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No party politics allowed: ISG lays down the law in new charter

By Charelle Evelyn      

Partisan political involvement is ‘not part of our brand,’ says ISG deputy facilitator Raymonde Saint-Germain after the Red Chamber’s biggest group approved its governing document.

The Independent Senators Group, led by facilitator Yuen Pau Woo and deputy facilitator Raymonde Saint-Germain, pictured in October 2017, unanimously approved its new charter on Oct. 3. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Members of the Senate’s largest group have agreed to stay away from partisanship of any stripe, both inside and outside of the Red Chamber, after approving a new governing document for themselves.

Independent Senators Group members unanimously approved their new charter, which has been in the works for more than a year, on Wednesday morning, enshrining in writing the commonly held principles of a group still navigating and simultaneously creating a new normal in the Upper Chamber.

The new charter “provides clarity on the principles and practices of membership and cohesion on our common objective of a more independent, less partisan Senate,” ISG facilitator Yuen Pau Woo (British Columbia) told The Hill Times in an Oct. 3 interview. Now that they’ve wrapped up work on the 13-page document, this strikes a major administrative task off of the to-do list for him and deputy facilitator Raymonde Saint-Germain (De la Vallière, Que.). This allows them to more fully focus on Senate work “and to do so in a way the charter frames and allows us to operate without any ambiguity on where we stand as independent Senators,” said Sen. Woo.

Part of that understanding is that as a member of the group, which currently totals 47 Senators (of 99), one cannot be active in political activity. This not only means ISG Senators must stay away from partisan caucus meetings on the Hill, but also active campaigning and fundraising.

“For us, this is not compatible with the way we want to act and to behave in the Senate,” said Sen. Saint-Germain. “And at the same time, each and every one Senator has the right to vote the way he or she sees it fits better with their views.”

The provision around political participation was the topic of “extensive discussion,” said Sen. Woo, “but we recognized that different members come from different political backgrounds and may have passive membership in political parties.”

The majority of current ISG members don’t have partisan backgrounds, noted Sen. Saint-Germain, adding that it’s not a negative aspect of those who do, “but it’s not part of our brand.”

As the eligibility criteria for membership in the ISG state, activities members have to avoid include “direct involvement in the activities of a recognized political party currently registered under the Canada Elections Act, including, but not limited to, publicly endorsing a recognized political party or its candidate(s), participating in the internal elections of a recognized political party, or helping to raise funds to support a recognized political party or one of its candidates.”

Senators who are card-carrying members of a recognized political party will be required to disclose that membership to the ISG Secretariat, which will be made public, noted Sen. Woo.

“So we’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “By the same token, we feel there are some red lines around the extent of political involvement that would compromise our brand and our practice as independent Senators.”

New B.C. Senator Beverley Busson, middle, was sworn into the Senate on Sept. 27, accompanied by Senate government representative Peter Harder, left, and Independent Senator Gwen Boniface, right. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Formed in the spring of 2016 with a handful of members, the Independent Senators Group has now grown into something of a behemoth, capitalizing on the Senate reform momentum started when then-third party Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) kicked Liberal Senators out of the party’s national caucus in 2014. Following his party’s election to a majority government in 2015, an independent advisory committee was set up to appoint new Senators through an application and nomination process.

Since becoming prime minister, Mr. Trudeau has appointed 43 Senators, the most recent of which were announced Oct. 3: Peter Boehm (Ontario), Paula Simons (Alberta), and Patti LaBoucane-Benson (Alberta). To date, nearly all of the Trudeau-appointed Senators have joined the ISG.

According to a Hill Times analysis of Senate voting records, the Independent Senators Group members are the most likely to vote in step with unaffiliated Senator Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), who is the government’s representative in the Senate. But that alignment has decreased over the years, from 91.6 per cent by the end of June 2017 to 84.2 per cent by June 2018.

“The most important element of the charter is the affirmation of each Senator’s freedom to vote as he or she sees fit in respect of parliamentary duties,” said Sen. Woo. “And at the same time, to emphasize the importance of sharing expertise, pooling resources, and providing mutual support to each other.”

The Senate Speaker and those in the government representative’s office may not be ISG members.

Finalizing the charter gives group members some certainty in how to handle their expanding number, including formalizing protocols for joining and leaving the ISG.

Senators who have breached either the ISG charter or the Senate’s Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code are “relied upon to voluntarily resign from the ISG,” via written notice to the leadership. Senators can also be suspended from the ISG if they are under investigation by the ethics officer, if they’re charged with a criminal offence, or if they’re found to be in violation of the ISG charter. Closed-door hearings can be called to reconsider a Senator’s membership status, which will be chaired by an ISG Senator designated by the facilitator or deputy facilitator.

Senators can also be expelled from the ISG for breaking the charter, the Senate’s ethics code or if they’ve been “found guilty of a criminal offence in proceedings by indictment” by a 60 per cent majority vote after a hearing.

The charter also notes that its members are expected, though not required, to attend weekly ISG meetings when the Senate is in session, “to discuss important legislation and other issues facing them in the Chamber or in committees, as well as to address any concerns or opportunities within the ISG.”

They may attend another less formal ISG Commons weekly meeting “so that Senators have the opportunity to have in-depth discussions about particular bills or other issues, for which the weekly ISG meeting does not allow.”

The charter is a living document, noted Senators Woo and Saint-Germain, with members able to propose amendments.

“While we’re very happy with this document and so many people worked so hard, we are a group that’s still evolving, we’re still learning about the nature of an independent Senate and this document likely will evolve as well,” said Sen. Woo.


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