Regrouping in the Senate of Canada

Article 1 / 9 , Vol. 44, No. 3 (Fall)

Regrouping in the Senate of Canada

Scott Tannas was the person elected during Alberta’s 2012 Senate nominee elections. He was appointed to the Upper Chamber as a member of the Conservative Party of Canada by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013. On November 4, 2019, he joined the Canadian Senators Group and has served as its interim leader since that time.

Following the introduction of a new application process for the Senate which introduced a large number of non-partisan appointees to the Red Chamber, a group of Independent Senators formed a caucus called the Independent Senators Group (ISG) in 2016. Later joined by Senators who had previously been a part of either the Liberal or Conservative caucuses, the ISG soon grew so large that other caucuses of independent Senators formed, including the Canadian Senators Group (CSG) and Progressive Senate Group (PSG). In this article, the author explains how this process unfolded and why he believes the new independent caucuses in the upper chamber are fundamental for the Senate to exercise unwhipped, unvarnished, and unimpeded sober second thought.

One of the oldest conventions of politics is being transformed in the Senate of Canada, and it’s unfolding smoothly enough that few may have taken notice. Parliamentary caucuses aligned with political parties have long been an organizing basis of most legislatures, but new independent groups in Canada’s upper chamber are shaking up that practice. As there are few analogous legislative bodies in the world that have multiple independent groups, the example of the Senate of Canada is one worth examining.

Many senators, including myself, have embraced the idea of working in independent groups, which is changing the landscape of Canadian parliament. At a time when politics seems more divisive than ever, the emergence of independent groups in the Senate signals a constructive antidote to increasing political polarization. As the leader of one of the Senate’s independent groups, I want to explain the thinking behind recent changes in the Senate’s composition and functions, and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

The Caucus Tradition in the Senate
For most of the Senate’s history, only two caucuses – Liberal and Conservative – existed, each trading places as government or opposition depending on the outcome of elections. Parliamentary caucuses have always been distinct organisms in the Senate. Since the beginning of the Senate’s history, many senators have been wary of being loyal party soldiers. Although a lot of fuss has been made about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to appoint independent senators, the truth is that senators have always been independent after they are summoned to the upper chamber. How they have chosen to associate themselves with other senators has varied a great deal. It wasn’t until the Second World War that senators routinely sat with members of the House of Commons in national caucus meetings. The Rules of the Senate were overhauled in 1991 to divide the chamber more clearly between government and opposition sides. The definition of “recognized parties” was not spelled out in the Senate’s rules until 2002, underpinning the assumption that senators would inevitably sit as either Liberal or Conservative, depending on which party was in power. Certain attempts to form caucuses outside of those two parties ultimately failed, most notably the formation of the 13-member “Dandurand Group” in 1981, which fizzled out within a few years in large part because they lacked formal recognition in the chamber.

The duopoly of Conservative and Liberal political caucuses was broken in January 2014, when Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau expelled all 32 Liberal senators from the caucus. After forming government in 2015, Trudeau implemented a new appointment model that saw Canadians apply to sit in the upper chamber. That change was seismic in the Senate, where newly-appointed independent senators did not have an obvious group to join in order to organize everything from committee seat selection to office allocations. The influx of new independent senators led to the creation of the Independent Senators Group in 2016, which started to swell as new senators were appointed and as some other senators chose to leave political caucuses to sit as independents.

It was initially unclear how independent senators would be organized in a chamber that had long been organized along the lines of political caucuses. During the Senate Special Committee on Senate Modernization in the 42nd Parliament, some senators and expert witnesses worried about the possibility of a bunch of “loose fish” senators wreaking havoc, or of one mega caucus of independent senators dramatically skewing the balance of power in the chamber. What has materialized instead is the formation of other new caucuses of independent senators; in November 2019, the Canadian Senators Group (CSG) and the
Progressive Senate Group (PSG) formed, creating a multipolar chamber where no one group holds a majority. In addition to the three groups of independents, there is the Conservative Official Opposition and the three-member Government Representative Office.

Forming the Canadian Senators Group
By the end of the 42nd Parliament in 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau had appointed 50 senators – nearly half of the seats in the chamber – using the new independent appointments process. As new independent senators continued be appointed to the Senate, it became unwieldy to have only one disproportionately large group for them to join. Together with 10 of my colleagues, in November 2019 we created a second independent parliamentary group. We gave it the simple, if not banal, name of Canadian Senators Group. It was a challenge to find a name that identified us as independents without implying any political cohesion. In reality, we are a motley crew of political views, with members who were nominated to the Senate by Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau. What brought us together was a strong desire to focus on high-quality legislative research that emphasizes the Senate’s duty to represent all of Canada’s distinct regions.

