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Trudeau says Senate reform is ‘on the right track,’ blames Conservative Senators for delays

By Rachel Aiello      

The government is 'stymied ... by a block of partisan Conservatives who vote against the government every chance they can': PM.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking with reporters at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 27. Mr. Trudeau took about 20 questions from members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery on a variety of topics, including Senate reform. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Senate reform under his government is “on the right track” and that it’s the Conservatives’ fault for legislative delays happening in the Upper Chamber, bolstering his argument for an even more non-partisan Senate.

Conservative Senators called his comments “misleading.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) held a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. When asked by The Hill Times if he was concerned about the dynamics between the House and Senate headed into the fall sitting and what it could mean for the Liberals’ legislative agenda, Mr. Trudeau said he did not regret the decisions he’s made aimed at making the Senate more independent, and placed the blame for Senate dysfunction squarely on the shoulders of Conservative Senators.

“I think the working of the Senate is actually beginning to be understood by Canadians, but certainly by our government, as being significant steps in the right direction, consistent with what the actual founders and creators of our political institutions envisioned 150 years ago,” said Mr. Trudeau.

“This approach demonstrates less partisanship, more independence of thought. And the fact that we are stymied a bit by a block of partisan Conservatives who vote against the government every chance they can get simply means there is more work to do to create a more independent and thoughtfully reflective Senate. But we are on the right track in having removed the knee-jerk partisanship from what is now the majority of the Senate.”

In 2014 as Liberal leader, Mr. Trudeau removed all Liberal Senators from his caucus. As part of the 2015 election campaign, he promised to foster a non-partisan Senate. Since coming to power, the Liberals have appointed 27 new Independent Senators under a new “merit-based” appointment process. This includes Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), who is the government’s only official representative in the Senate.

With the influx of independents, the Senate has splintered in to various factions of independent caucuses, and as a result has become increasingly unpredictable. The current standings are: 42 Independents or “non-affiliated” Senators, including the 27 Independents appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau; 18 Liberals; and 38 Conservative Senators.

So far this Parliament, the Senate has offered amendments to several government bills, and the House has accepted them in five instances.

The most dramatic a test of wills between the House and Senate over the role the Senate has in amending legislation took place at the end of the spring sitting.

The House, after agreeing to adjourn early, could have been forced to recall the Commons to deal with an amended budget implementation bill. But the Senate backed down at the last minute, agreeing to pull its desired removal of the so-called escalator tax increases on alcoholic beverages, and allowed the bill to pass un-amended, while at the same time re-emphasizing the Senate’s role. The only group that voted against this move were Conservative Senators, who tried to keep the amendment intact.

Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos (Wellington, Que.) told The Hill Times that he thought it was a “misleading answer” from Mr. Trudeau to blame the Tory caucus for troubles in the Senate.

“It’s that block, that [Conservative] caucus group in the Senate, that has been the most flexible when it comes to votes, the most open,” he said. “We have on 25 per cent of occasions voted in favour of government legislation, where his Trudeau, Liberal-appointed Senators, 95 per cent of the time, vote in favour of his agenda and his legislation.

“So, if anything, we’ve proven to be more independent than anybody else,” Sen. Housakos said, citing research from the CBC that found independent Senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau voted with the government 94.5 per cent of the time, Senate Liberals ousted from the national caucus voted with the government 78.5 per cent of the time, the other Independent Senators voted with the government 87.7 per cent of the time, while the Conservative caucus voted against the government 70.5 per cent of the time.

“I think that the prime minister believes that Senators are only ‘independent and thoughtfully reflective’—the wording he used today—if they vote in agreement with his government,” Conservative Sen. Denise Batters (Saskatchewan) told The Hill Times. “I imagine that the prime minister is fairly happy with how it’s gone so far because to have a voting percentage of the people you’ve appointed of 95 per cent. … I have voted something like four times more often with the government than the new Independents have voted against them; I think that says something.”

Sen. Housakos said Mr. Trudeau’s interpretation of what the Senate was created to be was also inaccurate, saying its role is to be the voice of minorities, which in this case includes Conservative voters.

“So those who, for example, in Montreal, that vote Conservative and don’t get an opportunity to elect Conservatives in the House of Commons, they get a voice through their Senators. … That is the role of the Senate,” Sen. Housakos said.

In an emailed statement later Tuesday, Sen. Larry Smith (Saurel, Que.), leader of the opposition in the Senate, said the Conservatives will continue to “defend the rights of hard-working Canadian taxpayers.”

“In 2015, 5.6 million Canadians voted for the Conservative Party and we are the voice of those voters in the Senate. On behalf of all Canadians, Conservative Senators will fulfill their duties diligently and review carefully proposed legislation,” he said.

“Opposition in the Senate might be inconvenient for Senator Harder and the prime minister, but we have a critical role to play in protecting Canadian democracy: to hold the government accountable and to voice minority and regional views not represented in the majority government in the House of Commons,” Sen. Smith said.

In his opening remarks reflecting on the spring sitting, Mr. Trudeau highlighted some of the legislation his government introduced, including that related to marijuana legalization, national security, oil-tanker transportation, and safe injection sites. He also referenced his government’s introduction of a feminist international assistance policy, work on renewing its nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous communities, and highlighted the lowered unemployment rate, which was at 6.6 per cent in May, and the creation of more than 300,000 jobs in the last year.

“We know there is more hard work in front of us than there is behind us. That’s why I know I speak for all of caucus when I say we’re excited to get back to our ridings for the summer,” said Mr. Trudeau. “We’ve been successful so far because we took the time to listen to people, whether in town halls across the country, at legion suppers, or on the doorsteps. So we’re going to keep doing what we do best, listening and engaging, and in a few short months we’ll be bringing back the concerns of our ridings to Ottawa for what promises to be a very busy fall session.”

Mr. Trudeau took questions for almost 40 minutes, including inquires on growth in the Canadian economy, the ongoing First Nations’ fight for access to basic services, when the budget will be balanced, his broken promise on electoral reform, his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, the upcoming NAFTA renegotiations, the U.S. ban on travel from several Muslim countries, and increasing hate crime rates in Canada.

Mr. Trudeau also took his time in front of the press to thank journalists for their work over the spring sitting.

“The back and forth between the press and government is essential to any good democracy. When you’re at your best it reminds us and challenges us to be at ours,” said Mr. Trudeau.

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