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Power play: ISG Senators now equal to Conservatives, but unclear if Independents will get top committee positions

New Brunswick Sen. David Richards joined the Independents Senators Group last week, and Nova Scotia Sen. Stephen Greene is also considering joining the ISG.

Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, top, chair of the Senate Internal Economy Committee, one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas, above left, Liberal Senators Jane Cordy and Mobina Jaffer, and Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall, all pictured Sept. 28. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 12:00 AM

PARLIAMENT HILL—The 36-member Independent Senators Group is now the same size as the Conservative Senate caucus, and will soon be the largest in the 105-member Red Chamber, but the ISG Senators still may not get the senior committee positions proportionate to their numbers this fall if the Conservatives and Liberals strike a deal and keep their hold on the 21 committees and subcommittees.

“If they gang up, they’ve got the majority,” said Alberta Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy, the outgoing facilitator of the Independent Senators Group. “The Liberals are essentially the swing vote. Of course, it’s possible. Absolutely, they can block that.”

Last week, New Brunswick Ind. Sen. David Richards joined the Independent Senators Group, and Nova Scotia Sen. Stephen Greene confirmed to The Hill Times that he is considering joining the ISG. In addition, there are 10 vacant seats and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) is expected to fill the vacant seats in the coming weeks.

Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy, pictured with, Government Senate Representative Peter Harder. The Hill Times file photograph

Of the 10 vacant seats, three are from Ontario, two from Nova Scotia, and one each from Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, one Saskatchewan and Yukon. Next month, Nova Scotia Conservative Sen. Kelvin Ogilvie is retiring which will become the 11th vacant seat in the Senate.

  

In the Upper Chamber, there are now 36 Conservative, 36 Independent Senators who have formed an Independent Senators Group, 16 Liberal, and eight Independents who do not belong to any caucus or parliamentary group, and 10 vacant seats.

Currently, the Conservatives hold the chair positions of 12 of the total 21 Senate committees and subcommittees, the Liberals seven and two committees chair positions are vacant. This means Conservative Senators chair of 57.1 per cent of committees, the Liberals 33.3 per cent, and 9.5 per cent chair positions are vacant.

As for deputy chair positions, Conservatives hold seven, Liberals 11, Independent Senators one, and two deputy chair positions are vacant. So, Liberal Senators are deputy chairs of 52.3 per cent, Conservative 33.3 per cent, ISG 4.7 per cent and 9.5 per cent of deputy chair positions are vacant.

The reason why Independent Senators do not have any committee chair positions is because of an agreement struck in December between the Independent Senators, Conservatives and Liberals. According to this agreement, which would expire on Oct. 31, the ISG would receive seats proportionate to their numbers, but the chair or deputy chair positions were not part of the agreement.

  

Independent Sen. Yuen Pau Woo was elected as the facilitator, and Ind. Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain as the deputy facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, recently. The Hill Times photograph by Pete Mazereeuw

The negotiating teams of the two political caucuses, and the ISG are starting their negotiations this week to work out a formula for the senior committee positions.

Even when the Independent Senators Group outnumber the other two caucuses, there’s still a possibility the Conservatives and Liberals may work together to keep their hold on committees. If the Conservatives and the Liberals struck a deal in these negotiations, their combined number would be 52 and would outnumber the ISG. Even if all 11 yet-to-be-appointed Senators joined the ISG, they would still be fewer in number than the Conservatives and the Liberals, at least this year.

British Columbia Ind. Sen. Yuen Woo, the new facilitator of the Independent Senators, did not directly comment on the possibility of a deal between the Conservatives and the Liberals.

“Until and unless all Senate groups and caucuses have had the opportunity to come to an agreement, there is no agreement,” said Sen. Woo in an email to The Hill Times.

  

He said the Independent Senators are hoping to negotiate with the Conservatives and the Liberals to receive committee chair and deputy chair positions based on their representation in the Senate.

