Liberals Lose Half Their Caucus Under Justin Trudeau’s Leadership

It’s rare that something happens in Ottawa that truly surprises everyone. Despite having spent the last year talking about the senate over and over again, it’s safe to say very few saw this coming:

Trudeau leads on Senate Reform: Liberal Leader takes concrete action to remove partisanship and patronage from the Senate

OTTAWA – The Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, today issued the following statement:

“Canadians expect their leaders to be open and honest with them, and they expect us to come forward with practical solutions that address problems directly. The Senate, through extreme patronage and partisanship, has become an institution that poorly serves the interests of Canadians.

“Paired with patronage, the pervasive issue of partisanship and control in the Senate is a deeply negative force. We need immediate action to address this. That is why, as of today, the National Liberal Caucus will only include elected Members of Parliament, and not Senators. This action will immediately mean that each of the 32 current Liberal Senators will become independent of the Liberal Caucus.

Yes, you read that right. Justin Trudeau just blew up the Senate, in a political masterstroke.

By cutting all ties to the Senate, Trudeau inoculates himself against the Auditor General’s upcoming report on Senate expenses, and leaves Stephen Harper as the last defender of a partisan upper chamber – an awkward position for the man many believed would bring about overdue reform. This gives Trudeau the same footing to criticize the Senate the NDP has enjoyed for years. Perhaps even stronger footing, since Trudeau’s solution of a non-partisan Senate would not require a constitutional amendment, unlike Mulcair’s plans for abolition. Just like that, the NDP has been neutralized on one of its traditional wedge issues.

More important than the issue itself, is what it says about Trudeau. As hot a topic as Senate reform is in political science lectures, few Canadians will base their vote on this issue. What they will base it on is their perceptions of the party leaders, and Trudeau can now use this issue to define himself for voters. It plays to his image as an agent of change who will walk into Ottawa and shake up the way politics is done. Given how disillusioned voters are with the status quo, that’s exactly where you want to be positioned.

Moreover, this move just screams “strong leader”. Already, Liberal press releases are asking why Stephen Harper lacks the strength and judgment to follow Trudeau’s lead, no doubt a dig at the Tory tune comparing Harper’s “strong leadership” to Trudeau’s “lack of judgment”.

Like any bold move, there are risks, but I’d argue those have been overblown. It will rub some party stalwarts the wrong way, but a lot of Senators won’t miss having to shuck tickets for Liberal fundraisers. Yes, there may come a day when Prime Minister Trudeau longs for a rubber stamp Senate. However it seems unlikely the Senate will survive in its current form long enough for Trudeau to ever appoint back a Liberal majority. Having an uncooperative Conservative Senate might actually provide Trudeau with a good foil – remember how Stephen Harper loved to complain about the “unelected Liberal Senate” holding up key pieces of legislation? Those very same talking points are now coming to a Liberal fundraising letter near you!

In the end, what stands out is that this was a case of action. If Trudeau had promised a non-partisan senate, no one would have paid it any attention. Seriously, try to find me 5 people who remember Michael Ignatieff’s very impressive democratic reform platform from the last election. Voters respond to actions rather than promises, and in one morning Trudeau did more to advance the case of Senate reform as the leader of the third party than Stephen Harper has done in 8 years as Prime Minister.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics, Policy

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at and online at the National Post.

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27 Responses to Liberals Lose Half Their Caucus Under Justin Trudeau’s Leadership

  1. Nuna D. Above

    Wow, the upcoming report on Senate expenses must be damning to the Liberals. If Trudeau wants to impress, he could expel the sitting Liberal MPs who defrauded Canadians on their housing expenses from his caucus.

    • Aaron

      Just based on senate numbers alone, there is a much better chance of Con more con senators being implicated of misspending…

  2. Marc from soccer

    I think people have been so conditioned by our politics by announcement culture that they constitute announcements with action.

    Action implies outcomes and the outcome here is … no effective, meaningful change.

