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Legislation

Trudeau government could prorogue Parliament to get Independent Senators fair representation on Senate committees

By Abbas Rana      

Conservative Whip Don Plett says Independent Senators should fill allotted committee spots before asking for more.

Members of the Senate National Security and Defence Committee, pictured in this file photo. Independent Senators want representation on all the Senate standing committees. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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If the Conservative and Liberal Senate leadership fail to provide fair representation to Independent Senators on standing committees, the Justin Trudeau government could prorogue Parliament in the summer so that all Senate committees are reconstituted and Independent Senators get their fair share of representation, says the government’s Senate representative.

In an emailed statement to The Hill Times, Ind. Sen. Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), the government’s Senate representative, said he wants to reach a settlement with the Conservative and Liberal Senate leadership through negotiations. But, should that option fails, he will consider other options including trying to pass a sessional order, or Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) could prorogue Parliament in the summer.

“If a negotiated settlement can’t be reached, one of the options being considered is to try to pass a sessional order in the Chamber through a vote,” wrote Sen. Harder in an email to The Hill Times.

“Another option would be to wait for a new Speech from the Throne, after which the committee memberships would be reset.”

Sen. Harder expressed hope that the issue of Independent Senators’ committee memberships will be resolved through negotiations.

“We’re confident that all sides recognize there’s an issue of fairness here and that they will agree to provide the appropriate seats for the Independents,” he said.

“But this has to happen quickly, given that we have many new Senators about to join us. If it can’t be negotiated, then we will consider other options, including putting the issue to a vote on the Senate floor. Achieving fairness and proportionality are crucial objectives.”

Sen. Harder did not specify the exact prorogation time but one source told The Hill Times that if Mr. Trudeau chose to go ahead with this option, it could happen in the summer.

With the recent appointment of 21 new Senators, Independent Senators will outnumber both Conservative and Liberal Senators separately.

In the 105-member Red Chamber, there will now be 44 Independent, 40 Conservative and 21 Liberal Senators.

Even prior to the most recent batch of Senate appointments, Independent Senators outnumbered the Liberal Senators, but Independent had only two spots on each of the 19 committees. No Independent Senators are chairs or vice-chairs of any committee.

All Senate standing committees are dominated by Conservatives and Liberals. In some cases, Conservatives have four times more spots than the Independents, and Liberals have twice more seats than the Independents. For example, on the 15-member powerful Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee, there are nine Conservatives, four Liberal and two Independents. And on the Selection Committee, which plays a key role in making decisions on committee memberships, Independents do not have even one member. Out of the total of nine on the Selection Committee, five are Conservatives and four are Liberals.

Senate standing committees play a key role in the passage of government legislation in the Red Chamber, where all pieces of legislation are reviewed and debated in detail. These committees can delay the flow of government legislation and cause serious political headaches as it can slow down the government’s plan to achieve its legislative agenda.

The Trudeau Liberals do not have a government Senate caucus as Liberal Senators were booted from the national Liberal caucus in early 2014.

Since coming to power last year, Mr. Trudeau has appointed only Independent Senators on the non-binding recommendation of the non-partisan Senate Advisory Board.

Conservative Senators are the opposition party in the Upper Chamber. So, to ensure that the government legislation receives fair review in the Upper Chamber and committees, the Trudeau government needs the support of Independent Senators.

Committee assignments are one of the key tools for the Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle to reward or penalize caucus members and to keep them in line. Standing committee members do not get any additional salaries for their committee work, but committee chairs and vice-chairs receive $11,800 and $5,900, respectively, on top of their regular annual salaries of $145,400.

In an interview with The Hill Times, Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett (Landmark, Man.), who is also the chair of the Selection Committee, said Independent Senators have two guaranteed spots on each committee and they have failed to fill all those spots. He pointed out there are three allotted slots for Independent Senators that are unfilled and questioned why Independent Senators are asking for more before they even take what’s already available.

“Why would we give them more if they can’t fill what they have,” said Sen. Plett. “That only means we have more vacancies on committees.”

Sen. Plett said that Sen. Harder complained in an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics recently that Independent Senators are not being given additional seats on committees. But, he said when he questioned the government Senate representative in the Question Period on Nov. 2 about why all the allotted seats are still unfilled and when they would be filled, Sen. Harder said he does not lead any caucus and Independent Senators make their own decisions. Sen. Plett said if that is the case, Sen. Harder should not speak on Independent Senators’ behalf.

“One day, he [Sen. Harder] wants to be in charge of them and the next day he wants to relieve himself of that responsibility,” said Sen. Plett

He said until the Independent Senators fill the vacant spots allotted to them, he doesn’t see any need for the Selection Committee to hold another meeting to accommodate more Independent Senators on committees.

“Right now, there’s no need for us to meet,” said Sen. Plett.

Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy (Alberta), who is the facilitator of Independent Senators, disputed Sen. Plett’s claim that Independent Senators have failed to fill the allotted slots on committees. She said the only slots that are vacant are because of the retirement of Ind. Sen. Michel Rivard in early August. She said until the selection committee holds another meeting, no Independent Senator can replace Sen. Rivard. Sen. McCoy said she would guarantee that if the selection committee opens up more slots for Independent Senators, those slots would be filled.

“Of course, we will,” said Sen. McCoy. “It’s only right and proper that we should do so. Part of this whole discussion really is the question of sharing the burden of responsibility. We’re 105 Senators and we’re all equal. We all need to pitch in and we need to take this responsibility seriously.”

Liberal Sen. Jim Munson (Ottawa/Rideau Canal, Ont.), vice-chair of the Senate Selection Committee, said Independent Senators should have more representation on committees, proportionate to their numbers. However, he added that it would take some time because after the new Senators are sworn in, the Senate leadership on all sides will have to follow a process to come up with an agreement on the composition and membership of committees.

“We have to revisit the rules and accommodate new Senators,” said Sen. Munson. “It should be done in a proportional way. I certainly agree that Independent Senators should have their fair share of seats on every committee. It’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. Munson, former Liberal whip, however pointed out in the interview that he might not stay as member of the selection committee as he has been succeeded by Liberal Sen. Percy Downe (Charlottetown, P.E.I.) as the new whip who will likely become the new member of the committee.

Ind. Sen. John Wallace (Rothesay, N.B.), who has been speaking in the Senate Chamber for months on the principle of “fairness, equality and proportionality” for Independent Senators on committees, said it’s the right of all Senators to serve on standing committees and both the Conservative and Liberal leadership should accept that. He said it’s the responsibility of the Selection Committee members to make the necessary changes and ensure that when new Senators are sworn in, they have adequate number of openings on committees.

“It’s not a gift that’s going to be given to [Independent Senators], that they have to be on bended knees to the partisan Senate caucuses to get those positions,” said Sen. Wallace, who described the committee work as the “heart and soul” of a Senator’s legislative work. “They, as a matter of right as Senators, have a right of equality, have a right to those committee positions. Those in Senate leadership that are able to make that happen, in particular those in the Selection Committee, should get on with it. Do it. Do the right thing.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that a possible summer prorogation is only a possibility. 

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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