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Liberal senators want to use new independence to make Senate more responsive

OTTAWA - Liberal senators are using their newfound independence to institute changes aimed at making the maligned Senate more accountable, approachable and transparent.

They'll give ordinary folks a direct voice in the upper house, soliciting questions from Canadians that Liberal senators will then pose to the government during the Senate's daily question period.

The move is one of five ways the 32 Liberal senators hope to take advantage of their new freedom from partisan ties to improve the functioning — and the tattered image — of the scandal-plagued chamber.

But while Liberal senators were announcing Wednesday their plans to demonstrate the advantages of more independent, less partisan chamber, Conservative senators were receiving government talking points to use in dismissing the Grit initiatives.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau last month booted senators from his party's national caucus in a bid to return the Senate to its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.

The outcast senators — who are still sitting as Liberals but are no longer answerable to the leader — said they intend to periodically throw open the doors of their weekly caucus meetings, inviting experts and parliamentarians from all parties to discuss issues of national importance that have gotten short shrift from elected MPs in the House of Commons.

The first open meeting will be held March 26, to hear from experts on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

As well, there'll be no more whipped votes for Liberal senators; each will be free to vote as he or she sees fit on every motion and bill before the Senate.

And they'll initiate a Senate debate on equalization in a bid to re-establish the chamber as the protector of regional interests, as originally envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation.

The senators are also promising to continue publicly disclosing their expenses, which they began doing last fall at Trudeau's behest. Their expenses were initially posted on the Liberal party website, but that option is no longer available, so they're talking to Senate officials about setting up an alternate system.

"We have an historic opportunity to use our new independence to try, insofar as it is within our power as a minority in the Senate, to make Parliament work better for Canadians, to make it respond to the needs of Canadians rather than the needs of political parties and their leaders," said James Cowan, the Liberal leader in the Senate.

However, government Senate leader Claude Carignan made it clear the Conservative majority in the upper house has no intention of following suit.

Talking points emailed to Tory senators from Carignan scoffed at the Liberal initiatives.

"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," said the email, obtained by The Canadian Press.

The talking points ridiculed Liberal attendance in the Senate, said it's time for them to "ask questions that affect Canadians rather than just their own pet peeves" and asserted that Conservatives have "no lessons to take from the Liberals regarding federal-provincial co-operation."

The Senate has long been maligned as an unaccountable, unelected body but its reputation has nosedived over the last year as the chamber was engulfed in a scandal over improper expense claims.

The scandal prompted Trudeau's surprise decision to expel senators from the Liberal national caucus. The move underscored his contention that practical reforms can be undertaken to improve the Senate without having to reopen the Constitution, as would be required to transform the Senate into an elected chamber or abolish it altogether — the preferred options of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair respectively.

Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz welcomed the Liberal senators' initiatives, particularly the plan to launch a debate on equalization, the constitutionally enshrined program which transfers federal funding to have-not provinces so that they can provide a comparable level of basic services at comparable tax levels as rich provinces.

"I think the Senate of Canada is supposed to be there, first of all, to represent the regions of our country. That's why it was put in place in 1867," Ghiz said in an interview.

A Senate debate could educate Canadians on the importance of the complicated equalization program and shine a spotlight on some of the problems, he added.

The Harper government changed the equalization formula in 2007 so that payments to have-not provinces were based on the average fiscal capacity of all 10 provinces, including 50 per cent of their non-renewable natural resource revenues.

Ghiz said provinces such as his with no resource revenue would have preferred that 100 per cent of oil and gas revenues be included in the formula but went along with the change as a reasonable compromise. But then in 2009, in the midst of recession, the government imposed a cap on equalization payments.

"It was kind of like a double whammy against a province like mine," Ghiz said.

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