Due to its greater independence, the Senate contributes to public discourse during pandemic
Senators Julie Miville-Dechêne and Tony Dean
Original french version by La Presse: Here
Because of its more discreet and less partisan nature, the Senate does not often make headlines. Yet the Red Chamber is going through its biggest transformation since its creation 153 years ago. At the heart of this transformation is a major shift from the classic opposition between Liberals and Conservatives that has prevailed since Confederation.
Since 2015, the appointment of a large number of independent senators has changed the equation. Three quarters of senators have joined three groups that have no ties to political parties, resulting in a dramatic realignment of power, style and influence in the Upper Chamber. Some Conservative senators even left their partisan caucus to join a right-of-centre independent group.
This new independence is reflected in the work that the Senate is doing. The Senate Finance Committee, for example, has recommended that the Federal Government consider implementing a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI) as a successor to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. It’s notable that a GLI, which has been publicly supported by more than fifty senators, is not supported by the Conservatives or the governing Liberals.
These past few months, beyond approving pandemic-related emergency bills, senators engaged cabinet ministers in broader discussions on the massive death toll in long-term care facilities, workplace safety for healthcare and food workers, and on the differential impact of COVID-19 on racialized and indigenous communities, the homeless, and low-risk inmates in correctional facilities.
Some of these concerns were echoed in an interim report from the Senate’s Social Affairs Committee on the Government’s response to COVID-19, which concluded that Canada is not ready to face a second wave.
The death of black American George Floyd on May 25, which prompted international calls for action on anti-black racism, quickly found resonance in the Senate Chamber. As this issue caught fire, the Senate was recalled to deal with another COVID-19 emergency bill. While independent senators pushed for an emergency debate during that sitting, Conservative senators insisted that the Senate focus solely on the emergency bill. In the end, we not only held an unprecedented emergency debate on anti-black, anti-indigenous, and systemic racism, we also questioned three government ministers and created a special Senate committee on systemic racism. This was an important victory for independent senators.
This clearly shows that despite some claims, opposition voices have not been silenced in this new, more independent Senate. On the contrary, there is now more opposition, and its voices have become more diversified and less partisan.
Independent senators have been working hard to improve transparency and credibility within the institution. To that end, they have proposed changes such as the creation of a Senate Audit and Oversight Committee which would include external audit experts. This would finally address a long-standing recommendation from Canada’s Auditor General following some issues with Senate expenses nearly a decade ago. Other changes have been discussed to improve the efficiency of Senate proceedings and avoid endless partisan speechifying. It is time for Senate modernization to come to pass; the refusal of Conservative senators to entertain virtual or hybrid Senate sittings is baffling.
The prorogation of Parliament is bound to slow this pursuit for change, but this more independent Senate has already proven that it can make more amendments to the bills it receives than it ever could in the past. However, there is still a lot to accomplish to bring about significant changes to the culture of privilege, secret and exchange of favours that has damaged the Senate’s reputation.