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Senate swap gives powerful Internal Economy Committee chair to Independents, sets stage for new negotiations next session

Members of the Independent Senators Group now have a chance to take some top committee seats, but the ISG didn’t get everything it wanted.

Senators Yuen Pau Woo, left, Liberal Joseph Day, and Conservative Larry Smith, who lead the Independent, Liberal, and Conservative Senate groups, hammered out a deal to reorganize the seats, chair, and deputy chair positions for the Senate's committees over the past few weeks. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade and Steve Gerecke, The Hill Times file photograph

PUBLISHED :Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 12:00 AM

Negotiations between the Senate’s three largest groups finally ended last week, paving the way for a major rejig of Senate committee seats, and handing committee chair positions to members of the Independent Senators Group for the first time.

The deal is only good for the length of this parliamentary session, however, and there are several remaining issues that could go back on the table when everything resets after the next prorogation.

The Senate Liberal and Conservative leaderships are now canvassing their membership and making decisions on who will serve in the chair and deputy chair positions allotted to their group on committees, and Senators are making their case to secure a prime spot.

The ISG will nominate Sen. Larry Campbell (B.C.) to take over as the chair of the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee when the committees meet again after this week’s break, and formalize a reorganization agreed to by the Senate groups last week. Though committees each decide upon who will serve as their chair, the leaders of the Senate’s different factions have agreed in advance upon how to divide the chair positions for the Senate’s committees, as has traditionally been the case, and it’s expected that Sen. Campbell’s nomination will be accepted.

  

The Senate Internal Economy Committee serves a purpose similar to that of the House Board of Internal Economy, overseeing the direction of the Senate administration, as well as Senate committee expenses, and Senators’ office and travel expenses. Unlike most committees, it has the mandate to set its own agenda, instead of relying upon direction from the Senate.

The ISG will nominate Sen. Larry Campbell, left, pictured with CBC reporter Chris Rands, to take over as the chair of the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee when the committees meet again after this week’s break, and formalize a reorganization agreed to by the Senate groups last week. The Hill Times file photograph

The powerful management committee has been chaired by Conservative Senator Leo Housakos (Wellington, Que.) since 2013. Sen. Campbell, who also serves as the ISG’s liaison, has served as a regular member of the committee since 2010, with a previous stint in 2006-2007, during his time as an Independent, unaffiliated, and Liberal Senator.

“He has the experience and the knowledge, he’s on the committee now, he’s our nominee,” said Independent Sen. Yuen Pau Woo (B.C.), who leads the ISG as its facilitator.

Sen. Campbell briefly put himself forward to replace Sen. Elaine McCoy (Alberta) as the ISG facilitator when she left the facilitator role in September, but later withdrew, and pledged his support to Sen. Woo, who ran unopposed for the ISG leadership on a joint ticket with Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain (De la Vallière, Que.). Sen. Woo said there was no deal made to nominate Sen. Campbell for the Internal Economy chair, or discussion of it, when he pledged to withdraw and support Sen. Woo and Sen. Saint-Germain.

  

Who gets what (for now)

The negotiations between the Senate groups re-organized the membership of committees, which had been temporarily expanded by three members to include ISG Senators. The committees have now been shrunk down to their original sizes, with an equal number of seats given to the Senate’s two largest groups: the ISG, currently with 39 members, and the Conservatives, currently with 35. The Liberals, with 15 members, received a smaller allotment of seats on each committee going forward. Each group was given an allotment of seats on the Senate committees roughly in proportion to its current representation in the Senate. Senate committees vary in size from five to 15 members. The new committee makeup was worked out between those three groups during negotiations over the past several weeks, and formalized in a motion passed in the Senate last week. Five non-affiliated Senators, including Senate Speaker George Furey (N.L.) and the government representative team led by Sen. Peter Harder (Ottawa, On.), were not involved in the negotiations directly, and, as before, will not hold committee seats. There are currently also 11 vacant seats in the 105-seat Chamber.

An unwritten agreement between the ISG, Conservatives, and Liberals divided committee chair positions in roughly the same way, with the ISG and Conservatives each receiving eight chair positions. The Senate Liberals negotiated two chair positions for themselves—for the Aboriginal Affairs and Legal and Constitutional Affairs committees—as well as temporary control over two more chair positions, for a Special Committee on the Arctic and the Social Affairs Committee, for roughly another year.

The ISG will chair committees on Internal Economy; Banking, Trade and Commerce; Defence; Agriculture; Modernization; Energy and Environment; Human Rights; Official Languages; and will also get the chair for Social Affairs in September of 2018.

The Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee was chaired by Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie before he retired Nov. 7. The chair will be allotted to a Liberal Senator until next fall, said Sen. Woo, out of respect for his expertise and knowledge. Senate Liberal Art Eggleton (Toronto, Ont.) is currently the Social Affairs Committee deputy chair, and is slated to retire from the Senate at the end of next September.

  

The Conservatives will chair the committees of Finance; Transport; Foreign Affairs; Fisheries; Rules; Selection; as well as the Special Committee on the Arctic after it leaves Liberal hands, an Auditing Subcommittee, and likely get the top spot on a proposed Audit and Oversight Committee should the Senate decide to accept a recommendation by the Senate Estimates Subcommittee that it be created.

Senate committee chairs preside over meetings, guide deliberations, and “seek to maintain order and decorum,” as well as fulfilling some roles outside of committee meetings, such as acting as a spokesperson for the committee, according to the Senate website. They also receive a top-up to their pay.

The ISG gains from the agreement by finally securing committee chair positions, which had been held exclusively by Conservative or Liberal Senators until now, as well as a number of seats on committees proportional to its size in the Senate. The Conservative caucus will now hold fewer than the 13 committee chairs it had held up until the end of October, when an agreement between the groups in the Senate over the structure of committees expired, but will hold double the four committee chairs traditionally allotted to the opposition caucus in the Senate.

The Senate Rules Committee could play an especially important role in the Senate over the months to come. The new agreements on committees—both the formal motion passed through the Chamber and the informal agreement on committee chairs—are not permanent changes to the rules. The motion expires at the end this parliamentary session, which some speculate could come next fall with a government prorogation. Permanent changes to the rules of the Senate would have to be approved by the Rules Committee, according to Sen. Larry Smith (Saurel, Que.), the leader of the Conservative Senate caucus.

“We’re thrilled with the fact that we have a very strong position as opposition, and importantly, the rules are not going to be changed unless they go through Rules Committee and Rules Committee agrees to it,” said Sen. Smith.

“We’re not trying to be dinosaurs and preserve an old system, what we’re trying to do is make sure that the [Westminster] system that is so successful in many countries throughout the world…grows and flourishes,” he said.

Sen. Woo had pressed in negotiations for the ISG and its leaders to receive equal rights and privileges to those of their counterparts. The Senate rules make special allowances for the government and opposition caucuses and leaders, but don’t give the same treatment to other groups. Those rights and privileges include ex-officio status for the leaders, making them members of almost every committee, as well as more time for the leaders to speak in the Chamber, and more. The ISG and Liberal group leads were given ex-officio status under the new agreement, but not all the privileges enjoyed by the government and opposition groups, and none of the changes were made permanent.

“We will press these issues in the months and years ahead, in a way that respects the traditions of the Senate while stressing the need for and importance of ongoing modernization and fairness,” said Sen. Woo.

Sen. Woo said he had not negotiated for the right to move time allocation in the Senate, as was reported by The National Post.

The Senate Liberals had asked in negotiations that all Senate committees include two deputy chair positions, so that each of the three groups would be represented at the top of the committees. The ISG pushed back against that request—Sen. Woo said they “felt that the case had not been made” for a need to do so—and in the end they compromised, creating two deputy chair positions for some, but not all of the committees.

Which, if any, of the changes agreed to or requested in the negotiations will be made permanent for the Senate could be hashed out by the Rules Committee, or in the September renegotiations, which Sen. Woo said he expected would be easier than those that just concluded, since the principle of proportionality for the Senate groups had now been agreed upon once already.

In-group lobbying underway

The ISG has already selected who it will nominate as its chairs and deputy chairs going forward, said Sen. Woo, though he declined to name any apart from Sen. Campbell.

The Conservatives and Liberals are still in the process of doing so, giving Senators a chance to make their case for one of the top committee jobs.

“I’ve suddenly become very important. Everybody wants to speak to me,” said Sen. Smith with a laugh.

“This happens no matter what type of business or what type of political institution you’re in. As soon as the leader gets involved with the negotiation with his team, and the results come out in terms of positions, you’re always going to have people that jockey …to position themselves for opportunities, but that’s normal.”

Sen. Smith’s Conservative leadership team will make its decisions by looking at “the history of who has done what. We look at the performance of the individual, we also look at what type of change we need to make within the group to get the most effective opposition,” he said.

A source inside the Senate Liberal caucus said its leadership had sent out a questionnaire to its members, asking which committees they prefered to serve on, and whether they were interested in a chair or deputy chair position, which the leadership would then review.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw