Above: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stunned just about everyone, even those in his own caucus, by declaring there is no longer any such thing as a Liberal senator. Shirlee Engel explains.
OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau handed out pink slips to Liberal senators Wednesday, kicking them out of the party’s caucus in what he called the most significant, concrete step ever to reform Canada’s scandal-plagued Senate.
The surprise move – announced moments after Trudeau personally informed all 32 of them that they are now “formerly Liberal senators” – is aimed at reducing partisanship and restoring the Senate’s intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
“There are no more Liberal senators,” Trudeau told a news conference on Parliament Hill immediately after leaving the senators to mull over the implications of his decision.
After the initial shock wore off, the senators emerged from a meeting declaring that they’d been “set free” and praising Trudeau for his bold, courageous move.
They immediately used their new freedom to contradict Trudeau’s assertion that they can no longer designate themselves as “Liberal” senators. And they went further off script by suggesting the move actually won’t change much in the upper house.
“We have agreed that we will style ourselves as the Liberal Senate caucus,” said James Cowan, adding that he plans to continue leading the official Opposition in the Senate. Senators will remain Liberal party members and friends with elected Liberal MPs, he added.
Upon hearing that Trudeau was referring to them publicly as “formerly Liberal senators,” Cowan’s colleagues nodded approvingly as he said: “I’m not a former Liberal. I’m a Liberal. And I’m a Liberal senator.”
However, Trudeau subsequently sent a letter to Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella informing him that Liberal senators are no longer members of the national Liberal caucus “and as such are independent senators.”
Since Trudeau only kicked the senators out of the caucus and not the Liberal party itself, it appears they are still card-carrying Liberals and can associate as such in the Senate.
READ MORE: Parliament returns to Senate scandal, budget
The confusion allowed Stephen Harper to slough off Trudeau’s challenge to the prime minister to follow the Liberal lead and similarly cut loose the 57 Conservative senators.
“I gather the change announced by the leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal,” Harper scoffed in the Commons.
He called Cowan’s assertion that not much will change “the understatement of the year” and said Canadians want an elected Senate, not “a better unelected Senate.”
Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative minister responsible for democratic reform, dismissed Trudeau’s gambit as “a smokescreen” designed to “distance himself” from potentially damaging news in an impending interim report by the auditor general.
The spending watchdog is examining each senator’s expenses in the wake of a scandal over allegedly fraudulent expense claims that has rocked the upper chamber for more than a year.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair noted that Trudeau voted against an NDP motion last October which called on both the Liberals and Conservatives to cut their senators loose. He, too, suggested the looming auditor general’s report might have something to do with Trudeau’s change of heart.
Trudeau denied the imminent report had any bearing on his decision. And a spokesman for auditor general Michael Ferguson said no one has seen a draft of the interim report.
Trudeau insisted his move was predicated on his belief that extreme patronage and partisanship are at the root of the Senate expenses scandal.
“The Senate is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said. “If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government.
“The party structure in the Senate interferes with this responsibility. Taken together with patronage (appointments), partisanship within the Senate is a powerful, negative force. It reinforces the prime minister’s power instead of checking it.”
If elected prime minister, Trudeau said he’d go further. He’d appoint only independent senators after employing an open, transparent process, with public input, for nominating worthy candidates – much the way recipients of the Order of Canada are chosen.
FILE: Justin Trudeau’s letter to the Speaker of the Senate of Canada
The Harper government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to advise whether it can unilaterally impose term limits and set up a process for “consultative elections” of Senate nominees. Most provinces maintain such reforms require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the country’s population.
It has also asked the top court to advise whether outright abolition of the Senate would require the approval of seven provinces or unanimity.
Trudeau said he believes his proposals are “the most meaningful action possible without changing the Constitution.” But he added: “If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more.”
Mulcair said Trudeau doesn’t go far enough.
“Obviously it’s a step in the right direction, but why stop there? Why stop at 32? We want to get rid of the Senate altogether.”
Trudeau said promising abolition is “either deliberately and cynically misleading or empty and foolish,” given that it would require “the most significant amendment to the Constitution since the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” in 1982.
With files from Global News