OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Senate reform plan could end up costing taxpayers more money.
The Huffington Post Canada has learned that the Senate has set aside funds — between $250,000 and $925,000 — to run an office for Trudeau's yet-to-be announced government representative in the upper chamber and any potential new caucus mates that person may have.
Any extra money — for staff or research — would have to be supplemented by the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's department.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question in the House of Commons in December. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
The 28 Liberal senators, whom Trudeau kicked out of his parliamentary caucus two years ago, will operate as a third-place party. Senators on the internal economy, budgets and administration committee gave the Liberals an office budget of $1,060,000, while the majority Conservatives, who are now the official opposition, have a budget of $1,275,000 this year.
One Conservative senator who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter said the Tories "didn't have a choice" but to give the Senate Liberals an office budget.
"It would have been mischievous not to make those adjustments. We would have been profiting from the situation to hurt them," he said.
Last year, the Senate Liberal and Conservative budgets were a combined total of $2,248,800 — $985,800 for the opposition Liberals and $1,263,000 for the governing Tories.
The money doesn't include any salary supplements that Trudeau's new representative will receive — $80,100 on top of his or her $142,200 salary as a senator. It doesn't include the extra allowances a potential deputy government leader (an extra $38,100), government whip ($11,600), deputy government whip ($5,800) or government caucus chair in the Senate ($6,800) might receive if Trudeau's new appointees decide to organize themselves as a governing party caucus.
The office budgets also don't include the salary allowances that Conservative Senate leaders, as the opposition, are entitled to (from $5,800 to $38,100).
Senate Liberal Leader James Cowan speaks at a 2014 press conference. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Current rules don't provide any salary top-ups for a third-place party, embodied in the Senate Liberals.
Senate Liberal Jane Cordy, the deputy chair of the internal economy committee, said the budgets were increased slightly to help each party caucus be more independent.
"This independence, for both caucuses, means relying less and less, if at all, on our cousins in the House of Commons in the areas of research and briefing notes. This naturally adds more to our operational needs and budgets," she wrote in an email.
Senate Liberal Leader James Cowan said the new system might cost more — especially if five or more independent senators were to decide to form their own caucuses to qualify for extra funding — but he feels it would be a worthy expenditure.
"I would argue that if we need to do our job properly, we need to be properly resourced. I make no apologies."
'Lipstick on a pig'
Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he has no problem funding offices that do good work, such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General, but he is concerned that Trudeau's new independent appointees will always be "lining up behind government legislation."
"It is a farce to think that they are not partisan…. You have changed the label, but your behaviour is going to be the real tell…. It's the proverbial lipstick on a pig."
Trudeau's new senators will not be elected, and they will not have a mandate or more legitimacy than senators had before just because a handful of eminent people are picking them now, Wudrick added.
"The fact that now Canadians are going to be paying more money for a Senate that has the veneer of reform when nothing substantive has changed is really disappointing," he said.
"The fact that now Canadians are going to be paying more money for a Senate that has the veneer of reform when nothing substantive has changed is really disappointing."
Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc told HuffPost that he didn't share the same "pessimism" that the only way for independent senators to prove their independence would be to vote against the government.
"I think that because they're independent of thought doesn't mean they necessarily will assume a sort of cynical tactic like that," he said.
Cowan said that he hopes the people Trudeau appoints will be "progressives" and that he will be encouraging them to join the Senate Liberals.
"They don't have to be card-carrying Liberals," Cowan said, "but I would hope that they would be generally supportive of a progressive agenda for the country."
Some independents might like to remain lone wolves, he said, but he expressed hope that, over time, others "will come to see that there is a value in working with others, and I hope that they will find our group more sympatico."
Budget allocation held as bargaining chip?
It's far from certain, however, that the Conservatives in the upper house will allow Trudeau's new representative to use the money set aside for him or her.
Conservative opposition leader Claude Carignan told HuffPost that if Trudeau's representative wants the salary increase, the larger office and the bigger budget, he or she will have to answer questions in the Senate.
Sen. Claude Carignan makes his way to the upper chamber in 2013. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
"You can't be half pregnant. There is either a leader of the government or [there] isn't one. If there isn't one, well, he or she will not have the advantages and the privileges of the Leader of the Government," he said. "If he wants to have the salary allowances of the government leader, and the office of the government leader, and the tools, rights and privileges, then he'll have to answer our questions too."