The primary founding rule of the CSG was to not have too many rules. We didn’t want to have a complex constitution that could diminish our individual autonomy or create an overly-bureaucratized caucus office. Instead, we decided to pool our resources to develop a research bureau as the central nerve of our group. Unlike the partisan research bureaus of the parties in the House of Commons, we wanted our bureau to emphasize deep, substantive research on legislation with a focus on regional issues. It is a small team of researchers who dig into the background of legislation and keep members well-briefed on all the latest reports and studies on and off Parliament Hill.

While the CSG does not have rigid rules, one principle that we hold firm is that we do not debate the substance of legislation or policy matters in our caucus meetings. Members do not pitch their bills or proposed amendments to other members of the group or lobby for their preferred political positions. We believe that those sorts of interactions are best left for the Senate chamber and committee rooms among all senators. There would be no point in having independent groups if those groups become separate, closed-off vessels for legislative debates. Some CSG senators hold memberships in different political parties and some have no political ties at all, but there is no partisan cohesion that holds us together. We decided that our membership will not exceed 25 senators so that we are large enough to influence the chamber’s agenda, yet small enough for all members to have their voice heard. Our goal in capping membership is that no single group will hold a majority of seats in the Senate. Having multiple groups working together to encourage compromise and collaboration is the best way to ensure that the chamber operates with the full consideration of perspectives from all Canadians.

It is true that a group of independents is a bit of an oxymoron. In a legislative body, however, it is often necessary for members to work in groups in order to effectively manage the chamber’s work. It is difficult to be a “lone wolf” independent, which is typically a banishment to backbenches that cuts off a member from discussions and negotiations between groups. The practice of having multiple independent caucuses is therefore a sensible medium between a majoritarian partisan assembly and one that has no formal organization of members.

The creation of multiple new groups was bound to shake up the usual practices of the Senate. Whereas the business of the Senate had long been negotiated among the leadership of the government and opposition sides, now agreement is needed between four parliamentary caucuses. This no doubt makes the job of the Government Representative in the Senate much more challenging, as it has become necessary to reach out to each group’s leader to negotiate everything from a sitting schedule to the pace of legislation. The government’s ability to control the Senate was much easier when it could whip votes and horse-trade with the opposition. Yet, in the face of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent legislation that followed it, various Senate groups demonstrated they can work together to efficiently review legislation.

What Comes Next?
The formation of these new kinds of caucuses in the Senate is an experiment in politics that will continue to evolve over the coming years. Mounting vacancies means that there will be another generational turnover as new senators arrive and shape the institution by choosing how to fit into the multipolar independent Senate. What is clear is that irrespective of the changing political dynamics in the House of Commons, the reality of a more independent Senate is here to stay. There will be no going back to the days of a two-party duopoly in the upper chamber.

While public opinion polls show that Canadians are generally favourable to a less partisan Senate, we need to be realistic about how partisanship functions in the Senate. We are not a debating club that discusses public policy matters for our own edification. We are lawmakers in a legislative chamber that wields considerable constitutional powers. As an assembly of members from all of Canada’s distinct regions, it should be expected that passionate debates and principled opposition will always define our work.

The Senate will inevitably remain a political body, and even if it isn’t composed entirely of political party caucuses, it will always feature partisan debate. We can’t pretend that all senators will act as dispassionate, neutral arbiters on every issue that comes before them. As much as I support Justin Trudeau’s reforms to the appointment process, I think it is a mistake to disqualify experienced Canadians who maintain party memberships. Ideally, a more independent Senate will encompass Canadians of all political stripes, whether they express that through a formal party membership or not. Legislative debate is more productive, and certainly more interesting, when it is molded by diverging points of view. A more independent Senate can and should include some partisanship, but without wire-pulling or political pressure from central party offices. The Senate works best when it is a check on the House of Commons rather than a duplication of it.

The existence of multiple independent groups makes the Senate of Canada rare among legislative bodies across the world. As an appointed chamber designed to be a regional counterbalance to the House of Commons, senators are in a better position to be independent and stand up to majoritarian or populist pressures. For Confederation to work properly, all voices from all regions need to have a voice in the national parliament. That’s why new independent caucuses in the upper chamber, while innovative in traditional politics, are fundamental for the Senate to exercise unwhipped, unvarnished, and unimpeded sober second thought.