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New 11-strong group of senators could complicate Liberal efforts to get legislation passed

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OTTAWA — The formation of a new Senate bloc could further complicate efforts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to pass legislation this winter, adding a new layer of unpredictability to the upper chamber.

A group of 11 senators on Monday announced they would be forming the Canadian Senators Group (CSG), part of an effort to ensure that various “regional interests” are properly represented in the Senate.

“Members of the CSG want to see this founding principle maintained and respected so that the will of the majority does not always trump regional interests,” the group said in a press release. “CSG Senators are free to take positions and vote on legislation independently of personal political affiliations and each other.”

It is another step in the evolution of the Senate under Trudeau’s effort to make it a less partisan chamber. Previously, the Senate was divided between a government caucus and an official opposition caucus. Now, with the appointment of independent senators, the Senate is splintering into smaller groups.

The newly-formed CSG includes three senators from Alberta, two from Ontario, and one each from B.C., Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Former Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas, who represents Alberta, will serve as interim leader. Quebec Sen. Josée Verner, also a former Conservative, will be deputy leader. Overall, it is made up of centrist or slightly conservative-leaning senators.

Other Alberta senators joining the group include Elaine McCoy and Doug Black, former members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) who voted against key Liberal legislation last session. Black was among the most outspoken critics of the Trudeau government’s Bill C-69 and C-48, legislation that industry groups claim would critically injure the oil and gas industry. Both C-69, which expanded the environmental review process for major projects, and C-48, which banned oil tankers from docking on the northern coast of B.C., served as a sort of rallying cry in Alberta, where separatist angst has been running high.

“The resentment is deep as a well,” Black said in an interview. He said the group was not started as a result of the recent election, in which Trudeau won a minority government without capturing a single seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan. But he suggested the existence of the CSG will also force the government to consider more points of view.

“Now you’ve got to balance more interests — but I would say that is a great thing because it means more voices will have to be listened to,” he said.

The new caucus means the Senate membership is now split among the Canadian Senators Group (11 members), the Independent Senators Group (49 members), the Conservatives (26 members), the Liberals (nine members), and six non-affiliated senators. However, the Senate Liberals — who were ejected from the larger Liberal caucus by Trudeau in 2014 — will cease to be an official caucus in January, as Sen. Joseph Day must retire when he turns 75. A caucus must be at least nine members to get access to parliamentary budgets for research and administration, among other perks.

Former ISG Sen. Diane Griffin said she joined the CSG to promote a more “centrist viewpoint” in the Senate and to split the power between more independent caucuses. She was invited by Sen. Black around nine days ago to join the CSG.

Canada would be poorly served by diminishing the role of Official Opposition in the Senate Chamber

“This is a way of preparing for the future so we don’t end up with just two groups,” Griffin said.

Sources told the National Post the CSG would likely set a cap of no more than 25 members, providing more influence to individual senators within its caucus. The formation of the CSG also guarantees seats on Senate committees and provides more opportunities to direct questions toward the government representative in the upper chamber.

University of Waterloo Professor Emmett Macfarlane, who advised the government on its changes to the Senate appointment process and has studied how the new Senate has functioned so far, said he sees this new group as a natural progression.

“I think it was inevitable that we would start to see the ISG splinter a bit, because once the Conservative Party continued to dwindle, the independent senators would have to figure out a way to organize that wasn’t just one giant group or caucus,” he said.

Macfarlane said he wouldn’t be surprised to see further splintering, such as a regional caucus or an Indigenous caucus — and perhaps a situation where senators belong to more than one caucus. “I suspect what we’ll see is an evolution towards multi-membership in different groups, perhaps even on a bill-to-bill basis,” he said. “The Senate will be this dynamic body that will reconfigure itself depending on what is in front of it.”

He said the emergence of smaller groups likely means legislation proceeds more slowly through the chamber, at least for now. “But that might also go hand-in-hand with the Senate taking its function a lot more seriously than it used to,” he added.

A statement from outgoing Senate Conservative Leader Larry Smith — the Conservatives will elect a new Senate leader on Tuesday — sounded a warning over the move away from government and opposition caucuses.

“The role of Official Opposition is an honourable one, and an institution that has and will serve the country well in the months and years to come,” Smith said. “Canada would be poorly served by diminishing the role of Official Opposition in the Senate Chamber.”

Other senators within the CSG include Robert Black (Ontario), Stephen Greene (Nova Scotia), David Richards (New Brunswick), Pamela Wallin (Saskatchewan), and Vernon White (Ontario).

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Western alienation goes to Ottawa as Andrew Scheer and Scott Moe meet with Trudeau

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a firsthand blast of Western angst on Tuesday as he heard the complaints of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in separate private meetings.

With the Liberals planning to unveil a Throne Speech on Dec. 5, Trudeau will be meeting with opposition parties this week to look for common ground that will help keep his minority government propped up. The House is expected to sit for about seven days to take care of some routine business and introduce a middle-class tax cut, before breaking for the holidays.

