Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will amend the Parliament of Canada Act, the law that outlines the powers and privileges of federal Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators, to cement his transformation of the Senate into a more independent, non-partisan chamber, making it harder for a future Prime Minister to turn back the clock. The PM said this change will better reflect the new reality in the upper house, where most Senators now sit as independents unaffiliated with any political party. However, the ‘independent’ Senators are not necessarily so.
Currently, the Parliament of Canada Act recognizes only two partisan caucuses in the Senate: the governing party caucus and the Opposition caucus, both of which are entitled to research funds, dedicated time to debate bills, memberships on committees, and a role in the day-to-day decisions about Senate business, such as when to adjourn debate. Senators have agreed spontaneously to some accommodation of the growing ranks of Independent Senators, giving them some research funds and committee roles, however, the leadership of the Independent Senators’ Group (ISG) has argued that their role must be explicitly spelled out and guaranteed in the Parliament of Canada Act. Since the change would involve allocating financial resources, they say amendments can’t be initiated by the Senate, only by the government in the House of Commons.
Senate Liberals were part of the parliamentary Liberal Party caucus until January 2014, when newly elected party Leader Justin Trudeau expelled all Senators from the caucus with the stated intention of their becoming ‘independent’ Senators. While many Liberal Senators chose to keep the designation "Liberal" and continue to sit together as a caucus, several other Liberal Senators re-designated themselves as part of the ISG.
Amending the Act before the Autumn 2019 federal election is a priority for the ISG, who fear PM Trudeau’s reforms could be easily reversed should the Liberals fail to win re-election. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said that if becomes Prime Minister, he would revert to the original practice of partisan appointments.
Of the 105 Senators, 54 are Independents who have banded together for greater clout as the Independent Senators’ Group. 31 Senators are Conservatives, 10 are Liberal-independents, and 10 are unaffiliated. Last week, PM Trudeau appointed two new Senators with strong Liberal connections: former Liberal Premier of Yukon, Pat Duncan, and Nova Scotia mental-health expert Stanley Kutcher, who ran for the Liberals in the 2011 federal election and lost.
The Conservative Opposition questioned how non-partisan the independent senators really are, noting that most seem to share Trudeau’s values, a criticism PM Trudeau did not deny, responding, “I’m not going to pick people who are completely offline with where I think my values or many Canadians’ values are. A future prime minister of a different political stripe will certainly be able to appoint people … who might have a slightly different ideological bent. I think that’s going to naturally happen in our system.”