Good luck to Peter Harder, the new senator that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just appointed as government representative in the Red Chamber. He's going to need it. Mr. Trudeau's Senate reform isn't quite going as planned.
The PM promised to reduce the partisanship in the Senate, but his government still sought to quietly exercise control.
But senators on both sides of the aisle – Conservatives, and Senate Liberals who are no longer part of Mr. Trudeau's caucus – have already carved up the chamber's budgets, leaving Mr. Harder with little. Many Senate Liberals say Mr. Trudeau's government was "naive" to expect automatic co-operation. Now Mr. Harder, with no caucus, a small budget and few levers to influence other senators, can expect a bumpy initiation.
Mr. Trudeau's government might find it hard to pass legislation quickly, and unaltered – after years of scandal, most senators don't want a showdown, but delays and amendments could complicate the government's agenda.
Recall that Mr. Trudeau kicked Liberal senators out of his caucus in 2014, responding to scandal by declaring there were no more Liberal senators. He promised an arms-length panel to recommend independent senators. Now, he has few levers in the Red Chamber.
The Conservatives are still the majority. The Senate Liberals, the next largest group, aren't whipped to toe the Liberal government line; after their brusque expulsion, several say they're not rushing to make things easy on Mr. Trudeau. There's a growing group of independents – Mr. Trudeau appointed seven of them 10 days ago – but they don't yet form a cohesive bloc large enough to shape the Senate's work.
That matters. Mr. Trudeau bent his promise of independent senators to appoint Mr. Harder because he had to. Mr. Harder, a career bureaucrat, might not have been a Liberal, but he headed Mr. Trudeau's transition team, and will represent the government – so his appointment as an independent senator stretches credulity. But the PM needed a representative in the Red Chamber because under Senate rules, the Government Leader has powers to table bills and initiates debates.
But Mr. Harder doesn't have a caucus to help him control things in votes, and has few tools to do what parliamentary leaders usually do to win: bargain and cajole.
Back in January, even before Mr. Harder was named, the Conservatives and Senate Liberals divvied up budgets, taking more than $1-million each, leaving $250,000 for the then-unnamed government representative.
That wasn't supposed to happen. Mr. Trudeau's Commons House Leader, Dominic Leblanc, was tasked with shepherding transition. Mr. Trudeau appointed Senator George Furey, a close friend of Mr. Leblanc, as Senate Speaker. But other senators saw that as an effort to pull the strings – and Mr. Furey didn't get a spot on the Senate's internal economy committee, which controls budgets and administration.
Mr. Harder ended up with a small budget, which means a small office. If Mr. Harder wants more, Claude Carignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate argues, he can go ask the government. Or he can go back to the Senate's internal economy committee to make a case for why a lone senator with no caucus needs it.
It's not just budgets. The Senate, like most parliamentary bodies, is built around caucuses. Independents don't get a seat on committees unless either Conservatives or Senate Liberals give it to them, and the price is friendly behaviour. Caucus leaders control other things: Those senators who quit the Conservative caucus to sit as independents can expect to move to less desirable offices.
Mr. Trudeau just appointed seven new independents, including worthies like former justice Murray Sinclair, but they won't automatically get spots on key committees.
So what happens when Mr. Trudeau's government wants to pass a bill quickly? It's not just that Conservative could block it – Mr. Harder will have to argue for Liberal or independent votes, or cajole. So far, he doesn't have much bargaining power.
The upside is that the brave new world is coming. There are 17 Senate vacancies. By the end of the year, independents should be the largest bloc. The Senate will need a new process. The downside is that unless independents work together, acting at least in some regards as a new government caucus, Mr. Trudeau's legislation might continue to face slow passage. The stars may well align for a new kind of Senate in a year or two, but right now, it looks like a rocky ride.