Sen. Marie Charette-Poulin was appointed to the chamber in 1995 by former Prime Minister Jean Chretien to represent Northern Ontario. She said was in “total” support because the decision reflects the desire of Canadians across the country for change in the Senate.
“Justin Trudeau had a lot of courage to make the announcement he did yesterday,” Charette-Poulin said Thursday, on the phone from Ottawa. “The upper chamber is the house, the chamber, of sober second thought. And if you're going to have sober second thought, you cannot be told by your leader – even if he's prime minister – that this is the way you're going to vote.”
She said when the Liberals were in power, and had a majority in the Senate, they routinely made major changes to legislation before sending it back to the House of Commons. But with the Tory majority in the House and the Senate, Charette-Poulin said bills are being rubber stamped.
“So we have not had any opportunity to make any amendments to any legislation, except one, in six years,” she said. “Can you imagine? ... I'm sorry, but that's not the spirit of the chamber.”
In practical terms, she admits she's not sure what will change in the short-term. They're still Liberals, she said, and they voted as a group to reappoint their leader in the Senate, deputy leader, whip and the chair of the caucus.
“To be honest, I don't know, (but) we've made some short-term decisions immediately, as a team of Liberals,” she said. “We remain members of the Liberal Party of Canada, even though we now have this distance with the national caucus.
“We're setting up working groups because we want to see what the impact will be on the way we work, the way we work in committees, and so on.”
But Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault questions whether Trudeau's announcement Wednesday has any practical meaning. He said Liberal senators are still members of the party, and still get the same pay and perks they did when they were part of the Liberal caucus.
“At first it seem like a pretty bold move, but when you look at it, there's not a heck of a lot there,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is the Liberal senators are now meeting in a different room.”
If Trudeau and the Liberals are sincere, Thibeault wonders why they voted against an NDP Opposition Day motion last October that was almost identical to what the Liberals announced Wednesday.
“It was basically calling for what Trudeau did yesterday,” Thibeault said. “Yet (in October) he was ridiculing it and calling it unconstitutional … What I think you're seeing is an attempt to distance themselves from the Liberal senators days before the auditor general releases his interim report on the Senate.”
In the wake of expense scandals last year involving Progressive Conservative Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, Canada's auditor general Michael Ferguson was asked to audit all Senate spending. The review, to be released sometime this year, is expected to uncover politically embarrassing facts about Tory and Liberal senators.
Rand Dyck, a former Laurentian University professor who now teaches at Carleton University, said there's no political consensus on reforming the Senate, making any constitutional reform next to impossible.
“So if we try to reform it without a constitutional amendment, we are left with half-measures and informal changes -- that's what Trudeau's plan could be called,” Dyck said in an email.
“I think it is in the right direction (reducing partisanship and patronage), and it would be wonderful if he shamed Harper into taking the same action with Conservative senators.”
In particular, he likes the idea of creating an advisory panel to recommend future Senate appointments, something Dyck has called for in his texbooks on Canadian politics. But he questions how quickly Trudeau came out with it as party policy with next to no internal or external debate.
“It was awfully sudden and probably would have benefited from more comprehensive discussion,” he wrote. “As it is, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what label the former Liberal senators will bear and how all this will affect the operation of the senate.”
Thibeault said official NDP policy favours abolishing the chamber, but as Dyck notes, there's no consensus nationally on doing that. That's why the NDP's motion from October sought to end partisanship, as a means to at least improving the way the Senate operates, Thibeault said.
“Maybe 2014 is the year they finally see the light on the Senate, and I'm hoping so,” Thibeault said. “Sober second thought is a good thing. No one is disagreeing with that. But how can it be sober second thought when everyone is party bagmen or party loyalists?”
But Charette-Poulin said there's no link between Trudeau's announcement and the auditor's report. The party has spent months looking for ways to restore the integrity of the Senate following the spending scandals, and this is what Canadians have told them.
“I heard Mr. Trudeau say on the news last night that he has no information about what's in the auditor's report, and that there is no link to the audit,” she said. “And in discussions I've been having with people in Northern Ontario, they have been telling me, 'Senator, we want a more independent body.' And they even use that word, 'independent,' with me.
“You've got to give the voice to Canadians. And it's the only way to be open-minded enough to give a voice to all Canadians.”
Asked whether there are hurt feelings among her colleagues to be expelled from the party's national caucus, Charette-Poulin said she could only speak for herself, and she fully supports the decision.
“There are personal relationships that remain with former parliamentarians, current ones and you don't turf personal relationships,” she said. “The fact that we are not members of the national caucus, well, that was the decision. I did not take it personally.”