Tory Senate leader defends ousting senator from caucus over dinner with Trudeau
John Mahoney/Postmedia NewsSen. Larry Smith in 2010.
OTTAWA — The Tories’ Senate leader says Conservatives’ decisions in the upper house — including the ousting of Sen. Stephen Greene from caucus this week — are based on staying accountable to the six million people who voted for the party in the last federal election.
The growing contingent of independent senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are accountable to no one at all, Sen. Larry Smith argued in an interview with the National Post Thursday. “The Conservatives represent six million voters. Who do the independents represent? Zero.”
Trudeau’s Senate “adventure” is a “high-risk” one that doesn’t have any guaranteed returns, Smith said — though he is in favour of some modernization initiatives, like televising Senate proceedings and updating residency and travel rules.
Saying politics is inherently a “game,” he explained his caucus will fight “tooth and nail” to preserve the role of an official opposition. That includes staying connected with elected representatives, he said, and keeping caucus members in line.
FileSen. Stephen Greene
Greene told the Post Tuesday he was stunned to face ejection from his group for accepting an invitation to dinner with Trudeau, along with other senators who sponsored government legislation. Ultimately, the former Preston Manning aide chose to dine and now sits as an “independent reform” senator.
Smith said the substance of the bill Greene sponsored (a routine taxation law) wasn’t important. Greene had been warned about taking more and more positions that “came close to the borderline of what our policies and philosophies are.”
“If he’s not following that line which connects him to six million Canadians, then he can’t stay,” Smith said. “The prime minister is using Stephen Greene as a toy for him to get the changes he wants, which is eliminating the opposition.”
The Senate is changing quickly. It is amending legislation more often and now features a swelling caucus of independents who are not motivated to follow party lines.
The government’s representative in the Senate, Sen. Peter Harder, doesn’t have a caucus of Liberal senators whose votes he can whip. The tools he can use to help move the government’s agenda along, including time allocation, require majority support he doesn’t automatically have.
Some government bills have faced significant delay. Smith rejected Harder’s accusation Conservatives have been “obstructionist” and said the opposition is simply trying to hold the government to account. “I think Senator Harder will use whatever tools that he has, just like we’ll try to use the tools that we have,” he said.
“This is a political game. Politics, part of it, is a game. You’re trying to win. It’s not unlike football,” said Smith, a former CFL player and commissioner. “The only difference is the hits you take are mental hits — they’re not physical hits anymore. Hopefully.”
Conservatives currently maintain the chairmanship of a majority of Senate committees despite being outnumbered by independents. In the fall, or upon prorogation of parliament, committee makeup will be renegotiated.
The chairmanship of the finance committee is traditionally reserved for the opposition, so the Tories will fight for it. “You try to preserve some of the elements that are part of the historical package, and that makes sense,” Smith said.
Greene’s departure and decision to sit as an “independent reform” senator is not the only drama to recently unfold in the Senate’s Conservative caucus.
Sen. Lynn Beyak was publicly removed from the aboriginal peoples committee after controversial comments about residential school silver linings. Although a “groundswell” of support has now emerged for Beyak, Smith said, the controversy was a “distraction to the party.”
The early April announcement came from Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose and was perceived by some as an undermining of Senate leadership.
It was rumoured Ambrose had pre-empted a deal to have Beyak quietly step down from the committee after Easter. Smith didn’t confirm or deny the deal, though he ceded a break-week shuffle would’ve been the “easiest” and “most comfortable” way of going about it.
Still, he said he and Ambrose were on the same page, and if there was any disconnect it was only with the communications staffers in Ambrose’s office who publicized the decision. “It evolved to happen when it did, and it’s over,” he said. “We did the right thing.”
Smith also said it was right for former senator Don Meredith to resign from the upper chamber after an ethics investigation exposed his sexual relationship with a teenager. Meredith had been part of the Conservative caucus until summer 2015, when he was kicked out as allegations emerged.