OTTAWA — While the Senate Liberal caucus was busy telling Canadians how it plans to remove the shackles of partisan politics from the upper chamber, the Conservative Senate leader was issuing talking points to his troops.
The Huffington Post Canada obtained an email sent on behalf of Claude Carignan, the leader of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government in the Senate, to all Conservative senators and their staff. In it, Carignan suggests “lines” to respond to each of the Liberals’ five points for reforms.
The suggested messaging urges the 57 Conservative senators to:
- Point out the Liberals’ “sketchy” attendance record when asked to comment about the Grits’ plan to hold open caucus meetings.
- Attack the Grits for asking questions related to their own “pet peeves” when asked to comment on the Liberal plan to let Canadians probe the government directly during the daily Question Period.
- Raise questions about the Liberal senators’ willingness to post their expenses online and stressing that Conservatives already do this. (Liberal senators are looking at new ways to publish their financial reports since, after being kicked out of the party last month, their expenses will no longer be featured on the Liberal party's website).
- Say the Conservatives have “no lesson to take from the Liberals on federal-provincial cooperation” in response to the Liberal senators’ plan to hold a national conversation on equalization.
When asked to comment on the Liberal senators’ move to hold only free votes in the upper chamber, the heavily whipped Tory caucus was told to respond:
“No surprise there, long ago has the Liberal leadership lost its ascendancy. The Liberal whip’s office receives a supplementary budget of more than $80,000. For what? So we now have a leader who doesn’t lead and a whip who doesn’t whip.
“We have no doubt that the Liberal senators will continue to act as liberals, will oppose whatever the Government proposes and will work to elect Justin Trudeau rather than improving the life of Canadians.”
In a surprise move, Trudeau kicked the 32 Liberal senators out of the party's national caucus last month as part, he said, of his vision for a non-partisan Senate. They will continue to sit as Liberals but will no longer report to Trudeau.
The ex-Liberal senators pledged Wednesday that although they are staying together, they will no longer take direction on how to vote on different pieces of legislation.
“There is a real excitement in our group about the opportunities that this independence has given to us,” James Cowan, the leader of the Senate Liberal caucus, said.
Cowan said Liberal senators would no longer be concerned about the impact their actions might have on their former colleagues in the House of Commons or the policies of the Liberal Party of Canada, he said.
“We didn’t run in the last election and we are not going to run in the next election,” Cowan said. “Electoral considerations… don’t concern us anymore.”
The speaking points were sent to Tory senators by Carignan’s communications coordinator, Sébastien Gariépy. He defended the move Wednesday by saying the new Liberal Senate caucus was going to be no less partisan than the Trudeau Liberal senators.
“I seriously doubt that what they said this morning will lead to less partisanship,” he said in a phone interview.
Talking points were not a new thing, Gariépy said, adding that it is entirely appropriate for the Conservative Senate leadership to suggest responses to their senators.
“We are not there with a hammer,” he said. “They are all suggestions, we are not telling people what to do.”
None of the Conservatives senators HuffPost contacted repeated the talking points verbatim.
Senator Marjory LeBreton, the Conservatives former leader in the Senate, said that in all her years on the Hill she had never heard Liberals complain about the parliamentary process.
“For them I guess the old saying applies ‘That was then and this is now’. I can only surmise that now that they are not the government and not the official opposition - all of a sudden they have problems with how Parliament operates!”
Liberal senators already ask questions from their respective regions, she said, singling out Senator Catherine Callbeck for always asking “pertinent questions” related to individuals or issues concerning Prince Edward Island.
Conservative Senator Linda Frum told HuffPost in an email that Liberals in the Senate were trying to make the best out of a bad situation.
“Trudeau is trying to spin a fiction that he has reformed the Senate by taking partisanship out of it. However Senator Cowan reaffirmed once again today that the members of his caucus are still the ‘Liberal Senators’,” she wrote in an email.
Partisanship is a fact, she said.
“A fact that has not changed with these fake and phony reforms. So the Liberals won't be whipped into voting Liberal. They'll just do it anyway. Big deal. That is not meaningful reform.”
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, Senator Linda Frum's name was spelled incorrectly. This version has been updated.
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