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Legislation

Criticism of Sen. Harder’s private meeting with Senate colleagues ‘bullshit’: Sen. Campbell

By Abbas Rana      

Ind. Senators Larry Campbell and John Wallace said Sen. Peter Harder's meeting was 'very helpful' to learn first-hand what the government’s top priorities are.

British Columbia Ind. Sen. Larry Campbell says he found last week's private meeting of Senators from all parties with Government Senate Representative Peter Harder useful. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Ind. Sen. Larry Campbell says senior Conservative and Liberal Senators’ criticism of Sen. Peter Harder’s recent closed-door meeting with Senators to discuss the government legislative agenda was unfair and untrue and said they publicly attacked him for partisan reasons.

In an interview with The Hill Times, Sen. Campbell (British Columbia), the province’s  straight-shooting former chief coroner who attended the government Senate representative’s meeting, said he found the meeting useful.

Sen. Campbell said partisan Senators criticized Sen. Harder for organizing the private meeting for all Senators because partisan caucuses are losing control in the Senate due to the increasing number of new Independent Senators being appointed by the Liberal government.

Sen. Campbell said critics portrayed the government Senate leader’s meeting with Senators from both partisan caucuses and Independents as some sort of “secret plot,” while it was in fact a chance to review the government’s legislative agenda. The Senators told The Hill Times last week that the meeting should have been held in the Senate Chamber and not behind closed doors.

“Bullshit, it’s bullshit. I mean I always expected it from [Leo] Housakos and [Don] Plett. I don’t know where Jim [Cowan] was coming from in that [Senate] speech because it’s so unlike him,” said Sen. Campbell in an interview. “I was surprised. … They made it sound like there was a secret meeting of a club or something.

“It’s what they do every day,” he added, noting that party caucuses regularly hold private meetings. “The whole thing was so ridiculous. In the real world. It’s like little kids in a sandbox.”

Sen. Campbell said, according to his count, 31 Senators attended the Nov. 22 meeting, including six Conservatives, six Liberals, and 19 Independents.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has named enough new Senators to fill all the vacant seats in the 105-member Senate, but as of last week, six Senators were yet to be sworn in. After all the newly appointed Senators are sworn in, there will be 43 Independents, 41 Conservatives, and 21 Liberals. Independent Senators will outnumber Conservatives and Liberals, separately, but partisan Senators will still hold overwhelming majorities on standing committees, giving them the power to delay or obstruct the government agenda.

Sen. Campbell, a former Vancouver mayor, and RCMP officer, made his comments in reaction to criticism from Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan (Mille Isles, Que.), Conservative Whip Don Plett (Landmark, Man.), Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos (Wellington, Que.), chairman of the Internal Economy Budgets and Administration Committee, and former Liberal Senate leader James Cowan (Nova Scotia) of Sen. Harder’s meeting with Senators to discuss the government’s “short-term and long term” legislative business. Sen. Harder invited all Senators to attend a private meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Room 256-S of Centre Block from 8 to 9 a.m.

“This is not a caucus but rather an informal meeting, and would be restricted to Senators only,” Sen. Harder wrote in his invitation email sent on Nov. 10.

These senior Conservative and Liberal Senators blasted Sen. Harder for holding a private meeting, arguing that the government of Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) publicly make claims of openness and transparency, and questioned why the government’s representative has to hold a closed-door meeting just to discuss the government’s legislative agenda. These Senators said this meeting should have been held in the Senate Chamber, where anyone interested could have attended and learned what the government’s top priorities were. They also accused Sen. Harder of “trying to make a de facto caucus out of everybody,” where there’s no opposition.

“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 wrote in an email on Nov. 13, in response to Sen. Harder’s invitation, and sent to all Senators.

Sen. Housakos in an interview with The Hill Times last week said: “Both in the House of Commons and in the Senate, nothing is more essential element than the opposition. Parliament exists because there’s the opposition.”

In the Senate Chamber, Sen. Cowan criticized Sen. Harder, in a speech two weeks ago, for planning the private meeting. He also said the meeting should have taken place in the Senate Chamber, considering that the Trudeau government’s “trumpeted” a commitment to openness and transparency.

“Larry doesn’t mince words,” Sen. Plett with a loud deep hearty laugh, in response to Sen. Campbell’s comments.

“Larry is gerrymandering here a bit. Larry’s trying to put some digs into those of us—myself and others—that have said we thought it was shameful that Harder was trying to do behind closed doors what he should do out in the open. And so good on Larry Campbell. I don’t have an issue with that.”

Sen. Housakos said Sen. Campbell is “entitled to his opinions” and did not directly respond to the British Columbia Senator’s comments.

“We know where he [Sen. Campbell] stands philosophically on issues,” said Sen. Housakos. “He can call himself whatever he wants but when push comes to shove, he votes for a Liberal agenda. That’s who he is and I respect that.”

Government Senate Whip Grant Mitchell (Edmonton, Alta.) in an interview said that it was not possible to hold this meeting in the Senate Chamber for practical reasons. He explained that last week’s meeting was kind of a detailed technical briefing to all Senators about the pieces of legislation the government wants to get passed before the winter break, and individual Senators were free to ask as many questions as they wanted about this legislation in an informal setting. He said this would not have been possible in the Senate Chamber as those discussions are “very, very formal,” where Senators couldn’t have the back and forth that they had at the informal meeting on Tuesday.

Sen. Mitchell said he received positive feedback from Senators who attended this meeting. He dismissed criticism from Conservative and Liberal Senators, saying that this was not a strategy meeting but intended to provide information to Senators about the coming legislation.

“I don’t think you’d hear any of that criticism from any Senator who sat in on that meeting,” said Sen. Mitchell. “This was clear this was not a surreptitious meeting. It had Liberals, it had Conservatives, it had Independents—Senators from all corners.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Campbell said he found the Tuesday morning meeting helpful to learn more about the government’s legislative priorities directly from “the horse’s mouth.”

“I was getting information right from the source,” said Sen. Campbell. “I like to hear from the horse’s mouth rather than from a deputy leader who got it from another deputy leader. I found it refreshing. I thought there was a great turnout.”

Ind. Sen. John Wallace (Rothesay, N.B.) said, in the past, only the Senate leadership would hold meetings like this to get a first-hand look at the government agenda, and Senators who were not in the leadership ranks were never invited. He said he found last week’s meeting useful and would like to see more.

“I personally would want to encourage those to continue to occur,” said Sen. Wallace.

Liberal Senate caucus Chair Terry Mercer (Northern Halifax, N.S.) attended this meeting and said he agrees with the idea of holding it, but that it should have been an open meeting in the Chamber. Sen. Mercer said the government’s legislative agenda outlined by Sen. Harder on Tuesday appears to be overly ambitious and he is not sure all pieces of legislation will be passed prior to the break. He said the government’s Senate leadership wants to get C-2, C-4, C-6, C-13, C-16, S-2, S-3, and S-4 passed before Parliament adjourns for the Christmas break.

“He’d like them all passed before the Christmas break,” said Sen. Mercer. “This is his first time doing this job. He may be living in a dream world, but that’s okay.”

Deputy Government Senate Representative Diane Bellemare (Alma, Que.) conceded that the government might not be able to get all the pieces of legislation passed before Christmas because of the Conservative Senators’ majority in the standing committees. She said a lot depends on how cooperative the Conservatives are.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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