After recently being kicked out of the Liberal party caucus, 32 newly independent Liberal senators are making a few changes. Along with other plans, the Liberal senators have decided to vote according to their own beliefs, not taking a group stance on issues, and they’re opening many of their caucus meetings to the public. One of the biggest initiatives they’ve set up, however, is allowing the public to submit questions to the Senate question period.
“Voting rates are declining, particularly amongst young people, over the last 15–20 years,” said Senator Jim Cowan, leader of the opposition in Senate. “Engagement of young people in politics has been declining as well. So we’re trying to show that here’s one way—this doesn’t solve all the problems, but it’s one way—that people can engage directly with parliamentarians.”
The senate question period happens when parliament is in session. Senators get to ask questions they may have for the government. Senators may ask the leader of the government a question relating to public affairs; a senator who is a minister may answer questions about matters relating to their ministerial responsibility; and a committee chair may answer a question relating to the committee. The person who is asked the question may answer right then and there or agree to answer in writing later, or in some rare cases, they may refuse to respond. In addition to asking parliamentarians’ own questions, the Liberal senators have decided to let Canadians decide what should be asked.
“We’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the number and variety of questions and the quality of them,” said Cowan. “We pick one or two every day and we’ve had a good response and a good reaction. It’s been very positive.”
Cowan said questions have come from all over Canada, on a wide variety of topics. Some of the subjects they’ve received questions on include PharmaCare, the Fair Elections Act, veteran’s issues, the environment, and justice issues. The idea is that Canadians, including students, submit their questions through the Liberal Senate website. The senators will pick what question to ask out of those submitted and try to assign the question to be asked by a senator who has a particular interest in the topic, or comes from the same geographic region as the questioner. Not all questions will be asked, because there are so many submissions. The offices then contact the person who submitted the question and tell them when the question will be asked, so they can listen to the question period online. Afterward, the questioner gets a copy of the answer from the participant senators’ offices.
“People say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter whether I’m involved. Politics has never listened to me anyways. The government doesn’t listen to me. My voice doesn’t count. They don’t talk about things that I’m interested in,’” said Cowan. “We’re saying, ‘Alright, we are.’ You have an interest, you send it in and we’ll ask your question.”
Senator Cowan said that one of the benefits of being an independent caucus now is being able to openly discuss topics that a party caucus may shy away from. Later this month, he said, they will hold an open caucus forum and discuss prostitution. They plan to bring in experts and have an open debate to discuss the issue.
“We don’t have to have a Liberal Senate caucus position on prostitution,” he said. “We can have a public debate, we can bring in experts who have actual experience—which is a big part of it—and also some expertise in that area, and they can come and talk to us and talk to Canadians about this issue, because we’re going to have to deal with it.”
According to Cowan, the Liberal senate hopes to encourage more open discussion in the Senate. He said they are trying to encourage more senators to voice opinions, even if they are part of a party, but that so far, there are no signs of the government “loosening its grip” on its own senators.
“We’re trying to set an example and show that we need to do things differently,” said Cowan. “It’s not enough for us to just say we are. We have to actually do it, and we’re trying.”
To submit a question to the Liberal senate, go to liberalsenateforum.ca/issues/Questions.