'We are members of the Liberal Party,' Sen. Cowan says
Published Wednesday, January 29, 2014 9:27AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 29, 2014 11:17PM EST
Despite the fact that they were ousted by Justin Trudeau, Liberal senators declared Wednesday afternoon that they will continue to refer to themselves as “the Liberal Senate caucus.”
In a surprise move, Trudeau announced Wednesday that all 32 Liberal members of the upper chamber will henceforth be known as “formerly Liberal senators.” Trudeau said the move is designed to reduce partisanship in the Senate and restore some semblance of independence to the upper chamber.
“The 32 formerly Liberal senators are now independent of the national Liberal caucus,” Trudeau told reporters on Parliament Hill. “They are no longer part of our parliamentary team. There are no more Liberal senators.”
The senators were informed of Trudeau’s decision at the beginning of Wednesday’s caucus meeting. Afterward, James Cowan said he will continue to serve as the Senate Opposition Leader.
“We are members of the Liberal party, and we intend to remain so,” Cowan later told CTV’s Power Play. “We intend to remain active in the Liberal Party and we hope to see Mr. Trudeau elected as prime minister, and we’ll do everything we can to do that. But what we are is we are no longer members of the parliamentary caucus.”
Cowan added that the former Liberal senators “respect” Trudeau’s decision, which he said “will give us a certain independence and I think it will be good for the Senate.”
When Trudeau later asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper in question period whether he, too, will only allow elected Members of Parliament to sit in the Conservative caucus, Harper replied by making a joke.
“I gather the change announced by the leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal,” Harper said.
“I’m not a former Liberal. I’m a Liberal and I’m a Liberal senator,’” Harper went on, quoting Cowan’s statement to reporters. “He also said, ‘I suspect that not a great deal will change.’ That has to be the understatement of the year.”
The Senate’s future has been a hot topic for discussion on Parliament Hill since a handful of senators were found to have filed thousands of dollars’ worth of ineligible expenses. Mac Harb retired last year, while Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau were suspended pending the outcome of an RCMP investigation.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson is probing all senators’ expenses, and a media report earlier this week suggested he will soon release an interim report.
Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau of trying to “distance himself” from the coming report.
“It does seem like he’s trying to create a smokescreen through today’s publicity stunt,” Poilievre told Power Play. “But it doesn’t represent any kind of change to the way the Senate works.”
Trudeau denied that his decision had anything to do with the auditor general’s probe, telling reporters Wednesday morning that, “the Senate is broken and needs to be fixed.”
"If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government," Trudeau said.
"The party structure in the Senate interferes with this responsibility. Taken together with patronage (appointments), partisanship within the Senate is a powerful, negative force. It reinforces the prime minister's power instead of checking it."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also wondered at the motivation behind Trudeau’s decision, saying the Liberal leader voted against an NDP motion last fall that called for both the Liberals and the Conservatives to turf their senators from caucus.
“All of a sudden what was impossible on Oct. 23 becomes possible,” Mulcair told reporters in Ottawa. “So the question becomes, why the sudden about-face?”
Mulcair used Trudeau’s news to reaffirm his own party’s desire to abolish the Senate.
"Obviously it's a step in the right direction, but why stop there?” Mulcair said. “Why stop at 32? We want to get rid of the Senate altogether."
Among Trudeau’s proposals is that a selection committee choose senators-- a suggestion Poilievre said “is a step in the wrong direction.”
“Not only would senators be unelected, but the people who choose them would also be unelected,” Poilievre said. “So we would be two steps from democracy rather than just one.”
The federal government has referred the matter of Senate reform to the Supreme Court of Canada.
To a question of why the Conservatives have been slow to move on the issue, Poilievre replied that, “we have a Constitution and the Government of Canada cannot unilaterally act without some guidance from the Court about how that Constitution applies.
“So we’re hoping the court finds that the prime minister’s proposed reforms to bring an elected principle into the upper chamber do fit within the confines of the existing constitutional arrangement, and if it does, then we’ll move ahead with it.”
Meanwhile, of the senators’ change in status, Cowan said it’s “too early” to say exactly how it will work.
“A lot will depend on whether Mr. Harper grants the same independence to Conservative senators. And if he doesn’t do that, not much will change. But if he does, then I think there’s a chance that the Senate can fulfill that independent chamber of sober second thought that people expect that it will.”