OP-ED: Battle for Senate reform intensifies in run-up to 2019 vote
Senator Tony Dean
Many Canadians would like to see their Senate become more relevant and effective, a shift that will require less politics and more independence. In the theatre of pre-election politics, internal opposition to reform has intensified, including recent attacks on the legitimacy of recently appointed Independent senators who now comprise a majority in the Senate.
A growing number of senators have been quietly pursuing reform for several years. But these efforts received an unexpected boost in 2015 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established an arm’s-length independent appointment panel to advise on future senate appointments. This was a massive break from the long-standing tradition of prime minister’s mostly appointing “their own.” It stunned both political partisans and observers.
Trudeau declared that he wanted to see a more independent and less partisan Senate and that is what he asked newly-appointed senators to focus on. As party leader in 2014, Trudeau ousted Senate Liberals from his political caucus.
A recent Nanos poll suggests that efforts to reform the Senate are paying off. While Canadians still have negative views of the institution, the numbers are moving in a positive direction. And a large majority of Canadians support the more independent Senate appointment process, which Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is vowing to scrap.
Scheer’s discomfort with a more independent Senate mirrors the opposition of a small and testy group of partisan Conservative senators who have railed at the reform project from the outset. They are fearful that reforms will disrupt the partisan status quo in which Liberal and Conservative senators took turns at dominating the Senate – and the rules that have grown up around it.
Those rules are important because, among other things, they have established an unproductive and conflict-based Senate in which the ability of the “Official Opposition” to endlessly delay the progress of bills through the use of adjournments is offset by the government’s ability to time allocate (or cut-short) debates on bills.
At their worst, the current rules permit a single senator to delay and frustrate proposed legislation for years by depriving the Senate from even voting on it. As the federal election approaches we are now seeing serial (and sometimes juvenile) efforts at time and money-wasting adjournments to delay Senate business and votes – with overt support from Mr. Scheer.
This power to delay was offset by the government’s ability to impose time allocation motions that limit debate and votes on bills to as little as six hours, arguably without sufficient time to study and scrutinize bills. This brutal form of time allocation was commonplace under the Harper administration, but has yet to be used by the current one.
Last week, as a result of continuous Senate Conservative adjournment motions, the House of Commons sent a rare message to Senators asking them to bring Bills C-262, which would harmonize Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and C-337, former cabinet minister Rona Ambrose’s bill which would ensure judges receive sexual assault training, to a vote. There are many other examples.
Reform-minded senators favour a more independent, transparent, accessible and non-partisan Senate. For this reason they promote sensible middle ground between politically driven delays on one side and rushed several-hour forced debates on the other. They would like to see the leaders of the various Senate groups establish business planning processes under which the timelines for debates and key votes on important bills are worked out in advance. This approach has been tested occasionally and very successfully, for example in the debates on medical assistance in dying and, more recently, in the debates on Bill C-45 dealing with cannabis legalization and regulation.
Organized and more transparent approaches to our work will be particularly important in the newly televised Senate in which (to say the least) there is currently no “TV Guide” for Canadians wishing to follow our debates.
The rump group of Conservatives recoil at the notion of institutionalizing this sort of business planning and have in past weeks challenged the legitimacy of Independent Senators and the representative role of their facilitator to even take part in such discussions. (They overlooked a hard-fought rule change two years ago recognizing Independent Senators’ Group as an equal partner with other groups.)
More than anything else, Independent Senators feel an obligation to serve the needs and interests of Canadians, as opposed to the narrower interests of any particular political party. The Nanos finding that 77 per cent of Canadians prefer a more independent appointment process is a boost for Senators who continue to advocate for reforms that will build a value-for-money Senate that they expect and deserve from us.
There will be a majority of Independent Senators in the Senate chamber for a considerable period of time, so there will be no quick or easy return to the 150-year old partisan duopoly. Eventually the competing views of traditional, partisan Senators and those of the more independently-minded reformers should converge somewhere in the middle. And really, what else would we expect from a Canadian Senate? Canadians just expect us to get on with it.
This op-ed appeared in the April 18, 2019 edition of iPolitics.