For his meeting, Moe said he arrived in Ottawa in good faith to hear how Trudeau planned to make good on a promise he made on election night: that he understood and would address the frustrations of voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan who elected not a single Liberal MP between them on Oct. 21.

“I can tell you this, I did not hear that there was going to be anything different. I heard more of the same,” a disgruntled Moe told reporters after the meeting.

Moe brought the carbon tax to the top of the agenda as he met with Trudeau. Saskatchewan has been pursuing a legal case against the federal policy, arguing that it infringes on provincial jurisdiction.

Moe was also vocal about the carbon tax in his media availability after the meeting with Trudeau, saying he had asked Trudeau to “pause” the tax, which the prime minister rebuffed.

“We don’t see a commitment with respect to moving forward and putting a pause on the federally imposed carbon tax on industries in the provinces,” said Moe. “We have had a very trying harvest in Saskatchewan… there are some farmers that will have some very large carbon tax bills that are coming on the grain-drying costs.”

Moe also complained about the equalization program, saying it was unfair to provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. His neighbour to the west, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, has threatened to hold a provincial referendum that would force a negotiation on the federal equalization program if the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion isn’t built.

Moe said the issue of “getting our goods to market,” was the third item he raised with Trudeau.


Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 12, 2019.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The meeting with Scheer began with an awkward handshake and photo opportunity as the two men transition from a fractious election campaign last month to the forced collegiality of a minority Parliament. As the cameras rolled, the two men stood about two feet apart with tight smiles, before shooing the media out of the meeting room.

Scheer and Trudeau spoke about their mutual desire for a middle-class tax cut, the ratification of the USMCA trade deal with the United States and the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a senior Liberal adviser said. Scheer told Trudeau that Canadians don’t trust that he’ll build the pipeline, with Trudeau responding that the sole reason the government bought the pipeline was to get it built.

“You could help us,” Trudeau told Scheer.

Trudeau and Scheer also found common ground on a home renovation tax credit.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Scheer said he was happy to lay out his priorities but emphasized that it was the prime minister’s job to get his Throne Speech passed in the House.

“It’s not up to us to support this government,” said Scheer, in French. “The responsibility lies with Mr. Trudeau when it comes to finding common ground.”

Andrew Scheer with Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 12, 2019.

Patrick Doyle/Reuters

The Conservative leader did lay out some more areas where he thinks the Liberal priorities overlap with his own. Both parties promised hefty middle-class tax cuts during the campaign, which cost roughly the same amount, although they would be implemented in different ways and have slightly different outcomes. The Liberal tax plan was slightly more generous to taxpayers at the lower end of the income scale and would take about 700,000 people off the federal income tax rolls completely.

Scheer also mentioned plans for subway line expansions in Toronto and tax-free benefits for parental leave as areas where the Liberal policy could be appealing to the Conservative Party.

One area where the Liberal government and the Conservative opposition are sure to disagree is over previously-passed legislation that affects the energy sector. Scheer said he wants Trudeau to repeal Bill C-69, the legislation that overhauls the review process for major energy projects, and Bill C-48, which imposes an oil tanker moratorium off the north of B.C.’s coast. Both bills have attracted widespread opposition in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“I specifically mentioned that those two pieces of legislation were aimed, if you take him at his word, at instilling confidence in the energy sector,” said Scheer. “We can see with the billions of dollars leaving Canada to build energy projects in other countries that those two pieces of legislation have not had the desired impact. They are certainly leading to the uncertainty and the lack of confidence in the energy sector.”

Scheer’s other demands included a task force on a proposed cross-Canada energy corridor, stronger penalties for ethics violations and a single tax return for Quebecers, which were all highly-publicized Conservative campaign promises. Notably, the Conservative demands did not include any mention of the carbon tax, which Scheer had said during the campaign he would repeal if his party formed government.

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Premier Scott Moe says he is ‘disappointed’ after meeting with Trudeau

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OTTAWA—Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe left Ottawa empty-handed Tuesday after his first meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the October federal election.

Moe, one of the loudest voices of Western provinces’ frustration with Trudeau’s Liberals, wanted changes to the federal equalization system, a one-year reprieve for his province from the federal carbon tax, and a commitment from the prime minister to help boost Saskatchewan’s exports.

The Saskatchewan premier told reporters outside the Prime Minister’s Office he was “disappointed” with the meeting.

“After this meeting here today, what I do see is that we’re going to see more of the same from this prime minister,” Moe said after the meeting with Trudeau.

“We had provided some options for him to support the people of the province and today I did not hear a commitment to moving forward on those items.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Trudeau said the prime minister will continue to have “constructive discussions” with premiers and mayors.

“In addition to ensuring this Parliament works, Canadians expect our government to make life more affordable for them and fight climate change,” Cameron Ahmad said in a statement.

“The prime minister is eager to work together to keep making progress and grow the middle class, and looks forward to meeting with all premiers one-on-one in the near future.”

