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Independent Senators to get seats on committees, now group wants $542,428-$722,000 for staff

By Abbas Rana      

Sen. Elaine McCoy says Independent Senators are a parliamentary group that needs about nine staffers to coordinate their legislative and parliamentary work.

Independent Senators Group facilitator Elaine McCoy, right, pictured with Government Senate Representative Peter Harder, has submitted a budget request to the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee. Sen. Harder is not a member of this group because he represents the Justin Trudeau government in the Senate. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—After winning the battle to get representation of Independent Senators on the Senate’s standing committees proportionate to their numbers last week, Independent Senators have now submitted a budget request of between $542,428 and $722,000 a year for staffing to the Senate’s Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration Committee.

Independent Senators’ Group facilitator, Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy (Alberta), told The Hill Times that she submitted a budget request to the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee that was forwarded to the Senate’s Subcommittee on Estimates for review. She said the Independent Senators Group is not a caucus but a parliamentary group that needs about nine staffers to coordinate their legislative and parliamentary work.

Sen. McCoy said if the subcommittee approves the budget, the group of Independent Senators would hire staffers with specific job descriptions to assist them in their  work. A chief of staff, two legislative assistants, a logistics clerk, a senior special assistant or rules person, a communications assistant, a translator, and two administrative assistants were the positions she had in mind as of last week.

But the final staffing decisions will be made upon the finalization of the budget by a group of Independent Senators, Sen. McCoy said. The proposed budget included a minimum and maximum amount because the Internal Economy Committee asked for that, she said.

“If we get the funding now, we’ll sit down and we’ll be very deliberate how we design our secretariat,” said Sen. McCoy. “We want to be very clear on the outcomes that we want the secretariat to produce and we want to make sure we’ve got performance indicators and then we’ll design the functions that would deliver those outcomes. We do not whip. We have no whip function, and we’re fiercely independent.”

For the current fiscal year, the Conservative Senate caucus has an annual budget of $1.3-million and the Liberal caucus has $1.1-million. The government Senate representative has an annual budget of $400,000 but does not have any caucus budget because there’s no government caucus in the Senate. The caucus budgets do not include salaries of Senators in leadership positions.

Currently, the government leader receives an extra $81,500 in addition to the base salary of $145,400. Similarly, the opposition leader receives a salary top-up of $38,700. Other Senate caucus positions for both the government and opposition—such as the deputy leader, whip, deputy whip, and caucus chair—also receive additional salaries. The Senate Speaker receives a salary boost of $59,500 plus a $1,000 in car allowance and $3,000 in residence allowance.

Under the Senate rules, the Internal Economy Committee cannot allocate budget to a caucus that does not belong to a registered party under the Canada Elections Act. But considering the changing dynamics, the Senate passed a motion last week to authorize the Internal Economy Committee to provide budget to the Independent Senators Group.

Meanwhile, Conservative Sen. David Wells (Newfoundland and Labrador), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Senate Estimates, told The Hill Times his committee will make a decision on the Independent Senators Group budget request this week. He said before making a decision on this request, his six-member committee will hear from Sen. McCoy and other Independent Senators to get more details about why they need this money.

“We’ll base it [decision] on the letter from Sen. McCoy, the knowledge that we have about the operations of the Chamber, and the changing dynamic and obviously their testimony,” said Sen. Wells.

The Independent Senators, who now outnumber the Conservative and Liberal Senators separately, had been pushing the Conservative and Liberal Senate caucuses for months to allow them to receive committee memberships proportionate to their numbers. Finally, last week, the Senate passed a motion moved by Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan (Mille Isles, Que.), to give representation to Independent Senators based on their numbers.

In the 105-member Red Chamber, there are 43 Independent Senators, 41 Conservative and 21 Liberals.

Even before the appointment of the most recent group of 21 new Senators in early November, Independent Senators outnumbered Liberal Senators. But Independent Senators had only two spots on each committee, while the Conservative and Liberal Senators dominated all of the 18 committees, three joint committees, and two subcommittees. Also, no Independent Senator is the chair or vice-chair of any committee.

But now, Independent and Conservative Senators will each receive 40 per cent of the seats and Liberal Senators will receive 20 per cent on all committees. The Senate Selection Committee chaired by Conservative Whip Don Plett (Landmark, Man.) is expected to meet this week to finalize the committee assignments.

Senate standing committees are of critical importance for any government where Senators undertake a detailed examination of legislations. These committees can slow down the passage of government legislation in the Upper Chamber. Traditionally, partisan caucus leadership have used committee assignments as a tool to reward and punish Senators by giving high-profile committee membership to those who toe the party line while dropping those who don’t follow the leadership direction. Also, committee chairs and vice-chairs receive salary boosts of $11,800 and $5,900, respectively, in addition to their base salary of $145,400.

Since last December, Independent Senators had been pushing the Conservative and Liberal Senate leadership to let Independent Senators join committees based on their numbers. New Brunswick Ind. Sen. John Wallace (Rothesay, N.B.) spoke a number of times in the Red Chamber and did media interviews to raise the issue.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on committee memberships for Independent Senators, Government Senate Representative Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.) told The Hill Times last month he wanted to reach a settlement through negotiations with the Conservative and Liberal caucuses on committee memberships for Independent Senators. But if that didn’t work out, he would consider either trying to pass a sessional order or the Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) government could prorogue Parliament in the summer, Sen. Harder said.

“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, last month.

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

After the motion to include more Senators on committees was passed last week, Sen. Harder described it in a press release as a victory for “fairness and equal treatment.”

He added: “It’s an important step forward in remodelling the Senate along less-partisan, independent lines. And it gives Independent Senators the voice on issues that their numbers warrant.”

Sen. Wallace, in an interview with The Hill Times, last week, said he and other Independent Senators pushed the leadership of the partisan caucuses on this issue for months. But, in the end, he said Sen. Harder’s public comments about proroguing Parliament and putting a sessional motion in the Red Chamber played an important role in the outcome.

“He [Sen. Harder] had the ability in his position as representative of the government to apply procedural pressure that others did not have and I think that had great effect,” said Sen. Wallace. “So, I applaud him for that.”

However, Sen. Plett denied that Sen. Harder’s public statements played any role in opening up the committees to more Independent Senators.

“No, it did not. We don’t work under threats,” he said in an interview . “This [has] been something that we’ve been working on all along.”

He said he had been waiting for all Senate seats to be filled by the prime minister, and now that all Senators have been appointed and sworn in, the process has started to appoint Independent Senators to Senate committees proportionate to their numbers.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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