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Trudeau attempts to square Senate decision with pledges of consensus

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau on January 29, 2014 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau on January 29, 2014 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

VANCOUVER - Justin Trudeau's decision to expel his party's senators from caucus caught pretty much everyone on Parliament Hill off guard — even the senators themselves — but the Liberal leader insisted Friday the move doesn't contradict his own promises not to rule from the top.

Trudeau announced earlier in the week that all 32 Liberal senators had been kicked out of caucus, in what he described as the first step toward removing partisanship from the upper chamber.

He won the Liberal leadership race, in part, on a pledge to focus on building consensus within his party, particularly when it comes to crafting major platform policies, rather than issuing edicts from on high.

However, Trudeau insisted his abrupt announcement on the Senate isn't at odds with his promises to consult the party and its grassroots.

"We have had over a year of non-stop debates and discussions across the country about the Senate," Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver after attending a Chinese New Year event.

"Canadians have spoken loud and clearly that they want change. ... We've heard from experts, we've talked to a number of different people."

Trudeau said one of the former Liberal senators, Paul Massicotte, even brought up a similar proposal last fall.

At least one senator, Dennis Dawson, has suggested Trudeau could have avoided the confusion that has plagued this week's announcement by consulting with him and his colleagues first.

The announcement came as Trudeau attempts to distinguish himself from both the governing Conservatives, who came to power nearly a decade ago on promises to create an elected Senate, and the NDP's long-held commitment to abolish it entirely.

If elected prime minister, Trudeau has said he would create an independent appointment process to pick senators.

The expulsion also created immediate confusion, fuelled primarily by the senators themselves, about what exactly the change means in practical terms. Trudeau did little to clear up those issues on Friday.

Trudeau has said the senators will no longer be "political activists." They won't be permitted to be involved in national election campaigns or national fundraising activities, he said.

But Trudeau's advisers privately admit the leader cannot control what the senators do locally, such as at the federal riding level or in a provincial campaign. They will still be permitted to be members of the party.

As it turns out, he can't even stop the senators from calling themselves Liberals. The senators have already styled themselves the "Liberal Senate caucus."

"They are independent; I have no influence over them," said Trudeau.

"They can call themselves whatever they like."

Trudeau suggested the confusion would eventually work itself out after the senators adjust to their new realities. He said the specific details of exactly how the party will interact with the senators — for example, if any of them donate money to the Liberals — are still being worked out.

He also insisted his main goal is long-term reform and his proposal for an independent appointment process.

"I'm not thinking about what the news cycle is going to be tomorrow or next week — this is about doing something meaningful to change an institution for the better."

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