As we start to go into our new reality of minority government in Canada, there are many things that many observers need to pay attention to in order to stay on top of things. That’s standard operating procedure in minority governments and has been ever seen Confederation, but this time there is a big difference sitting out there that we have never encountered before. That difference is the new “Independent Senate”, a direction that the Liberals sent us in during the last Parliament.
In the last Parliament we started to get a taste of what can happen with the Red Chamber, tweaked by those changes. We saw a Senate that didn’t operate as it did in the past, for better or worse (and sometimes both at the same time). During this past election the future of the Senate was an open question, because the result of the campaign would have a big effect on it. A Liberal win would ensure this experiment continued while a Conservative win would have meant a return to the old ways, starting to undo what the Liberals had done. So with the Liberals winning a minority in October, the answer to the future of the Senate, or at least the immediate future, was answered. But now that we know that path, we are starting to see other things happen, which is bringing whole new wrinkles into things:
Well, well, well, we have another “official party” in the Senate. With the creation of the “Canadian Senate Group”, we now have another formation of Senators in this independent Senate. For the moment, that makes four “official parties” in the Senate, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. More immediately with the creation of the CSG, we now have another variable in the Red Chamber that could make governing more difficult. While the creation of the CSG is a sign of a further entrenching of the Senate reforms we saw in the last Parliament, it’s also partially a repudiation of those reforms. The majority of the CSG members either joined directly from or were past members of the Conservative caucus, reducing the Conservatives formal representation in the Senate and entrenching these independent reforms. In a sense, the formation of this group is a tacit acceptance of those reforms, giving the impression that they are here to stay.
But while only three of their members were appointed by Mr. Trudeau and his Independent process, their decision to join this new formation seems to be partially based on their concerns with how the new Independent Senate has operated. In that way, it’s a repudiation of what has been done with the Senate so far. Sen. Diane Griffin was quoted stating to the CBC that “the ISG (Independent Senate Group) is a very large group, which can be counter-productive in terms of being nimble”, while Sen. Elaine McCoy stated that “a smaller contingent will allow for more focused discussions on legislative matters.” Sen. McCoy also pointed out that the CSG’s membership will be capped at 25 to “ensure a less cumbersome operation.” Well see if they stick to that provision or if it will be increased over time, but that arbitrary number seems like one that is not going to hold over time.
Given the composition of the CSG, it is a group that seems to be small c-conservative in their political bent and unlike the Independent Senate Group, members of the CSG are not forced to renounce membership in any political party, another repudiation of how reforms had been rolled out. CSG senators will also be “free to take positions and vote on legislation independently of personal political affiliations and each other”, which will make it interesting to see how this group holds together over time.
The immediate effect of the CSG will be in the operation of the Senate itself. They now become the third largest group in the Senate and the fourth official party in the Red Chamber. That will give the group a research budget and staff to support their work. That will also mean that both the Conservatives and ISG will see a reduction in both of those resources. Going forward there is potential for more members of other Senate groups to join the CSG and to further change that balance in the House of Commons.
Another event that could have an effect on the makeup of the Senate will be the impending retirement of Sen. Joseph A. Day, the Leader of the Senate Liberals. When Mr. Day retires, the Liberals will fall to 8 Senators and will lose their official party status, which will mark an historic moment in Canada. At that point, more resources will be available to the other groups in the Senate, but it is also possible that the remaining Liberal Senators will decide to join other groups, further changing their composition. It could make for an interesting time, to see where everyone ends up if they move.
The general election gave us a lot of things to look forward to but with a lot of things to watch out for. The dynamic of this new Senate is a new one for us to deal with, as this is a whole new situation for us to look at. The next six months promises to be a fluid time in the Senate, will go a long way to telling Canadians how this institution will operate going forward and how this minority government will be able to govern.