Moe called for a “new deal with Canada” for his province after the Oct. 21 federal election, which saw Conservative MPs win all 14 of Saskatchewan’s federal ridings.

The premier suggested Tuesday that the Liberals failure to secure a single seat in the province — including losing longtime MP and cabinet minister Ralph Goodale’s Regina riding — was an expression of the anger growing in Saskatchewan and Alberta towards Trudeau and central Canada.

Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have been at the forefront of that anger, with Kenney also demanding equalization reform and the repeal of recent Liberal environmental legislation.

Like Kenney, Moe suggested Wednesday that he will turn his efforts to finding ways to make Saskatchewan more independent from the federal government — although he stopped short of endorsing Western separation rhetoric.

“We are going to start to broaden our ambitions, if you will, with respect to Saskatchewan’s outreach to our trading partners around the world,” Moe said.

“We are also going to look at options that we have to expand our provincial autonomy in the province.”

But a Liberal source with direct knowledge of the meeting between Trudeau and Moe said the prime minister was willing to listen to specific proposals on equalization — provided Moe can receive buy-in from his 12 fellow premiers.

“The prime minister said ‘look, if you have a specific proposal as chair of the Council of the Federation, and you have buy-in from all the provinces on changing the formula that (former prime minister Stephen) Harper and Kenney set … I’m open to hearing proposals and ideas,’” the source, who was granted anonymity to discuss a private meeting, said.

“So he didn’t say that he would refuse to hear ideas, but he made it clear that this is what we’re talking about and we have to stick to the facts and it can’t just be all about rhetoric.”

It’s Moe’s year to chair the Council of the Federation, the annual meeting of provincial and territorial leaders. While the Saskatchewan premier has allies opposing the federal carbon price, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, he may find his proposals on equalization a tougher sell around that table.

In Quebec’s National Assembly Tuesday, Parti Québécois interim leader Pascal Bérubé suggested he would put forward a motion calling on the federal government not to make any changes to the equalization formula without the express approval of the Quebec government.

It’s those kinds of regional tensions that create a political hurdle to tweaking equalization, the federal transfer program aimed at ensuring Canadians have comparable public services whatever province they live in.

“The federal government can change the formula however and whenever they see fit. They’re really just political considerations here,” said University of Calgary economics professor Trevor Tombe in an interview Tuesday.

“Equalization is always an issue that’s raised in different provinces at different points in time. There’s nothing new here … It continues a long-standing tradition in Canada.”

Moe was the third conservative premier to meet with Trudeau after the Liberals were returned to Ottawa with a minority mandate. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King both met with the prime minister last week.

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MacKay will vote for Scheer to stay on as Conservative Leader

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Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay says that when the time comes to vote on Andrew Scheer’s continued leadership of the party, he’s going to back the Conservative Leader.

The comment comes less than two weeks after MacKay told a Wilson Centre think tank panel in Washington that Scheer’s 2019 election loss “was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.”

Now, MacKay – whose name has been floated as a potential challenger to Scheer for the top spot in the party – told CTV Power Play host Don Martin that he supports the current leader and will continue to do so.

“Well Andrew Scheer is going to face a mandatory review, Don, that’s part of the Conservative constitution, so that will be for he and the membership. I’ll be there, and I’ll be voting no,” MacKay told Martin in a pre-taped interview, airing Monday.

MacKay also walked back other comments made during the same panel on Oct. 30. At the time, MacKay said the chatter about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like stinking albatross, quite frankly.”

Speaking to Martin on Monday, MacKay said those comments weren’t directed at Scheer’s position on those issues.

“Those comments, of course, were torqued. It was about the election performance generally, writ large, myself included. It wasn’t aimed directly at Andrew Scheer – and when I said there was an albatross around his neck, he didn’t put it there. It was put there by the media, it was put there by the opposition quite deliberately to hamstring his performance,” said MacKay.

Asked about the lack of clarity surrounding Scheer’s personal beliefs on same-sex marriage, MacKay couldn’t explain why Scheer hasn’t been more clear.

“I think Andrew Scheer, who has very strong beliefs, doesn’t think it’s a sin and I can’t answer why it is he hasn’t been more direct in his answer,” MacKay said.

MacKay went on to defend both Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party’s record when it comes to protecting human rights.

“Andrew Scheer was part of the Conservative government for ten years that not only didn’t remove rights, it enhanced rights. It spoke up for people’s rights on the international stage…there’s a proud legacy that Andrew Scheer is a part of, can take ownership of, and can proudly stand behind and I believe he is doing that. He’s trying to make that case.”

Scheer was criticized during the election campaign for failing to clarify his personal beliefs on issues including same-sex marriage and abortion. Scheer, a social Conservative who has publicly opposed both issues in the past, says he would uphold the law on abortion.

He also said in a pre-campaign speech that if he formed government, he would “support and introduce” legislation that protects LGBTQ Canadians.

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