Last December, when Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef announced a temporary new appointment procedure for five new independent senators, LeBlanc allowed for the possibility that there might not be a Senate question period.
Trudeau plans to name a government representative from among the new batch of independent senators who will perform the traditional role of leader of the government, LeBlanc said, but it will be up to the chamber to decide how it wants to organize itself for question period. Typically, the government leader in the Senate answers questions on behalf of the government of the day.
LeBlanc said it will also be up to the new government representative to figure out how to best shepherd Trudeau's legislation through the upper house. He suggested that one of the current Liberal senators, someone with "considerable legislative experience," might also be named deputy government representative to help the new government leader.
"You can't be half pregnant. There is either a leader of the government or [there] isn't one."
Carignan told HuffPost the Tories have every intention of asking Trudeau's representative daily questions.
"If he wants to have a minister with him to answer questions, we'll take that, sure. Fantastic! We'll be happy with that, but that won't limit us in our power and our rights," the senior Tory said.
The five new senators — two from Ontario, two from Manitoba and one from Quebec, selected from a secret non-binding short list provided by a five-member independent panel — are expected to be appointed by the end of February or in early March.
On Friday, the government announced that applications for the positions will be accepted until Feb. 15.
In the meantime, the Senate has already invited four cabinet ministers to appear before it to answer questions. On Wednesday, Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo will be the first minister grilled for 30-minutes.
Senators stuck 'in limbo'
The move to appoint new independent senators is intended to "reinvigorate" the Senate, Monsef told reporters, and bring an "end to partisanship."
But several senators say they feel stuck "in limbo," having little indication of what the Trudeau Liberals expect from the upper house.
"Not only are we in limbo, but the independent Liberals are in limbo," Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk told HuffPost.
"They have no idea what [Trudeau] wants. So we are all sitting there doing nothing really, waiting, when he should have a government leader appointed. He should have come to the Senate to say 'these are the types of reforms that I would like to see… this is the way that I would like to see you operate,' and we would study that and we figure out whether we want to do it or not.
"We are an independent house. We do what we want, not what he wants necessarily, but we are willing to listen to what he wants, but he hasn't told us. Neither has his House leader [Dominic LeBlanc]," Tkachuk said. "So nobody knows anything."
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef speaks at a press conference last December. (Photo: CP)
Conservative Sen. Daniel Lang, the chair of the national security and defence committee, said everyone wonders want the role of the government representative will be.
"What is a 'government representative'? What is his authority?"
Until the Liberal government figures out how it's going to try to pass its legislation in the Senate and whether the new representative will speak for the government, there are a lot of "outstanding issues" that affect senators' daily work that have been left hanging, he said.
Conservative Sen. Norman Doyle said he feels senators' ability to obtain information from the government now "is severely hampered."
"We could be a lot busier if the government had its people in place in the Senate…. There are no bills yet, but hopefully soon."
Conservative whip Don Plett said he's not surprised there are no government bills on the Senate's agenda, and he isn't even surprised there are only two bills on the House's agenda.
"Look who they elected as the prime minister. I mean, the guy's been snowboarding most of his life."
"Look who they elected as the prime minister. I mean, the guy's been snowboarding most of his life and here he is running around the country doing selfies instead of paying attention to what he should be doing over here. That is about as blunt as I can be so, no, I am not surprised. I am hoping that they will get their legislative agenda in order."
Cowan said he also doesn't know what's going on.
"Some people would like to know exactly how it will all work. I would like to know too, but I don't know.
"It will all unfold. In the meantime, there is lots of work for all those who want to do it."
Without direction from the Prime Minister's Office, senators have moved swiftly with their own agenda.
Last Thursday, during question period, senators took turns asking their committee chairs questions about potential areas of study.
This week, the banking, trade and commerce committee is expected to begin a study on the decline of the loonie.
Several private members' bills have been debated. Cowan's bill to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination has been sent to the human Rights committee for study.
"I think there is a huge opportunity for us to — if we do more good work … and more consistently and more often — show people the value that a good Senate can have," Cowan said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion would be the first cabinet minister to appear before the Senate.
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