    I have no love for an elected senate but can’t disagree with the comment from whatever Harper lap-dog said that the unaccountable senate just got even further from accountable. The Senate remains one third full of patronage appointments rewarded for their pancake flipping for the red team and none of those members are now all of a sudden going to find out that they didn`t really have that much in common with their long-time team mates, or that they`ve actually had a change of political heart after those years of fundraising, or that all of sudden now that the red earmuffs are off Marjory LeBreton actually might have a point. And the tweets from the senators are just inexplicable – are you effectively admitting you were a partisan lapdog for all this time? Wtf were you doing in there for all this time before this?

    Don’t get me wrong – as long as he can avoid becoming Harper’s Stansfield (the zap article in the Post is pretty good) or be Harper’s Turner (try distancing yourself from the liberals in Senate in a debate), then this is a great PR move. It’s effectively changes the channel – it creates a new bogeyman (partisanship! That’s it!) to deflect from the very real problems of the Senate without actually causing the Liberals to lose their influence or role in the Senate. It’s nothing more than that. But that’s all politics is about these days. Announceables.

    • CalgaryGrit

      You’re right that it doesn’t really change anything in the short term, but it certainly creates a lot of momentum for Senate reform, and guarantees there will be change if/when the CPC leaves government.

      As for whether appointing independents would be different from appointing partisans, that’s debatable – I think it would be an improvement…and I suspect this change would come with others attached, such as term limits.

  3. Jesse

    This is also a second act of his success with taking strong action on publicizing expenses, I think.

  4. Luke

    One of my first reactions was also wondering about relationships to the Senate audit.

    Still, cynicism aside I think it’s a good move and shrewd one. I think those criticism Trudeau for being naive about how this will affect his ability to eventually govern may have a point, but they are confusing whether it is a good or right idea with whether it will make a prime minister’s governing convenient.

  5. hosertohoosier

    Is a non-partisan senate actually a good policy? Why isn’t it good for the remaining half of the Liberal caucus?

    • CalgaryGrit

      I can get behind the idea of a non-partisan Senate, in the sense that it brings the institution closer to its role of providing “sober second thought”. There still need to be term limits, and it obviously doesn’t do anything on the regional representation issue, but it’s an interesting direction to take it in.

      So we now have the NDP proposing abolition, the CPC proposing an elected Senate, and the Libs proposing a non-partisan Senate. Three very different, and intriguing ideas.

  6. Bluegreenblogger

    The very first thing I thought of when I saw the headlines was that the Auditor General found some really nasty stuff, and this was a pre-emptive stroke. That may be the case, but I think that this is a good move anyway. It does not change a single thing. There is no real way to whip the senate vote, so even though this makes it easier for Senators to act independantly, I suspect that Liberal Senators will still generally support the Liberal Party (for now). If the Conservatives also dump their Senators, then the Senate will change into something different. Maybe a house of sober second thought. So long as the elected house can still over-ride the Senate, this will be good.
    As far as the short term value, well look at all the headlines, and it has done plenty of good for Trudeau and the Liberals. My real concern would be if and when the Auditor General names names, this may end up looking like a desperate ploy to avoid responsibility. We shall see.

  7. Purple Library Guy

    I’m not quite clear how this is supposed to be a reform. So, instead of the prime minister appointing corrupt party hacks to the Senate and having them be part of the party caucus in the Senate . . . we’ll have the prime minister appoint corrupt party hacks to the Senate but call them independents and have nobody be in any party caucuses, so as long as you’re not the type who uses a scorecard you won’t be disturbed by any appearance of partisanship.

    Sounds real transparent.

    • CalgaryGrit

      The intent is to set up a committee who would appoint non-partisans.

      • Purple Library Guy

        Sorry, sorry. Missed a step. OK, we’ll have the Prime Minister appoint corrupt party hacks to a committee, who in turn will appoint corrupt party hacks to the Senate. OK, so the gravy train is a tiny bit longer that way, but I still don’t see a substantive difference.

        • CalgaryGrit

          I think there would be significant backlash if the process resulted in more partisan hacks in the senate.

