OTTAWA — Conservative senators don't plan to be an ideological roadblock to the Liberal government's legislative agenda.
Sen. Claude Carignan, the Conservative leader in the upper chamber, says his senators will look for ways to improve legislation coming from the House of Commons and won't abuse their majority status in the upper chamber to thwart Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's program.
The Conservatives hold 47 seats in the Senate, making them the largest caucus in the 105-seat chamber. Some longtime Conservatives, who remember what it was like when Stephen Harper first formed government in 2006 and faced a Liberal-dominated Senate, have suggested they won't make Trudeau's life easy.
Carignan said that wasn't the intention of the Conservative senators following a meeting earlier this month where they elected him leader and chose the rest of their leadership after returning to the opposition benches for the first time in almost a decade.
"We don't want to obstruct and (be) an ideological opposition," he said.
"We don't want to play this game. We will play our role to improve, to study and we will not abuse the situation."
Trudeau severed formal parliamentary ties to the Senate last year, when he dropped all senators from the Liberal national caucus.
Those senators remained Liberal party members and talked of helping local candidates in the federal election campaign.
The decision has meant that the Liberals, now in government, have no formal representative in the upper chamber. The Liberals have not said whether Trudeau will anoint a sitting senator to the job, appoint someone to one of the 22 vacant seats, or simply leave the situation as it is.
House leader Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal point man on dealing with the Senate, has repeatedly said the government wants to work with the Senate in a more non-partisan way. Ministers, he told reporters last week, will still have to appear before Senate committees to explain and defend legislation and work with senators who propose amendments "to improve legislation."
Carignan said that message is playing well with his Senate colleagues.
The Conservatives have now taken over the role of Senate opposition and will continue to be in that position even if the upper chamber is without a government leader to answer questions on government operations and usher through Liberal legislation.
Carignan says the Conservatives could live with a scenario where the Senate has no government leader.
He says the lack of a leader could help proposed internal reforms to make the daily question period in the Senate more relevant.
Question period in the Senate has been criticized for yielding more talking points than answers. Senators have mused about doing away with it and instead using the time to ask committee chairpersons about details of their committee work, or have ministers come to the floor of the Senate chamber and answer questions on an issue in their file.
Carignan said the lack of a government leader in the Senate could open the door to a "new opportunity" for the Senate.
"In time we will adjust our work in the Senate," Carignan said. "We could live with both situations — if he decided to appoint or not. If he decides to appoint, it will be a more traditional process."
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