Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to cut partisan ties with the Senate has been the most significant reform to the upper house in decades. The change has brought more rigorous attention to legislation and is also now a wild card for the Liberal government, which can no longer dictate or predict what the Senate will do.
In recent weeks, the government made aggressive moves to pass Bill C-10 in the House of Commons, only to face a Senate that refused to rubber-stamp the controversial legislation.
New Brunswick Senator David Richards, appointed by Trudeau in 2017, said in his speech on June 29 that Bill C-10 needs “a stake through the heart.”
“I will always and forever stand against any bill that subjects freedom of expression to the doldrums of government oversight, and I implore others to do the same,” the long-time screenwriter and novelist said.
Richards was one of five New Brunswick Senate candidates recommended to Trudeau by an advisory panel.
One of the panel members was Donald Savoie, Canada research chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton.
“The process I was involved with, it was upright, straight up,” Savoie said in an interview. “We never got any direction seriously from the Prime Minister’s Office on any of the candidates we brought forward. He picked from the five that we put forward, but his office or he never tried to influence who we’d put on that list.”
Trudeau ended the process of partisan appointments to the Senate after taking power in 2015 and has appointed 55 senators since then as of June 22.
“They have a sense of some independence to challenge the government on its agenda in the past couple of weeks, something that the appointed senators would never dare to do,” Savoie said.
Savoie believes the true independence of senators is the most important change since 1965 when senators were forced to retire at age 75.
“My preference would be to have an elected reform. But short of that, any reform in my view is a step in the right direction because we can’t keep living with the status quo.”
Senator Groups Formed
Scott Tannas, founder of Western Financial Group, was elected in Alberta as a senator-in-waiting, then appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper. Tannas told The Epoch Times the Senate renewal is tangible.
“The Senate that I walked into in 2013, with two large groups facing each other across the aisle, and lots of lots of animosity, lots of partisan politics—to me, it was an off-Broadway version of the House of Commons,” he said.
“Now it is a completely different place, where the government leader arrives with the bill from the House of Commons and has no clue whether or not it will pass. When I arrived, that was not the case.”
The composition of the upper house has also transformed radically. When Trudeau ejected senators from the Liberal caucus in 2014, the former Liberals formed the Senate Liberal Caucus. In 2019, the caucus rebooted as the Progressive Senate Group (PSG), which now has 12 members.
The Independent Senators Group (ISG) was formed in 2016 when a dozen senators (six non-affiliated, five Conservatives, and one Liberal) formed a non-partisan working group. By October 2017 it had become the largest caucus in the Senate, and it now has 41 members.
Tannas organized the Canadian Senators Group (CSG) shortly after the 2019 federal election. Richards was an inaugural member, though Tannas recruited most of his members from the ISG, which he said had become “large and unwieldy” and “captive of certain ideologies.” The CSG has 12 members with a goal to better represent Canada’s regions, focus on “rigorous research,” and uphold decorum in the Senate.
A caucus requires nine senators to enjoy official status in the 105-seat chamber. Currently, in addition to the senators in the PSG, ISG, and CSG, 20 senators sit as Conservatives, 8 have no affiliation, and 12 vacancies remain.
‘Good Discussion, Good Dialogue’
After Trudeau took power in 2015, the title of “Leader of the Government in the Senate” was changed to “Representative of the Government in the Senate.” Quebec Senator Marc Gold currently has that role, which includes convening meetings to lay out the government’s broader agenda.
Tannas said senators try to reach consensus on how they will work with the government, but “sometimes we don’t. … It can get a little bit wooly at times, but for the most part there’s good discussion, good dialogue.”
Senators Raymonde Gagné and Patti LaBoucane-Benson work with Gold as legislative deputy and government liaison, respectively. Tannas likens Gagné to “the chief sales agent who goes out and counts votes” on legislation, and says LaBoucane-Benson is “the one that engages with others on the day-to-day agenda of the chamber.”
Tannas said Senate amendments were rare in the Harper era and mainly occurred when “something had slipped through” that led the government to want to make such amendments. The current Senate amends roughly one-quarter of bills.
“Now, the government doesn’t know what they’re going to get when they come in, and we present all kinds of amendments back to them. Some they accept, some they don’t. So it’s a much more fluid and open place than it was when I first arrived, that’s for sure.”
The interests of new senators are also different.
“You get a lot more individualism in the senators that are arriving and continue to arrive,” Tannas said.
“There are a lot of people who come with a franchise and a singular focus and personal interests that make it a little tougher for everybody to form around a team and do things in a consensus, co-ordinated fashion.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the reluctance of senators to reject legislation that had already been passed in the House of Commons.
“I don’t see any increased inclination to do that,” he says.
“That said, if a Conservative government were elected, I think that would be a dynamic that would be interesting, because notwithstanding the independent selection process, the Trudeau process has yielded people that are centre and centre-left, primarily. And so a lot of those folks might find the Conservative agenda to be more than they can take.”