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Change is going to come: Independent Senators Group wants 40 per cent of Senate committee chair, vice-chair positions by fall

By Abbas Rana      

Independent Senators Group currently holds no committee chair position and only one vice-chair spot.

Leader of Independent Senators Group Sen. Elaine McCoy, right, pictured with Ontario Ind. Sen. Tony Dean, expects that her caucus will receive 40 per cent Senate committee chair and vice-chair positions in the fall. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The 35-member Independent Senators Group, the second largest Senate caucus that holds no chair positions in the Senate’s 18 committees, is expecting to receive 40 per cent of the chair and vice-chair positions by this fall.

In an interview with The Hill Times, Alberta Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy said the leadership of all Senate caucuses will decide committee chair and vice-chair positions based on the principle of proportionality in terms of how many members each Senate caucus has.

“We’re going to be very much sticking to principles, and the principle that the Senate has always followed,” said Ind. Sen. Elaine McCoy, whose official title is the facilitator of the Independent Senators Group and is, effectively, the caucus leader. “There is always a lag, of course, and the Senate and every other legislature that I know of in the parliamentary system have always dealt with these things on the basis of proportionality.”

The Independent Senators Group is expecting to receive more committee chair and vice-chair positions this fall if, as rumoured, Parliament is prorogued, prior to the start of the fall session. If that does not happen, the Independents will have to wait until Oct. 31.

In the 105-member Senate, there are 38 Conservatives, 18 Liberals, six Independents, 35 Independent Senators who have formed an Independent Senators Group, and one Independent Reform Senator.

Seven seats—one each from Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan, and two each from Nova Scotia and Ontario—are vacant.

The Conservatives make up about 38 per cent of the current 98 Senators, the Independent Senators Group are about 35 per cent, and the Liberals are about 20 per cent.

Two Conservative and two Liberal Senators are retiring this year. The four Senators who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 before the end of this year include Ontario Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman, who is retiring in August; P.E.I. Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Hubley in September; Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Sen. George Baker in September; and Nova Scotia Conservative Sen. Kelvin Ogilvie in November. The number of vacant seats could go even higher if any Senator chooses to retire early.

If no one decided to retire early, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) will appoint 11 new Senators to the Red Chamber, likely this year. If they all joined the Independent Senators Group, it would become the largest caucus in the Upper Chamber. However, new Senators could choose to join other caucuses or remain on their own.

Alberta Ind. Senator Doug Black told The Hill Times last month that he expects “like-minded” Senators to form caucuses in the coming months.

Senate caucuses have historically been formed along party lines. In the past, the Senate only recognized caucuses representing political parties registered under the Canada Elections Act. But, according to recent changes in the Senate rules, the minimum number required to form a Senate caucus is now nine.

Of the 18 Senate committees, Conservative Senators are chairs of 13 and vice-chairs of five. Liberal Senators are chairs of five and vice-chairs of 12 committees. Only one member of the Independent Senators Group, Sen. Anne Cools (Toronto Centre-York, Ont.), holds a vice-chair position of a Senate committee. Sen. Cools is the vice-chair of the National Finance Committee, which is chaired by New Brunswick Conservative Sen. Percy Mockler. Historically, opposition parties chair the National Finance Committee. So, Liberals could have appointed one of their Senators as the vice-chair of this committee, but instead they gave this spot to the Independent Senators Group.

Mr. Trudeau booted the Liberal Senators from the national Liberal caucus in early 2014 and declared that there’re no more Liberal Senators. The Senate Liberals call themselves Independent Liberals, but on the Senate website are listed as Liberal Senators. Liberal Senators do not officially have any role in the federal Liberal Party politics. Prior to their ejection from the national caucus, they helped out the party in raising funds, party organization, election campaign strategy, and provided advice to party leaders on national and party political and policy issues.

Sen. McCoy said the reason Independent Senators do not hold any chair positions in committees, currently, is because of agreement made last December between Independent Senators, Conservatives, and Liberals. It specified that Independent Senators would get committee seats proportionate to their numbers, but chair or vice-chair positions were not part of the deal. That agreement is applicable until Oct. 31 this year, or when the Parliament is prorogued, if it is—whichever comes first.

Currently, Conservatives hold committee chairs of about 70 per cent of committees and Liberals about 30 per cent. As for vice-chairs, Liberals hold about 65 per cent of committees, the Conservatives 30 per cent, and Independents about five per cent.

Sen. McCoy said the leadership of all caucuses represented in the Senate have not started any negotiation yet, but they will in the coming months. If the Trudeau government decides not to prorogue Parliament, then the negotiations will start in late summer or early fall, she said.

Political insiders and some Parliamentarians have been speculating about the possibility of prorogation for weeks, but officially the Trudeau government has not indicated if it will proceed with this possibility.

“I haven’t heard anything [about prorogation],” Chief House Government Whip Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) said in an interview with The Hill Times.

The Independent Senators Group’s hopes of receiving 40 per cent of chair and vice-chair positions could be dashed if the Conservatives and Liberals struck a deal and decided to keep their hold on committees. But, Sen. McCoy said, her caucus could also make deals with other caucuses, or could come up with a compromise acceptable to all.

“That’s the art of negotiation,” said Sen. McCoy. “That’s the art of conversation. … Maybe the Conservatives and the ISG will gang up on the Liberals. Maybe we will sit down and we will try to find something that’s equitable for everyone.”

Sen. McCoy said that even if the Independent Senators Group received 40 per cent of committee chair and vice-chair positions, that would reduce the control of Conservative Senators, but it will “not be the end of their influence.”

“They’d still have very strong influence,” said Sen. McCoy, who was first appointed to the Senate in 2005 as a Progressive Conservative by then-prime minister Paul Martin. “I for one am entirely happy with that. I keep saying they’re making a valuable contribution to the Senate of Canada.”

Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett, right, pictured with former interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose. The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster.

Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett (Landmark, Man.) told The Hill Times that all Senate committees will be reconstituted in the case of prorogation, or after Oct. 31 when the current agreement expires. He declined, however, to get into specifics as to how many chair and vice-chair positions each caucus will receive, describing those as hypothetical questions.

“If we have prorogation, then the three groups will get together and reconstitute committees,” said Sen. Plett. “There will be negotiations as to who gets what chairs and what deputy chair positions. So, I would expect that in all likelihood they would get some. But I cannot say that until we start those negotiations.”

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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