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PM Trudeau embarks on a ‘charm offensive’ with Senators to get his legislative agenda moving

By Abbas Rana      

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have dinner with Senators on Tuesday who sponsored government legislation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have dinner this week with Senators who sponsored government legislation. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals enjoy a commanding majority in the House, but don’t have a caucus to rely on in the Red Chamber, and, almost 19 months after forming government, the prime minister is embarking on a “charm offensive” with Senators to get his legislative agenda moving in the Upper Chamber.

For instance, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and the Government Senate representative Peter Harder will host a dinner with Senators this week who have sponsored government legislation in this Parliament and who may be counted on in the coming weeks. The prime minister will host the dinner on Tuesday night in a private room in the Parliamentary Restaurant.

In the 105-member Red Chamber, there are 39 Conservatives, 18 Liberals, seven Independents, and 35 Independent Senators who have formed an Independent Senators’ Group. The Independent Senators’ Group is headed by Alberta Sen. Elaine McCoy. Currently, there are seven vacant Senate seats.

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Once a bill is passed in the House and is sent over to the Senate, the government relies on an individual Senator to sponsor a bill, or quarterback it through the Upper Chamber. But ever since Mr. Trudeau booted out the Liberal Senators from the national Liberal caucus in 2014, the government can’t rely on Liberal Senators and the game in the Upper Chamber has changed.

Sen. Harder, who Prime Minister Trudeau appointed as the government’s lead in the Senate in 2016, is one of the seven Independents. He declined an interview request for this story. Senators interviewed said they did not know the specific agenda of the dinner meeting other than to discuss their experiences and views on advancing government legislation in the Senate.

“I have sponsored government bills,” British Columbia Ind. Sen. Larry Campbell, who used to sit as a Liberal Senator and who has sponsored C-7 and C-224 bills and will attend the dinner, told The Hill Times. “I think it has to do with that process. All I know is that we’ve been invited to have dinner.”

Nova Scotia Liberal Sen. Jane Cordy also confirmed to The Hill Times that she would attend the dinner, but did not know anything about the specific agenda. Sen. Cordy is planning on sponsoring a government bill in the coming weeks.

“My guess is that it would just be a thank you for taking the time to help get legislation through the Senate,” said Sen. Cordy, deputy chair of the powerful Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration committee, in an interview last week.

“He’s recognizing the importance of keeping Senators within the loop of legislation, that legislation has to pass both bodies, the House of Commons and the Senate. It’s important that as the leader of the government in the other place that he keeps Senators in the loop as to what’s going on and the importance of certain legislation.”

Both Senators said this will be the first time they will be meeting with Mr. Trudeau since he formed government in 2015.

In an emailed response about the dinner, the Prime Minister’s Office said:

“The prime minister, like all ministers in this government, has contact with a number of members of the Senate to discuss and further our dialogue on different government initiatives,” Cameron Ahmad, press secretary to Mr. Trudeau told The Hill Times.

Mr. Trudeau unceremoniously booted out all Liberal Senators from the national Liberal caucus at the height of the Senate expenses scandal. Liberal Senators were unhappy with the decision because a number of them were veteran Liberal Party stalwarts and strategists and were members of the party for decades. What upset them more was that Mr. Trudeau, who was then leader of the third place party, expelled them from the caucus without any consultation or advance notice. Since then, the Liberal Senators do not have any role in party strategy, election planning, or fundraising.

At the time, Mr. Trudeau said he undertook the initiative in an effort to put distance between the party and the Upper Chamber and to make the Red Chamber a non-partisan legislative body. He appointed new Senators only on a new system he created, under the non-binding recommendations of an Independent Senate Advisory Board.

In addition to Sen. Harder, Quebec Sen. Diane Bellemare is the deputy government representative and Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell is the government whip. All three represent the government, but call themselves Independent Senators.

Ind. Sen. Peter Harder is the Government Senate representative. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright.

In an interview with The Hill Times last month, Sen. Harder accused the Conservatives in the House and the Senate of employing coordinated delay tactics to obstruct the government legislation.

“Approaches being taken in the Senate reflect the approaches being taken in the other place,” Sen. Harder said.

