Sen. Peter Harder, the former government representative in the upper house, has joined the Progressive Senate Group — a shock move that could have a major impact on how the Red Chamber is organized in the months ahead.
Harder served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s point man in the Senate — the person tasked with shepherding legislation through the upper house — until December 2019. He presided over major reforms as the prime minister pushed for a less partisan, more independent Senate through an arms-length appointments process.
After leaving his post, Harder sat as a non-affiliated senator rather than join the Independent Senators Group (ISG), which was established in 2016 and is made up mostly of Trudeau appointees.
After some reflection, Harder has now decided to join the Progressives, a group composed largely of former Liberal senators appointed by prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
Trudeau dropped all Liberal senators from the national caucus in 2014, at the height of the Senate expenses scandal. The group changed its name to the Progressive Senate Group in November 2019 in an effort to recruit more senators who were leery of joining a group with past partisan ties.
Harder’s move comes a week after Manitoba Sen. Patricia Bovey jumped from the ISG to also sit with the Progressives — and there could be others that follow in the weeks ahead.
The Progressive Senate Group is not an official group under the Senate rules, as it has less than the nine members needed to be “recognized.”
In an interview with CBC Thursday, Harder said he doesn’t like the idea of one-party rule in the Senate. To this point, most of Trudeau’s 50 appointees have joined the ISG, meaning the group has roughly half of all sitting senators.
Harder said he worries partisanship has been replaced by “majoritarianism” in the Senate as the ISG looks to tighten its grip on the levers of power in the upper house.
“I do worry about a Senate in which there’s one group that so dominates that there’s the temptation not to treat all senators as equal and I don’t want to contribute to that. In fact, I want to be part of a bulwark against that,” Harder said.
In an effort to stop defections from his group, the ISG facilitator, B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, passed a motion in the chamber (before its pandemic-imposed recess began) to strip committee seats from members who leave a recognized caucus or group, with a few exceptions.
Woo has also been accused of trying to block non-affiliated senators, including the Progressives, from access to committee seats — a charge he has denied.
Much of the Senate’s “sober second thought” function is carried out at committees, and committee seats are prized by senators.
“I have tremendous respect for Sen. Woo and the leadership of the ISG. I am concerned that majoritarianism can become a new partisanship and I would caution against that behaviour because it doesn’t respect the equality of senators and the importance of listening to voices outside any one group or caucus,” Harder said.
He said the motion to strip committee seats from senators leaving the ISG or other groups is like ruling with “fear and favour.”
“I’ve made my decision as to which group to associate with in that context, absolutely,” he said.