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Senators pressure on Liberals to enshrine Senate reforms into law

Independents hoping for a promise in the upcoming Speech from the Throne

September 22, 2020  The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Independent senators are renewing their calls for the Liberal government to move forward with legislation to officially change how the Senate functions.

The majority of senators are no longer affiliated with a political party, but the law governing the Senate was written for the time where there was clearly a government and Opposition side in the chamber, said Sen. Tony Dean.

Dean and other members of the Independent Senators Group have been driving the demand for legislated reform, and are hoping to get a promise on that score in this week’s speech from the throne.

The changes don’t require any money, just will, Dean said.

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“They’re about organizing the Senate more wisely and efficiently and effectively in a way that citizens who pay for all of this would like to see,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began a slow process of Senate reform before the Liberals formed government. In 2014, he severed the connection between senators sitting as Liberals, ending the formal presence of a Liberal caucus in the Senate.

Those former Liberals became independents, as were those appointed under the new system set up when the Liberals won power in 2015.

That system sees people apply for or be nominated to fill a vacant Senate seat.

Applicants are then vetted by a non-partisan advisory board that presents a list of names to the prime minister. Over 50 appointments have taken place this way since the process was launched.

Trudeau’s initial end to an official Liberal Senate caucus and the new appointments process mean the majority of senators are no longer directly affiliated with a party, but they do have groupings.

In addition to the Independent Senators Group (ISG), there’s also a Progressive Senate Group (PSG) and a Canadian Senators Group (CSG).

There are also six senators who are entirely unaffiliated and a 21-member strong Conservative caucus.

The Parliament of Canada Act, however, breaks down the allocation of Senate resources and influence over things like the make-up of the powerful internal economy committee on the basis of who represents the government, and who represents the Opposition.

What Dean and the ISG want to see is the law changed to be more reflective of the multiple groups operating now.

“We think it makes sense to have the Parliament of Canada Act, which outlines the responsibilities and rights of the House of Commons and Senate, reflect those changes, that’s important,” Dean said.

“There is no point in having a Senate that has completely changed its composition and its focus and the way it does its work and have the old Senate reflected in the legislation that governs who we are and what we do.”

In the 2019 election, Trudeau promised amendments to the act. The Conservative leader at the time, Andrew Scheer, had suggested he’d seek to resume the old partisan approach.

New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has a pledge in his platform to encourage more provinces to follow Alberta’s model of electing senators, who he’d then appoint if he became prime minister.

Scott Tannas, who was elected as an Alberta senator and then appointed by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, currently spearheads the Canadian Senate Group.

In an email, he said the specifics of what legislative changes are required are a matter of debate, but they are needed.

“The days of government and Opposition as the only groups are not likely to return for many years, if at all.”