The senator behind a new faction in Parliament’s upper chamber says #WEXIT was “tangentially” behind this, the latest attempt at non-partisan independence in the Canadian Senate.
In an interview with The Post Millennial, former Conservative senator Scott Tannas and leader of the nascent Canadian Senators Group said the move is geared toward having a say in committee picks, non-partisan research, and also suggested it could be a bulwark against “group-think”.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this group at all, who thinks Wexit is a great idea, or it’s time has come. We’re all there to fight for Canada,” said the Albertan senator. “But in the context of making sure our regions are protected and advanced.”
The Canadian Senators Group also includes Doug Black (Alberta), Robert Black (Ontario), Larry W. Campbell (B.C.), Stephen Greene (Nova Scotia), Diane F. Griffin (P.E.I.), Elaine McCoy (AB), David Richards (New Brunswick), Josée Verner (Quebec), Pamela Wallin (Saskachewan) and Vernon White (ON).
Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, referred to the appointed legislature that provides regional oversight for government bills with power to introduce laws unrelated to spending, as chamber for “sober second thought”.
However, in contemporary politics and on the Main Street circa 2019, opinions on the Senate range from a desire for greater accountability (some provinces like Alberta actually hold non-binding votes for senate-appointees), to its abolishment altogether.
And for nearly 150 years, senators were appointed by the sitting prime minister, and for the most part showed unbroken partisan loyalty to their caucuses. But that all changed in April 2014 when Trudeau cut existing Liberal appointees in the Upper Chamber from the national caucus.
The rookie leader had been at the Liberal helm for barely a year before making this nation-changing decision – one that Dale Smith, a parliamentary reporter and author of a book on how Canada’s Westminster government operates, describes as “a slow moving train wreck ever since.”
“It goes back to when Trudeau kicked out his senators and said it was about wanting more independence in the Senate, it was really more about a bunch of (spending) audits coming out,” Smith told TPM. “It was like killing two birds with one stone, independent senators and not dealing with any blowback the Auditor General finds.”
That report by Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson, delivered in June 2015 after examining 116 senators’ expenses, found 30 to contain inappropriate claims (more than a dozen senators opted for arbitration to square accounts) and referred nine to RCMP for further investigation. No charges from Ferguson’s determinations ever materialized.
However, his audit was launched over questionable living expenses claimed by Stephen Harper appointees Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy, as well Liberal Senator Mac Harb, that resulted in charges against all three.
The Crown ultimately withdrew prosecution of fraud-related charges against Brazeau (July 2016) and Harb (May 2016), shortly after Duffy beat four of 31 counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that actually stuck and that the public prosecutor pursued at Ontario Superior Court.
Trudeau’s decision to abandon his Senate caucus occurred barely three months before Duffy was charged by RCMP, one of which included accepting a “bribe” from Harper’s then chief-of-staff Nigel Wright for $90,000 to cover disputed housing expenses. Strangely, Wright was never charged for tendering the cash.
After winning a majority government 18 months later Trudeau continued his senate-reform in January 2016, by way of Order-in-Council, establishing an advisory board to weed through applicants for “independents” to fill Senate vacancies.
By March of that year, the Independent Senator Group was formed; an amalgam of Trudeau’s original castaways and destination for new blood. It had also become haven for embattled Harper appointees tapped for the Senate, including Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin, who has now thrown her lot in with Tannas’ new venture.
But the senator from High River Alberta at the Canadian Senators Group vanguard, a former insurance agent whom Harper tapped for the Senate in 2012, distributes blame for the Senate’s current state of affairs evenly between the current prime minister and his antecedent.
“I saw the decision that Harper made not to fill 20-some senate seats he had (before leaving office). And both of those decisions, the one by Harper and one by Trudeau, had an enormous impact on where the Senate is today,” said Tannas when asked about the Trudeau effect.
“In my view, both things have accelerated what we’re seeing in the Senate now, to where we’re at a tipping point, where changes will become permanent changes.”
In rare public criticism of what’s come of the institution in the wake of Trudeau’s decision, Senate Director of communications Karine Leroux made the following comments about this recent turn of events in an email to TPM:
“We are currently living through the repercussions of Prime Minister Trudeau’s ill-thought-out idea of Senate reform. While he was leader of the third party opposition, Justin Trudeau miscalculated the need of having senators move forward the government legislation in the Senate. He failed to see the long term impact and implication of not recognizing the needs of having a Government Caucus and an Opposition Caucus. (Formation of the Canadian Senators Group) is the second example in the last two weeks that shows Trudeau’s ‘non-partisan and independent Senate’ isn’t working.”
The first example is the resignation of Trudeau appointee Senator André Pratte, who made his official intentions known on federal election night Oct. 21. His reasons: he could not fulfill his role “to the level of excellence expected”.
In the days following, Pratte penned an op-ed published by establishment media where the ex-senator blamed the Trudeau government for failing to codify rules of Senate independence in a regime that still included whipped Conservatives, and criticized Liberals for “exercising pressure on independent Senators so they vote a certain way.”
“One difficulty is that the new practices have not been enshrined in the rules of the Senate and in the Parliament of Canada Act. Consequently, it would be easy for a future government to return to the old system, where the Senate was a pale copy of the extremely partisan House of Commons,” writes Pratte.
“Another issue is that partisanship and the ‘party line’ are still very much present in the Senate. Conservative Senators are members of the national conservative caucus. They are whipped. Their agenda is to obstruct all government legislation, as much as the rules allow. And the rules allow quite a lot.”
A glaring example of “party line” Senators would be Liberal-friendly pollster Donna Dasko, appointed to the Senate by Trudeau in June 2018. Earlier this year, Dasko was slammed by Conservative senators for misusing her budget to commission a poll touting public support for Trudeau’s Senate reforms.
While the Independent Senators Group held an outright majority in the previous Senate, the emergence of the Canadian Senators Group resets the ISG’s balance of power to a plurality.
The so-called Independent Senators Group still holds 49 of the Senate’s 105 seats, but there remain 27 aligned with Conservatives, nine still representing as Liberals, six independents and 11 from the Canadian Senators Group. There are also three vacancies; one in Saskatchewan and two in Quebec.
From Tannas vantage, after nearly seven years in the Senate, his purportedly non-partisan CGS is a chance to get senate independence right. While the group welcomes additional members, it has pledged to cap membership at 25.
“We don’t all agree on our politics by any means. We are centrists most of us, centre-left or centre-right. But what does unite us is the approach to the job. We want good solid research that we can count on as being independent and fact-based that we can sandwich between the sales job from the government about why the bill is so wonderful…(and) from the Opposition about why it’s a terrible bill,” said Tannas.
“It will be up to us to work together to gather the facts, but come to our own views independently and to transmit those views, to be transparent about our decisions individually and be accountable individually, as opposed to in any kind of a group-think environment.”