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Sen. Harder blasted for planning private meeting with all Senators, say it should be held in Upper Chamber

By Abbas Rana      

But Ind. Sen. John Wallace calls it a 'positive step forward' away from past private meetings of Senators that have only involved party leadership from the Liberal and Conservative caucuses.

Government Senate Representative Peter Harder, centre, pictured with Nova Scotia Liberal Sen. James Cowan, right, and Alberta Ind. Sen. Doug Black. Sen. Harder is meeting with Senators this week to discuss the government’s agenda. Sen. Cowan is questioning why Sen. Harder is not holding this discussion in an open forum. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Despite Justin Trudeau government’s “trumpeted commitment to openness and transparency,” the government representative in the Senate is planning a private meeting with all Senators this week, and top Liberals and Conservatives are questioning why it’s not happening in the Senate Chamber.

Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett (Landmark, Man.) said Ind. Sen. Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), the government’s representative in the Senate, should be “ashamed of himself” for keeping this meeting away from the public eye.

“I can’t voice my discontent and frustration and condemnation more strongly than saying simply that Sen. Harder should be ashamed of himself for trying something like this,” Sen. Plett said in an interview with The Hill Times.

At issue is an invitation by Sen. Harder to all Senators to meet with him, Deputy Government Representative Sen. Diane Bellemare (Alma, Que.) and Government Whip Grant Mitchell (Alberta.)—both of whom are also Independent—in an informal meeting this week on Parliament Hill to discuss the government’s “short-term and long-term government business.”

The meeting scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Room 256-S of Centre Block from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. is restricted to Senators only.

However, he did not define in the email, sent Nov. 10, what he means specifically and why he wants an informal meeting rather than something in the Senate Chamber.

“As we are all aware, the membership in the Senate is set to grow significantly over the next week or so, as is the legislative agenda of the government. Given these factors, I think it would be helpful to have an exchange among all of us to discuss short-term and long-term government business,” wrote Sen. Harder in his email, which was obtained by The Hill Times.

“I’d like to invite all who would like to participate to meet with me, Senator Bellemare and Senator Mitchell, on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. in Room 256-S, Centre Block. This is not a caucus but rather an informal meeting, and would be restricted to Senators only.”

Sen. Harder did not respond to an interview request last week.

Conservative and Liberal Senators accused Sen. Harder of “trying to make a de facto caucus out of everybody” where there’s no opposition. They said Sen. Harder should hold the meeting in the Senate Chamber and not behind closed doors.

Former Liberal Senate leader James Cowan (Halifax, N.S.) was not available for an interview with The Hill Times last week. But, in an email to Sen. Harder and other Senators, he questioned why, given the government’s “trumpeted” commitment to “openness and transparency,” the government representative was proposing a private meeting.

“I was surprised to receive your November 10 email inviting all Senators to a private meeting ‘…to discuss short-term and long-term government business,’ ” wrote Sen. Cowan in his email on Nov. 13, also obtained by The Hill Times.

“Surely when the Government has repeatedly trumpeted its commitment to openness and transparency and with the Senate working towards making its work more open, transparent and accessible to Canadians, it would be more appropriate for you, as the Leader of the Government in the Senate/Government Representative in the Senate to propose that such a discussion be held in the Senate chamber rather than behind closed doors.”

Sen. Cowan said in the email that Sen. Harder’s decision to hold a private meeting was “contrary to what so many of us are working to achieve—a more open, accountable, accessible and effective legislative chamber.”

“If you believe there are considerations that should be informing our work on legislation, in the interests of transparency they should be part of our normal debate, and not hidden from the public,” wrote Sen. Cowan.

Sen. Plett, in an email sent out to all Senators, agreed.

“Senator Cowan is right on with his comments,” he wrote in an email on Nov. 13, and obtained by The Hill Times. “Discussions such as a [meeting behind closed doors] being proposed need to be held in the Senate Chamber and as part of Senate Modernization talks.”

However, Ind. Sen. John Wallace (Rothesay, N.B.) in his email thanked and commended Sen. Harder for scheduling the meeting and confirmed he would meet with the government team on Tuesday. He said that in his eight-year long parliamentary career, this is the first time all Senators have been invited to a meeting by a government Senate leader. In the past, Sen. Wallace said these types of meetings happened only at the leadership level.

“In the past, these types of exchanges have always been dealt with exclusively, in private discussion, between those in positions of leadership within the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses and have never included any participation whatsoever by Independent Senators,” wrote Sen. Wallace in his email on Nov. 14 and obtained by The Hill Times.

“I commend you for this positive step forward in promoting and facilitating the democratization and modernization of our Senate institution.”

The Senate is currently undergoing a fundamental change in its structure and inner workings because of Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) commitment in early 2014, as leader of the third-place party in the Parliament, to make the Upper House a non-partisan, independent Chamber. To achieve this objective, after becoming prime minister in 2015, he’s appointing new Senators only on the non-binding advice of the Senate Advisory Board and not on a partisan basis. This means the power of Conservatives and Liberals in the Senate is shrinking significantly as more Independents join them.

With the most recent appointment of 21 new Senators, Independent Senators now outnumber the Conservatives and Liberals, separately. In the 105-member Red Chamber, there will now be 44 Independent, 40 Conservative, and 21 Liberal Senators.

The Conservatives and Liberals still dominate Senate standing committees, including the Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee, which controls the Red Chamber’s $90-million budget. The partisan Senate leadership is trying to protect its turf, but Independents want a fair share of control in the Senate, including committee memberships.

On the government side, Sen. Harder receives the salary and perks of the office of the government Senate leader but is an Independent Senator with no caucus to lead. The Conservatives are the opposition caucus and Liberal Senators are not part of the national Liberal caucus since early 2014 when Mr. Trudeau declared, “There are no more Liberal Senators.”

So, to get the government legislation passed in the Red Chamber, Sen. Harder needs the support of all Independent Senators and a good portion of either the Conservative or Liberal caucuses. But overtures by Sen. Harder to reach out to partisan Senators are being seen by the Conservative and Liberal leadership with disdain, suspicion, and perceived as an encroachment on their territory.

Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan (Mille Isles, Que.) told The Hill Times last week that he’s critical of Sen. Harder’s planned private meeting with Senators because it’s unclear to him why the government representative is not holding this discussion in the Senate Chamber. Also, he said, Sen. Harder never explained in his email what does he means by “short-term  and long-term government business.”

“I don’t know what it is? Is it for Christmas or is it for one year? I don’t know,” said Sen. Carignan.

He added that it appears the Trudeau government is trying to transform the Red Chamber into “a big advisory committee” without any opposition.

“[Sen. Harder] wants to change the Westminster system where you have the government side, the opposition side, and a third party or the Independents,” said Sen. Carignan. “He wants to have all Senators where they are like a big advisory committee where you don’t have an opposition with a structure. That’s the objective.”

In an interview last week, Sen. Wallace said that before criticizing Sen. Harder’s meeting with Senators, critics should first attend the meeting and then make up their minds. Also, his decision to attend this meeting does not automatically mean his support to all items on the government agenda.

Sen. Wallace added that he’s surprised by the criticism from Conservative and Liberal Senators about why this discussion is not happening at an open forum, considering that both partisan caucuses, in the past, held most of these discussions behind closed doors and at the leadership level only.

“This is a very positive step forward; it’s an informal discussion,” said Sen. Wallace. “I’m very interested, especially as we approach the final weeks leading towards the Christmas break to have an understanding of what the government agenda will be.”

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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