          • Purple Library Guy

            That’d be at minimum over a year from now, assuming Trudeau gained a majority in the next election (anyone getting a majority in the next election seems unlikely to me at this point, although things can change fast). The plausible expectation is, nobody will remember any of this by then. Sure, he wouldn’t start with the most obvious ones, but really–why, and how even, would he make the process anything but a fundamentally corrupt one?
            If anything, such a committee would only serve to dilute responsibility and shift blame–“Oh, no, I didn’t appoint my favourite bagman to the Senate! No, no, no, it was the committee that did it, so my hands are tied!”

          • Sean C.

            I really don’t see any reason to doubt the capacity to create an independent appointments committee. The British have something like that for the House of Lords, and Canada itself has been perfectly capable of creating independent appointments processes and agencies in the past.

            Have the members of the committee confirmed by 75% of the House of Commons, or something akin to that.

            The most interesting question would probably be developing the committee’s selection criteria.

  8. Nuna D. Above

    I would hope the Conservatives will now bring in rules that state no independent senator may belong to a political party or may donate to or fundraise for a poltical party.

  9. Vancouverois

    “By cutting all ties to the Senate, Trudeau inoculates himself against the Auditor General’s upcoming report on Senate expenses,”

    No, I don’t think that’s how it works. Not at all.

    Both of the other parties immediately made the connection to the AG’s report, as have many commenters here. If it later turns out that the ‘former’ Liberal Senators have been abusing public funds, this retroactively looks like little more than a slimy attempt to deny any responsibility for past Liberal misdeeds. The party can try to spin it otherwise, but

    “Moreover, this move just screams ‘strong leader’. ”

    It’s dramatic, certainly. But it happened without consulting those directly affected, and apparently without reading the party constitution, which states in article 50 that Senators are part of the Caucus. Is that the kind of ‘strong’ leadership that people are looking for?

    There’s also the question of how much of a change it really represents. The formerly Liberal Senators have already said firmly that they’re still Liberals, and will still have a Liberal caucus in the Senate.

    If JT becomes Prime Minister and goes ahead with his proposed reforms to the selection process, that *may* represent a positive and significant change. But he isn’t PM yet. So what’s really changed?

    I think there are a lot of aspects to this that give Liberal party members reason to be nervous about JT’s leadership.

    • CalgaryGrit

      I don’t get all the hay beaing made about the LPC constitution. The constitution says that Liberal Senators are part of caucus. Trudeau effectively expelled them from the party, so they are no longer Liberal Senators. Obviously enough independent senators or conservative senators aren’t part of Liberal caucus.

      If you argue they’re still part of caucus, then Brazeau, Duffy, and Wallin are still part of Conservative caucus. As is any MP who gets kicked out of a party but decides to call himself an “Independent Liberal”.

      • Luke

        But has the party revoked their membership?

        • Vancouverois

          No, it hasn’t. Both Trudeau and the Senators themselves have been very clear on that point.

          The section 9 on “Expiry of membership” says that other than the current term of membership expiring, membership may be terminated when a member no longer meets the requirements of section 4 (as far as I know, all the Senators do) or when the membership is terminated by the National Board of Directors. NOT by the Leader on his or her own unilateral initiative.

      • Vancouverois

        That’s factually incorrect. Both JT and the Senators themselves have been very clear that they are still members of the Party. Ergo, they are still members of the Caucus as far as that constitution is concerned.

        I agree that how and when Liberal Senators have caucus meetings is up to them to decide. However, this does have implications on who gets to be a delegate, select the next interim leader, and so on. JT cannot strip those powers away by fiat: they remain until such time as the Liberal constitution is amended. He can only ask the Liberal Senators to refrain from exercising those perogatives. And if any Senator decides otherwise, I don’t see what JT can do to stop them.

        I have no idea whether Brazeau et al have been formally expelled from the Conservative party. If not, and if the Conservative party constitution has similar provisions, I’d argue that they’re still fully entitled to exercise them too. If not, they cannot recoup those powers simply by choosing to call themselves Conservatives.

        Politically – it’s hard to characterize this as longtime Liberal party supporters suddenly acting completely independently of the Liberal party. Especially when the Senators have already said that they’re going to form a caucus and coherent Official Opposition within the Senate.

