Eleven senators representing different regions of the country and contrasting political views announced Monday they are ditching their caucuses in favour of forming a new group.
Scott Tannas, interim leader of the Canadian Senators Group (CSG), said members reflected over the summer, and feel united about a new way to approach the job.
“What unites us is this idea of independent research and approaching the job from the way the founding fathers wanted us to approach it, which was we’re Canadians, but we’re also there to represent regions," he said.
The creation of this group marks the latest change for the evolving Red Chamber and it’s a step, many senators say, toward a more independent Senate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his first move toward creating a more independent Senate in 2014 when, as an opposition leader, he expelled dozens of Liberal senators from his caucus.
In 2015, he created an independent board to suggest the names of Canadians who would make good senators. Most of those appointees went on to form the Independent Senators Group (ISG), a new caucus that was not affiliated with either the Liberals or Conservatives. The changes have resulted in more amendments to government bills and created unpredictability in the parliamentary process.
Members of the ISG are allowed to be members of a political party if they disclose their membership, but they cannot participate in partisan activities such as endorsing a party or candidate. The new CSG is different because members are allowed to hold party affiliation and take part in partisan activities, but the group will not expect members to toe the line for their party or the group.
For example, when a senator joins the CSG, the person makes up his or her own mind on votes and informs the other caucuses’ leaders. The senator’s decisions will contribute to the group’s discussions, but everyone in the group votes their own way.
“We’re not going to be a heavy-handed outfit that would fall in to group think. That’s what we see to be a trap that we want to make sure we avoid, and one of the ways to avoid that is rigorous independence, good solid research, some rules around no group positions,” said Mr. Tannas, who was previously a member of the Conservative caucus.
Someone will assist the group with logistics, said Mr. Tannas, who acknowledged the work ahead in negotiating members’ positions at committees and the group’s funding, but he said “a whip will not be welcome.”
Senator Yuen Pau Woo of the ISG said he welcomes the CSG and that it takes the Red Chamber “in the direction of a more independent Senate.”
“The similarities in some instances are more important than the differences … that it’s non-partisan, not subject to a whip and therefore is consistent with the reforms we have been pushing for in the ISG," Mr. Woo said.
About half of the senators who came together to form the CSG were appointed by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and the rest were appointed by Liberals Paul Martin or Justin Trudeau.
Senators Doug Black, Robert Black, Larry Campbell, Stephen Greene, Diane Griffin, Elaine McCoy, David Richards, Josée Verner, Pamela Wallin and Vernon White are the original members. They will welcome other senators to join them in the coming weeks, but cap membership at 25.
Mr. Greene, who was a member of the Conservative caucus before sitting as an Independent and joining the ISG, said he joined the new group because he likes that it’s non-partisan, but allows members to be part of political parties, and that it will work on regional issues.
“The new caucus is national in scope and membership, but focuses on regional issues to try to elevate them and hopefully in the process, while they’re being elevated, to expose them to the forces of national unity and hopefully the problems can be eased,” he said.
Conservative Senator Don Plett criticized the group, saying it’s been created out of the “repercussions of Justin Trudeau’s ill-thought-out idea of Senate reform."
“They are saying they will be non-partisan and they can vote whatever direction they want, well that’s an independent step the Senate’s had for 152 years,” he said.
Mr. Plett added that regional interests have also been part of the Senate’s makeup. “Representing regional interests is not something new and certainly not something that this group has come up with.”