Senate. The fact that Mr. Harder, Diane Bellemare and Grant Mitchell describe themselves as independents irks some senators.

"It's completely absurd," said Conservative Senator Linda Frum.

Mr. Mitchell insists he and his two colleagues are independent and that the goal is to have a Senate in which members are completely free to express their views. He also denied that Tuesday's meeting is an effort to bring all senators into a government caucus.

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"It's very difficult to understand why anybody would consider [the meeting] to be surreptitious or inappropriate," he said.

Should the traditional practice of an official-opposition caucus squaring off daily against a government caucus fade away, there are strong disagreements as to what should emerge instead.

Some, including Mr. Harder, have suggested new groupings based on region. However, others, including independent Senator André Pratte, are strongly opposed to the idea and warn it would place senators under pressure to follow the orders of provincial premiers.

In an interview, Mr. Pratte said the Senate can take its time to thoroughly debate long-term changes such as the future role of caucuses. But he expressed frustration that the Senate has been slow to act on more pressing issues like redistributing office budgets and seats on committees to reflect the growing proportion of independents in the Senate.

Mr. Pratte, a former journalist with La Presse who was appointed in March, said he doesn't share the concerns expressed by some senators about Tuesday's meeting. He also rejects the suggestion Mr. Trudeau's appointees aren't truly independent.

"I'm an independent senator," he said. "I know that some of the partisan senators don't agree with that. They think I'm not independent. That's their problem, not mine."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More


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