“The ISG is looking forward to negotiations on the committee arrangements,” said Sen. Woo. “Our members are eager to take on leadership positions on committees, commensurate with their expertise and life experience, and in accordance with the size of our group and its projected growth.”

Quebec Ind. Sen. Marc Gold told The Hill Times last week that the Independent Senators Group was in the process of selecting a negotiating team that would hold talks with the Conservatives and Liberals. He said he hoped that since the Independents would soon be in the majority position, they should hold a majority of the committee chair and deputy chair positions, but declined to get into specifics.

“We believe that the ISG, as the largest and growing one, should actually chair the majority of standing committees,” said Sen. Gold who made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the Independent Senators, and only in his personal capacity as a Senator. “This will be negotiated, so I’m not giving you a number.”

He said it would be “unfortunate” if the Independent Senators did not get senior positions in committees based on their numbers. As for the speculation about the possible deal between the Conservatives and the Liberals, Sen. Gold said he would like to think it wouldn’t happen. Just in case, he said, if it did, it would be because some “forces” both in the Conservative and Liberal caucuses would like the status quo to continue. Sen. Gold declined to name any names.

“There are forces within the Senate that for a number of different reasons would prefer to continue in the older ways,” said Sen. Gold. “If the principles that we’ve all subscribed to, that are inscribed in our rules itself—proportionality—are to have any meaning then the ISG and all other groups will have their fair share of positions as chairs and deputy chairs.”

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith (Saurel, Que.), in a brief interview with The Hill Times, described the possibility of Conservatives and the Liberals joining forces to get a majority of the senior committee positions as “premature.”

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith. The Hill Times file photograph

“That’s a very, very premature statement because the objective is to try and find ways of incorporating all groups into the process,” said Sen. Smith.

Nova Scotia Liberal Sen. Jane Cordy said she’s not part of the negotiation process, but said her caucus leadership will do “the right thing” in discussions about committee chair and deputy chair positions.

“We’re all willing to move and to do what’s the right thing for the Senate and what’s the right thing for each individual group,” said Sen. Cordy. “We know the numbers within the chamber have changed considerably since the last election.”

Of all the Senate committees, the Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration is the one that controls the more than $100-million Senate budget and is considered one the most important Senate committees. The committee oversees the budgeting, expenses and the overall governance of the Red Chamber. Currently, it’s chaired by Quebec Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos and Sen. Cordy is the deputy chair.

Since the Senate expenses scandal first became public in late 2012, the Senate Internal Economy Committee has been front and centre in media stories. The chair and deputy chair’s positions of this committee are the most sought after positions in the Senate.

Recently, Sen. Peter Harder, the government Senate representative, called on the Internal Economy Committee to adopt Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s 2015 recommendation to put in place an independent oversight committee. In an article in the IRPP’s Policy Options magazine, last month, he also said the Internal Economy Committee, as the “ultimate authority” on Senators’ expenses, should be replaced as it creates an appearance of conflict of interest.

“This structure is inherently flawed because it is composed solely of Senators, a dynamic that–whatever the calibre of its membership—raises an obvious appearance of conflict of interest,” wrote Sen. Harder in the article, adding that the AG recommended in June 2015 that the “oversight of Senators’ expenses should be performed by a body … the majority of whose membership, including its chair, is independent of the Senate.”

In response, four members of the Internal Economy Committee wrote an open letter to Sen. Harder and outlined the measures the committee has implemented to address the concerns that Mr. Ferguson raised in his audit report last year. They said the measures amount to a level of “public scrutiny unparalleled by other legislatures, including the House of Commons.”

“I take exception when the government representative in the Senate stands up and says we haven’t done enough in regard to oversight when he knows full well over the last two years we’ve been in in-depth discussions to even a step further and look at the various models,” Sen. Housakos said at the Internal Economy Committee meeting on Sept. 21, which The Hill Times reported two weeks ago.

The Hill Times