The Canadian Senators Group Promotes the Plurality of Opinions and Regional Diversity in the Senate

  • National Newswatch

The Canadian Senators Group (CSG) was formed in November 2019 by senators from across the political spectrum to advance the interests of Canada's regions, as well as to see the Senate return to its roots: research-based, long-term analysis of public policy issues.In essence, the CSG was founded on five principles:
  • we are a centrist group;
  • we systematically monitor regional impacts in order to develop a truly pan-canadian understanding of issues, policies and legislation;
  • we actively encourage a diversity of opinion and perspective in our group to avoid being an "echo chamber";
  • we have chosen to limit our group size which effectively increases opportunities to speak and be heard and promotes egalitarianism; and,
  • we have focused our resources on a research bureau dedicated to independent, detailed and regional analysis, thus supplementing the work of individual offices and the Library of Parliament, with a goal to be the best briefed senators on the Parliament Hill.
Recent years have seen unprecedented changes to the way senators are appointed and, as a result, how they organize themselves in the Chamber. The consequent rise of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) has resulted in the largest “group” in the Senate being neither Government nor Opposition.The ISG portrays itself as vehemently non-partisan, to the point of forbidding its members from being a member of, or contributing to, any political party. Hair-splitting claims of non-partisanship can only go so far when a key part of one's job is to vote for or against government legislation. As it turns out, the ISG tends to be a fairly reliable supporter of the prime minister responsible for most of its appointed members. For their part, the Conservatives, as expected from their Opposition status, can be counted upon to oppose almost anything introduced by the Prime Minister's Office, with enforcement of party discipline ensuring that such opposition carries the day within caucus.The Canadian Senators Group aims to strike a middle ground between the partisanship of the Conservative caucus and the ISG's apparent desire to take the politics out of politics, despite being highly political themselves. The CSG acknowledges that people active in the political process are likely to hold partisan political views, and act on them. That is why CSG members are allowed to remain politically active through membership in and support for political parties. Similarly, the group seeks to reflect the myriad voices of Canada's regions, which, by their very nature, preclude a single point of view. Consequently, although CSG members sit as a group, we are not a caucus in that we do not take a group position on any issue or piece of legislation. CSG members can raise any issue they wish at Group meetings, and are free to vote any way they want on any issue before the Senate. Rather than direction from above, the CSG plans to base their actions and policy on solid research accompanied by robust debate as stated in the Group's statement of Common Principles.Further to the commitment of the CSG to “solid research”, and notwithstanding the political independence that CSG members are permitted - indeed encouraged - to exercise, we have created our own research bureau. This endeavour has proven to be valuable to the CSG's policy deliberations, and hopefully deepen the quality of debate in the Senate.In this, the CSG takes as its inspiration the ground-breaking work the Senate has achieved over the years, such as the 1971 Report of the Special Senate Committee on Poverty. Chaired by the late Senator David Croll, the Committee addressed a national scandal, the number of people then living in poverty in such a rich country, launching its powerful report with the statement “(T)he poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame.” The report did serve as a major influence on such government programs as the Family Benefits system.Similarly, the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by the late Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, undertook a comprehensive review of Canada's drug policies and laws. Although one cannot summarize a four volume document in a few words, it is fair to say that the 2002 report laid the groundwork for the 2018 legalization of cannabis in Canada. As the report itself noted:“(T)he continued prohibition of cannabis jeopardizes the health and well-being of Canadians much more than does the substance itself or the regulated marketing of the substance.”Senators can afford to conduct lengthy, in-depth and possible controversial studies because their status as appointed members of Parliament gives them the time and political latitude that their elected counterparts lack. No matter how diligent or well-intentioned newly elected members of the House of Commons might be, they know that time is counting down, and that in about 1400 days they will be in the midst of a campaign to keep their seat. Such a deadline may serve to concentrate the mind, but that concentration will not be directed toward long-term issues. The Senate, on the other hand need not – and should not – focus on responding to the headlines of a given day, but rather on the broader policy issues that lead to the headlines of next year, or even the following decade.From time to time, the role of the Senate vis-à-vis the House of Commons has been a contentious topic. In spite of the fact that constitutionally, the Senate is every bit as legitimate as the House of Commons, in the eyes of many Canadians, it is seen as less democratically legitimate than its elected counterpart. The result is a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don't” position: when it is not in the news, deliberately reviewing and suggesting changes to legislation passed by the Commons, it is regarded as a vestigial anachronism, totally superfluous to the modern legislative process. However, when it does act it faces protest and accusations of usurping the will of the people's elected representatives.Those who share such sentiments would do well to remember the words of Sir John A. Macdonald:“There would be no use of an Upper House [the Senate], if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the Lower House [the House of Commons]. It would be of no value whatever were it a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House. It must be an independent House, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.”The Canadian Senators Group – much like the Senate of Canada itself – has its strength in bringing together Canadians from a range of political views who wish to continue the practice of thorough study, informed debate and an approach that takes into account the views and needs of all of Canada's regions. It is a formula that has served the Upper House – and Canada as a whole – well in the past, and one that will continue to do so.The Honourable Scott Tannas, AlbertaInterim Leader of the Canadian Senators Group