Let us tell sad tales of the deaths of Senate caucuses

’There are no more Liberal senators’

The reporters lined up outside a meeting room in the basement of Parliament’s Centre Block were confused. I mean, maybe more than usual.

The Liberal Senate Caucus, as it then was, had walked into the room earlier this morning. Then Justin Trudeau had walked out to say he had ejected the lot of them from the Liberal Caucus. “There are no more Liberal senators,” Trudeau, who theoretically should know whether such a thing is true, had told reporters.

The (ex?-)Liberal Senate Caucus continued to meet long after Trudeau’s departure, then long after their weekly meeting’s scheduled end. Not that this was a problem, suddenly, because the normal reason for such a meeting’s end — Senators must troop upstairs to the slightly-later weekly meeting of the National Liberal Caucus — was now moot. From inside the black box of their meeting, little escaped.

I spotted a staffer for one of the senators. Did you have any advance word on this, I asked? “Nobody had a f—kin’ clue!” she said cheerfully. 

Terry Mercer, a bear of an Atlantic organizer for the Liberals, former national director of the party under Jean Chrétien, walked past, in a vile mood. I called his name. He waved his arm as if warding off a defensive tackle. “Go in the side door,” a staffer said to him, and he executed a 90-degree turn to avoid the waiting scrum.

Finally Jim Cowan emerged, flanked by a bunch of senators I could have sworn were Liberals: Jim Munson, Marie Poulin, Art Eggleton, a very slightly mollified Mercer, and a few more. Cowan announced to the cameras and microphones that this was as fine a day as he could recall. “We’ve been liberated,” he said. Surely the Prime Minister will want to similarly emancipate senators still toiling under the yoke of the Conservatives. Now they could speak for themselves. Free at last. And yet, he said, they will continue to “style” themselves the Liberal Caucus in Senate.

It’s a bit of a botched Schrödinger experiment, in sum. The box has been opened, but there is some disagreement about whether the cat lives or dies. And neither Trudeau nor Cowan seems to believe it’s anywhere in between. Perhaps they should consult.

“Is this just positive spin, Senator?” a reporter asked.

“It is! It’s not. It is. It’s — it’s not positive spin, but it is a positive story,” Cowan said, and it was hard to be upset at his confusion. I was reminded, as one would be, of Act IV, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke has risen up against the hapless King Richard, and they meet to pass the crown. Henry asks, “Are you contented to resign the crown?”

Richard, like Sen. Cowan, is torn. “Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be,” he replies. “Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.”

The last two acts of Richard II are about sorting out the effects of Bolingbroke’s rash act, and I won’t spoil it for you but it gets a little messy. Similarly, it’s hard to know where the Liberal Party as a whole goes from here. Terry Mercer gave his life to this party. Dozens of other senators and their staffers, same deal. Percy Downe was Chrétien’s chief of staff; he got told this morning he has no further function as a Liberal. An NDP staffer this morning was gleeful, because with only 34 MPs and zero Senators, the Liberals may no longer qualify for a caucus room in the Centre Block. It’s not entirely clear how all this will work.

Nor is it clear it is a permanent state of affairs. The old Reform Party was dead-set against MPs’ pensions until its members started to qualify for some. Stephen Harper did not appoint a single senator* until he realized Stéphane Dion had planned to appoint plenty if the coalition crisis had gone the other way. (*UPDATE: Except Michael Fortier! Whoopsie — pw) Among a thousand other backtrack scenarios, it’s possible to imagine a future Liberal prime minister — perhaps his name would be Trudeau — watching as a coherent Conservative Senate caucus blocks Liberal legislation that has gone orphan in the Senate. In the nearer term, every time a fellow or lady who still collects a Senate paycheque shows up at a gathering of Liberals, the sincerity of this divorce will be open to question.

For today, however, Justin Trudeau has moved boldly and left everyone scratching their heads. Something changed today. I think.