Liberal senators are using their newfound independence to institute changes aimed at making the maligned Senate more accountable, approachable and transparent.
Starting Wednesday, they'll give ordinary folks a direct voice in the upper house, soliciting questions from Canadians that Liberal senators will then pose to the government during the Senate's daily question period.
The move is one of five ways the 32 Liberal senators hope to take advantage of their new freedom from partisan ties to improve the functioning – and the tattered image – of the scandal-plagued chamber.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau last month booted the senators from his party's national caucus in a bid to return the Senate to its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
The senators also intend to periodically throw open the doors of their weekly caucus meetings, inviting experts and parliamentarians from all parties to discuss issues of national importance that have gotten short shrift from elected MPs in the House of Commons.
As well, there'll be no more whipped votes for Liberal senators; each will be free to vote as he or she sees fit on every motion and bill before the Senate.
And they'll initiate a Senate debate on equalization in a bid to re-establish the chamber as the protector of regional interests, as originally envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation.
The senators, who still sit as Liberals but are no longer answerable to or directed by the leader, are also promising to continue publicly disclosing their expenses, which they began doing last fall at Trudeau's behest. Their expenses were initially posted on the Liberal party website, but that option is no longer available, so they're talking to Senate officials about setting up an alternate system.
James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate, announced the measures this morning.
"We have an historic opportunity to use our new independence to try, insofar as it is within our power as a minority in the Senate, to make Parliament work better for Canadians, to make it respond to the needs of Canadians rather than the needs of political parties and their leaders," Cowan said in a written statement.
The Senate has long been maligned as an unaccountable, unelected body but its reputation has nosedived over the last year as the chamber was engulfed in a scandal over improper expense claims.
The scandal has led to charges of fraud and breach of trust against Sen. Patrick Brazeau and former senator Mac Harb. Two other senators, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, are still under RCMP investigation, as is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, who gave Duffy $90,000 to reimburse the Senate for his contested living expense claims.
Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin have been suspended from the Senate without pay and more trouble may be in the offing for other senators as the auditor general scrutinizes their expenses.
The scandal prompted Trudeau's surprise decision to expel senators from the Liberal national caucus. The move underscored his contention that practical reforms can be undertaken to improve the Senate without having to reopen the Constitution, as would be required to transform the Senate into an elected chamber or abolish it altogether – the preferred options of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair respectively.