Prior to the interview, he wrote a 21-page paper entitled “Sober Second Thinking: How the Senate Deliberates and Decides,” in which he put forward the idea of a Senate “business committee” to avoid the current situation in which, he said, the opposition was stalling the government legislation.

A Senator who has not been invited to this week’s dinner and spoke to The Hill Times on not-for-attribution basis in order to be candid said that the “charm offensive” by the government is aimed at building alliances in the Senate where the government is concerned about the slow pace of the legislative progress. This Senator said this is the first time Mr. Trudeau is meeting with Senators offiically since winning the election about 19 months ago. The Senator said Mr. Trudeau is reaching out to Senators because the government needs more support to get its legislation passed.

“They’re concerned about too many amendments and they’re concerned about their legislation actually getting through the Senate,” said the Senator. “The Prime Minister’s Office has started a charm offensive with those who sponsored any government legislation and are being invited to the event with the prime minister for dinner.”

But Sen. Campbell, a former RCMP officer and the former mayor of British Columbia, said he doesn’t find anything unusual with this dinner, saying the prime minister doesn’t have any timetable to follow to meet with Senators. He also said he is interested to hear what the prime minister has to say at the dinner.

“Is there some timetable that’s set out there, ‘Oh, within two years, you have to do this, you have to do that,’ ” said Sen. Campbell.

“I don’t see anything nefarious here. I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say, I’ll be interested to hear what other Senators that have sponsored bills have to say.”

Ind. Sen. Larry Campbell, right, pictured with former Liberal Sen. David Smith, will have dinner with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week.

He said it’s the prime minister’s prerogative to decide who he wants to meet and he disagreed that Mr. Trudeau should have met with all Senators, rather than a select group of Senators.

“The prime minister is within his right to say, ‘Let’s get together and [discuss] what went right with sponsoring a bill, what went wrong, how is it perceived,’” Sen. Campbell said. “This idea that everyone has to show up is, I’m speechless. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Ontario Ind. Sen. Ratna Omidvar said she would attend the dinner with Mr. Trudeau whom she’d be meeting for the first time since she was appointed to the Senate in 2016. She said in any place of work, relationship building is important and the dinner meeting with the prime minister would be very helpful to both sides.

“Relationship matters. In anything you do especially here, relationships matter,” said Sen. Omidvar. “Whether it’s going to be a charm offensive or not, I don’t know. I do know that we will hopefully want to discuss ways that we are improving legislation as is our responsibility, and have some discussion about how we work in the future.”

Sen. Omidvar said she hoped that in the future, Mr. Trudeau would meet with all Senators and perhaps consider attending the Senate’s Question Period or give a speech in the Red Chamber.

“He should be talking to all Senators as he does through his representative in the Senate,” Sen. Omidvar said. “Sen. Harder does speak for the government. We would be delighted if he [Mr. Trudeau] came to the Senate and spoke to all of us. [It could be] in Question Period or a special session would be fantastic.”

Nova Scotia Conservative Sen. Stephen Greene confirmed that he also received an invitation for the dinner and would be attending.

“Yes, I am going,” said Sen. Greene, who sponsored bill S-4 in the Senate, in an email response. “I would go to dinner with any Prime Minister who invited me.”

Quebec Ind. Sen. André Pratte and Ont. Ind. Sen. Howard Wetston also confirmed to The Hill Times that they would be going to the dinner.

Quebec Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said it’s not new for a prime minister to meet with his supporters in Parliament. He said it’s important that a sitting prime minister has close contacts with Parliamentarians in both the House and the Senate.

“It’s only normal that a prime minister is in contact with the Senators he named and those that are supporters of his government,” said Sen. Housakos. “It’s not uncharacteristic in Parliament to want to congregate more often with your own and those that support his Liberal causes and his Liberal agenda.”

He rejected Sen. Harder’s criticism of Conservatives on obstructing the government legislation.

“When Trudeau Senators do it, it’s independence. When Conservatives do it, it’s partisan and obstructionist,” said Sen. Housakos.

“This government spends too much time on process and make believe reform. They should do what every government before them for the last 150 years has done and use the existing procedural rules to defend and advance government legislation. The government being without a caucus in the Senate is its own choosing and not a problem for the opposition to fix or make up for.”

There are seven government bills in the Senate, including the budget bill.

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