Can the ISG survive the next election?

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In Monday’s Hill Times is a piece that both wonders whether the Independent Senators Group will try to form the opposition in the Upper Chamber if there’s a change of government following the general election this fall, as well as warns that the ISG is on the precipice of disintegration.  The shifting dynamics in play are both fascinating to watch, and horrifying if you consider the damage to the institution that is being done under the nose of a government that has decided that ignorance is bliss.  Nevertheless, we should play out a few of the scenarios that could happen in the fall, once a new Parliament has been summoned after the election, because that will have a huge effect on the dynamics at play.

The status quo scenario, where the Liberals win another majority government, will mean that the status quo in the Senate is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with more Independent appointments, and the Conservative and Liberal caucuses within the Chamber dwindling – the Liberals already on the cusp of losing their official status once the next couple of mandatory retirements happen in January of next year.  This would also likely mean changes to the Parliament of Canada Act to change the rules that would allow other caucus groups who aren’t aligned with a federal political party to form within the Chamber and have access to funding for their leaders and staff.  This is also likely to be a route to chaos, as members of the ISG have been talking about changing the Senate rules so as to avoid the government-opposition dynamic going forward.

“We provide oppositional ideas to government legislation on a regular basis,” Senator Yuen Pau Woo, ISG “facilitator,” told the Hill Times.  “So we can dispel the idea that some kind of designation is needed specifically for the reason of challenging government legislation.”

Woo is completely wrong-headed here, because the government has been demonstrating under the status quo option that they are able to both co-opt Independents by having them sponsor government bills, but also using them to launder their own amendments through the Senate (as we saw with Bill C-69).  Without any kind of organized opposition, it makes it far easier for the government to co-opt more senators and compromise them from doing their jobs of holding government to account.  This is a very bad thing for parliament – not to mention the fact that trying to force the party-affiliated senators in the Senate into extinction will have a hugely detrimental effect on the institutional memory in our political system.

Under a hung parliament where the Liberals form government, we are likely to still see a version of status quo, but likely without changes to the Parliament of Canada Act, for what that’s worth.

The scenario where there’s a change in government is where things start to get very interesting, because Andrew Scheer has stated his intention to return the Senate to making partisan appointments, and would ensure that he has an actual government caucus (and one would hope a Leader of the Government in the Senate that is actually in Cabinet, but he may attempt to carry on what Stephen Harper started in his fit of pique late in his term and keep his Cabinet free of senators).  The open question there, however, will be if he also carries on with Harper’s system of treating senators as backbenchers to be whipped, which will continue to damage the institution.  With the Liberals in the Senate unlikely to be able to form opposition, because they will unlikely have enough members left to maintain official status, that will create a few awkward scenarios.

While there is always the possibility that enough members of the ISG will decide to cross over to the Liberals in order to oppose the Conservatives and their agenda, we could very well see the ISG try and claim opposition status on its own, which would be odd if they also continue to insist that they’re not partisan.  It would also mean that they would have to start acting with greater coordination than they have been to date, if they hope to have any chance of being effective at an opposition role, otherwise they will likely find their efforts to be blunted by their own inability to organize themselves – something that is already tripping them up.

Under either scenario, the possibility that the ISG breaks up is something that is certainly one that needs to be kept in mind, because it’s already a fragile coalition that is threatening to implode as it is.  Part of that is because of the way in which its members have been appointed – you have very accomplished individuals, many of whom with big egos, who applied for the position and were chosen, which confirms in their own estimation that they have “earned” this position and that they have a mandate to do something with it.  The ISG’s current “leadership” already can’t get some of those members to fall in line procedurally or to honour agreements that have been negotiated between caucuses, and this will only get worse.

In the Hill Times piece, Senator Stephen Greene stated that he thinks the ISG will splinter if Senator Woo no longer leads them, and I’ve also heard this from others.  Greene says he’s had interest from some senators about forming a splinter group that is less dogmatic about political affiliation than the ISG is with their charter, and there is also speculation about an Indigenous caucus forming out of the ISG, likely to be led by Senator Murray Sinclair if it happens.  It’s all speculation, but such splintering might be hastened if the changes to the Parliament of Canada Act are made, so that there will be funding incentives for these smaller groups to break off if they can reach the threshold of nine members.

A Senate that is either dominated by the ISG, or by small independent splinter caucuses, is likely one that will continue the problems we have seen with the inability to get bills passed in a timely manner.  The longer-term implications of Justin Trudeau’s attempt at “reforming” the institution are starting to manifest, and few of them are good for parliament as a whole.  Ultimately, we are left with few good options for limiting the damage that is being wrought.

Photo Credit: CTV News

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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