Justin Trudeau is sweeping Liberal senators out of his party's caucus in a bid to show he's serious about cleaning up the scandal-plagued upper house, The Canadian Press has learned.
The surprise move — to be announced this morning after informing the 32 Liberal senators — is aimed at reducing partisanship in the Senate and restoring its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.
In a text of the Liberal leader's announcement obtained by The Canadian Press, Trudeau says extreme patronage and partisanship are at the root of the Senate expenses scandal, which has engulfed the red chamber for more than a year.
He argues that making Liberal senators independent of the party's parliamentary caucus is a first, concrete step towards reducing partisanship. And he challenges Prime Minister Stephen Harper to similarly free the 57 Conservative senators.
"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 says in the statement.
"The party structure in the Senate flies in the face of 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.
"At best, this renders the Senate redundant. At worst — and under Mr. Harper we have seen it at its worst — it amplifies the prime minister's power.''
If elected prime minister, Trudeau says he'd go further. He'd appoint only independent senators, using an open, transparent process, with public input, for nominating worthy candidates — much the way recipients of the Order of Canada are chosen.
The Harper government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to advise whether it can unilaterally impose term limits and set up a process for "consultative elections'' of Senate nominees. Most provinces maintain such reforms require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the country's population.
The federal government has also asked the court to advise whether outright abolition of the Senate would require the approval of seven provinces or unanimity.
'We are open to doing more'
Trudeau says he believes his proposals are "the most meaningful action possible without changing the Constitution.'' But he adds: "If the Supreme Court says more can be done, we will be open to doing more.''
Trudeau's announcement will likely come as a shock to some Liberal senators, who were given no advance warning. Many of them have long, careers of service to the Liberal party. Their ranks include senators who've run national election campaigns, overseen Liberal party headquarters, served previous prime ministers and been elected as MPs.
Under the party's constitution, senators are considered members of the national caucus and enjoy a number of special privileges, including being automatically entitled to attend Liberal conventions and having an equal say with elected MPs in choosing interim leaders.
Trudeau is expected to eventually seek amendments to the party constitution to reflect his new, non-partisan approach to the Senate, stripping senators of their special privileges although they'd be able to remain regular members of the party if they chose.
The party is holding a national convention next month in Montreal but it's too late to propose constitutional amendments for consideration at that gathering.
In the meantime, Trudeau will exclude senators from any role on national election or fundraising campaigns. And he won't allow them to sit as Liberals in the Senate.
He's leaving it up to the senators to decide how or if to reorganize themselves and up to the Senate to decide how to deal with the fact that his move effectively does away with the notion of an official Opposition in the upper house.
As Liberal leader in the Senate, James Cowan is entitled to a budget of some $200,000 to employ staff that help the party's senators review legislation and plot strategy. What happens to that budget, if there is no longer a Liberal leader or Liberal caucus in the chamber, is unclear.
The 32 Liberals will join seven senators who already sit as independents in the 105-seat chamber — including former Tories Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, who were suspended without pay last fall for allegedly making fraudulent living and travel expense claims.
The three suspended senators, along with former Liberal senator Mac Harb and Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, are under RCMP investigation but have not as yet been charged with any criminal conduct.
Last fall, the NDP, which has long championed abolition of the Senate, called on both Liberals and Conservatives to eject senators from their caucuses. The Liberals voted against the motion.
Trudeau has evidently changed his mind since then and now says his proposals "represent the most significant and concrete actions to reform the Senate in its history.''
By contrast, he says both Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair are indulging in "a lot of loose rhetoric'' about reforming or eliminating the chamber.