New Senate group forms to push regional interests in a fractured Parliament

OTTAWA — Canada’s Senate took another step Monday in its evolution toward a less partisan chamber of sober second thought as 11 senators banded together to form a new independent caucus aimed at ensuring regional issues get their due in the upper chamber.

The newly christened Canadian Senators Group is the brainchild of Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas, who founded the caucus to make sure the will of the majority in the Senate does not always trump regional interests.

Until now, Tannas had been a member of the Conservative Senate caucus, the last remaining, unabashedly partisan group in the upper house.

Ideologically, Tannas said the new caucus is “centrist” but the majority of its members have prior links to the Conservatives.

In addition to Tannas, one other senator, Ontario’s Vern White, came straight from the Conservative Senate caucus. Four others — Albertan Doug Black, Nova Scotian Stephen Greene, Quebecer Josee Verner, and Saskatchewan’s Pamela Wallin — came from the Independent Senators Group (ISG) but had previously belonged to the Conservative caucus. One other, Albertan Elaine McCoy, had been a Progressive Conservative senator.

The ranks of the new caucus also include one former Liberal senator, Larry Campbell from British Columbia, and three Independent or unaffiliated senators — Ontario’s Robert Black, New Brunswick’s David Richards and Prince Edward Island’s Diane Griffin — appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has named only non-partisan senators recommended by an arm’s-length advisory body since becoming prime minister four years ago.

Tannas said the new group is united not around partisanship or ideology but around just one tenet: that senators should protect and defend the interests of the regions they were appointed to represent.

Regional representation is a growing concern on Parliament Hill after last month’s federal election sent Trudeau’s Liberals back to Ottawa with a minority government but without a single seat in either Alberta or Saskatchewan. The new Senate caucus arose out of those concerns, combined with the realization that the upper house is going to become increasingly independent as Trudeau makes more non-partisan appointments for up to another four years.

“The reality is that we’re at a tipping point. There’s a majority of senators now have been appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau,” Tannas said in an interview.

“I think that a number of us, with the re-election (of Trudeau), say a lot of this (independent) behaviour now is going to become permanent. So how do we influence what should be the tenets of Senate reform in the Senate of the future?”

In his own case, Tannas argued passionately last spring against bills instituting a new environmental assessment regime and banning oil tanker traffic off B.C.’s northern coast. But he said he wonders now if he might have had more influence in those debates if he’d been an independent senator speaking for his region, rather than being perceived as a Conservative senator just echoing the party line.

“The fact of the matter is, when certain people from certain groups stand up and talk in the Senate, as it sat last spring, there were many sets of ears that shut off,” he said.

Other senators are welcome to join the new caucus — but only up to a point. Membership will be capped at 25, to avoid becoming too large and powerful and prone to “group think.” The larger a group becomes, Tannas said, the harder it is to maintain true independence of its members.

“The Senate is supposed to be about protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority and so we don’t want to be the majority of anything,” he said, adding that he hopes the new caucus will be “a bit of a counterweight” to the ISG.

With the formation of the new caucus, the ISG’s membership now stands at 49, short of a majority in the 105-seat chamber. There are 26 Conservative senators, nine Liberal independents, six non-affiliated senators and four vacancies.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, leader of the ISG, welcomed the addition of another non-partisan Senate group and the fact that some Conservative senators “have taken off the partisan lens.”

“The creation of this group in no way undermines the independence project in the Senate and in many senses, it advances that project,” Woo said in an interview.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2019.

Joan Bryden , The Canadian Press

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