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Politics Prospective independent senators may be recruited by partisans

The Senate chamber is seen Thursday April 24, 2014 in Ottawa. The Supreme Court of Canada will render a decision on the Senate Friday.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the process of appointing non-partisan senators whom he hopes will transform the Red Chamber into an independent body, but the newly appointed members will be courted to join the existing politically structured caucuses.

A working group of six current independent senators was established Thursday and its members say they hope the new senators, the first batch of whom are expected to be appointed shortly, will join them.

But the independent Liberal senators, who were cut loose two years ago by Mr. Trudeau from the Liberal caucus in the House of Commons, share the same desire.

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"If you were appointed a senator tomorrow, you could say 'I am independent when I am appointed and I can continue to function independently, or I can join one of the existing groups' depending upon which group sort of aligns with your own view of the world. Or you can try to form your own group," James Cowan, the Senate Liberal leader, said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"I will certainly be inviting them to come and have a look at the way we do business and see if it appeals to them," Mr. Cowan said.

Claude Carignan, the Senate Conservative leader, feels the same way. Any of the new independent senators who shares Conservative values and would like to join the Conservative caucus will be welcomed, he said.

There are currently 22 vacant seats in the Red Chamber. An independent advisory board has provided a list of 25 candidates to fill the first five of them and Mr. Trudeau will make the final selection. Under the rules established by the Liberal government, the new senators cannot be partisans.

But "you don't have to be a member of the Liberal Party of Canada to join us. All you have to do is agree that you want to work with us so that we can feed off one another," said Mr. Cowan.

"We don't whip any votes, so nobody's going to tell you what to do," he said. "But you will, we hope, find that working with us you get more done than operating as a sole practitioner and you will be more comfortable with us than you would be with that group across there. I think that's the way it will evolve."

There are some advantages to being part of a Senate caucus. For instance, under the rules set by the senators, there is more money for research.

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But "to me," Mr. Cowan said, "the big advantage is not so much access to the dollars but that I get to sit down and meet on a regular basis with people who share my values."

Some senators, especially those on the Conservative benches, argue that the Senate was and always will be a partisan body. Senator Denise Batters, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper, said Thursday that she is a proud Conservative with Conservative values and that the Senate has functioned well as a result of its political divide.

But the six independent senators who have formed the new working group argue that non-partisanship is the way to restore an institution in need of a public-relations makeover after a series of recent spending scandals.

Diane Bellemare, Jacques Demers, Elaine McCoy, Pierrette Ringuette, Michel Rivard and John Wallace say their objective is to operate collegially while allowing each of their group's members to take independent stands on the legislation that is put before them.

Ms. Bellemare, an economist who was appointed as a Conservative by Mr. Harper but who declared her independence earlier this week, said she believes independent senators will make the Senate less polarized and impede a government that tried to impose its will in the Red Chamber.

"That's why we announced that we are forming a group and maybe others will join us. And we'll invite the new senators, who are supposed to be independent, to join us," Ms. Bellemare said.

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Ms. Ringuette, who was appointed as a Liberal but turned independent in February, said she travelled her province of New Brunswick extensively last summer, taking a measure of public opinion, "and there is no question that people want the Senate to function in a non-partisan way."

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