    • Luke

      “If JT becomes Prime Minister and goes ahead with his proposed reforms to the selection process, that *may* represent a positive and significant change. But he isn’t PM yet. So what’s really changed?”

      I think that’s part of what I like, insofar as the strategy goes anyway. Of course not being PM means he has no legislative agenda, but regardless of that he is still showing that he can lead with action and by example within his own party. Harper is always stuck reacting to his former senators’ antics and the steady stream of headlines about his office’s involvement in the apparent cover-up, whereas Trudeau is suddenly actually implementing significant changes and leading by example even though he is not PM. Harper looks ineffectual, and Trudeau looks the opposite, for once.

      The merits of the action are another matter. If there really was no consultation with any of the affected senators and he is revoking their party membership, he might well have made some enemies he didn’t need to have, which could be quite a problem down the line. And whether his proposed reforms are good is also debatable — I personally like them at face value anyway.

      I also don’t think he is really protected from the upcoming audit results. Maybe he’ll be slightly better off, but I’m guessing he’d be similarly tarnished regardless.

      • Vancouverois

        “Trudeau is suddenly actually implementing significant changes and leading by example even though he is not PM.”

        That’s the effect he’s going for, certainly. And both the Conservatives and NDP are arguing the opposite. We’ll see whose spin carries the day…

  10. Vancouverois
  11. Nuna D. Above

    “Trudeau effectively expelled them from the party, so they are no longer Liberal Senators.”

    But they are senators who are Liberals. Or there are some who still are Liberal senators despite what Trudeau says, according to the headlines. Only Trudeau fan-girls are accepting this at face value.
    Maybe it shouldn’t have been a backroom boys plot sprung on the senators.

  12. Paul O

    This doesn’t innoculate Trudeau for any actions, illegal or immoral, which may have been undertaken by Liberal Senators on his watch, or the watch of his predecessors for which he remains answerable.

    But it has two possible futures: one, that what Justin Trudeau said about there no longer being any Liberal Senators is simply not true, and there continue to be Liberal Senators and an Opposition caucus in the Senate. In this case, Justin will have been made out to be incompetent at managing the affairs of his own Party, and a liar about there being no more Liberal Senators.

    Or, these Liberals could be expelled from the Liberal Party (either by forming their own Party, or by fiat of the Liberal Party of Canada). In which case the constitutional requirements of accountability in the Senate will not be met by the Liberals – and should they form government they would be unprepared to meet their Constitutional requirements of accountability in the Senate as a Government. Justin could backtrack and be a liar, or could demonstrate to Canadians his unwillingness to be held to account. He won’t be the first Trudeau to give Canadians “the finger”.

    Either way, Justin is a fool.

  13. Martin Levenson

    Liberal Senators will still be Liberals, they’re not getting thrown out of the Party. They just won’t be members of the Liberal Caucus, which will now consist only of ELECTED members…which will probably make caucus meetings a little easier for Trudeau, as he has little influence in any case over non-elected Senators appointed by previous Liberal leaders. Anyway, the “ex-Liberal” Senators are not prevented from establishing their own caucus if they wish.

    Any reduction in partisanship, in the House OR the Senate, has to be seen as a good thing. The PMO has FAR too much power of appointment and consequently is able to easily “whip” votes by threatening to withhold appointments, or even not approving nominations.

    The extent and level of “party discipline” in Canada is sickening, and not matched by any other purportedly “democratic” government. Not India, nor England, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Italy, and obviously, not the US. If we severely diminish the power of appointment and some other powers of the PMO, we would have a more robust democracy.

    Many excellent and talented people don’t get involved in politics because of this; fighting a campaign against political foes once every 3 to 5 years is one thing, but having to CONSTANTLY engage in internal party politics is unpalatable at best.

    If I were to constitute a “non-partisan” selection committee, I would seriously consider drawing members from the recipients of the Order of Canada. These are people who have already been recognized as contributing to Canada in a meaningful way, and there are 5837 to choose from. It needn’t be a standing selection committee, it could be convened as needed, and members paid a reasonable honorarium, costs of travel and accomodation and meals

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