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OP-ED: Three Senators switch seats as Senate reform accelerates

Senator Tony Dean

There was a bit of drama in the Senate in past weeks when three senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved to join the Progressive Senators Group (PSG). While some critics and journalists have painted this as a blow to Senate reforms, the reverse is true. This development is likely to accelerate the transition to a more independent Senate as opposed to undermining it.

Comprised mostly of former members of the Liberal Caucus, the PSG rebranded itself last November in an effort to attract new recruits, emphasizing the freedom of its members to vote independently.

Patricia Bovey left the Independent Senators Group (ISG) and moved to the PSG on May 8. She was followed by Peter Harder, the former Government Representative in the Senate. A further move by former ISG member Pierre Dalphond on May 21 gave the PSG the nine members required to qualify under Senate rules for additional funding for research and communications. 

In talking about their moves, Harder and Dalphond went a bit negative in raising concerns about what they termed a “majoritarian” leaning in the Independent Senators Group. This seems to boil down to concerns about the ISG’s long-standing efforts to obtain a proportional share of committee seats (as has been the practice in the Senate for other groups).  

There are hints that as some formerly powerful groups lose members, proportionality should now be revisited in their favour — perhaps being replaced by a form of “minoritarianism” in which groups obtain a share of committee seats and funding well in excess of their proportional share of Senators. That is now the case for the Conservative caucus whose funding, on a per-capita basis, remains the largest of any Senate group. All of these issues will get sorted out through negotiations and/or rule changes in due course.

The really significant news here is that Senators Bovey, Harder and Dalphond are strong and vocal supporters of a more independent Senate. They have revived the flagging PSG group, which has sometimes been ambivalent about Senate reform, and will now influence its philosophy and direction.  

More broadly, the drive towards a more independent and less partisan Senate of Canada continues:

  • The Senate has moved beyond the long-standing Liberal and Conservative take-turns-in-power duopoly dominated by the two major political parties. Gone too, is the former dynamic which saw the power of the governing party to time-allocate the passage of bills being partially offset by the ability of the “Official Opposition” to use a range of delaying tactics — hardly a recipe for sober second thought.
  • Over 70 per cent of Senators now identify as non-partisan, and three out of four recognized groups (not counting the government group) are not tied to a political party or caucus on Parliament Hill. This is a strong foundation for the further evolution of the Senate as a more independent and less-partisan Upper Chamber that is complementary to the role of the House of Commons.  
  • Our debates have become more open and information-driven. Sober second thought is working. Eighty-eight government bills were approved by the Senate during the last Parliament (2015-2019), with one third of those bills being amended.
  • All groups deserve credit for occasionally departing from archaic and unorganized approaches to the Senate’s work and, instead, organizing themed and well-organized debates on major bills such as those dealing with medical assistance in dying and cannabis reforms. There is a thirst from a majority of senators (and surely the public), for more of this. The creation of a “business planning group”, of the sort advocated for by the ISG, Senator Harder and others, is surely not far off.
  • As well, all groups seem ready to embrace some independent oversight of Senate budget and audit processes, and a modern and accessible workplace harassment policy that will also extend to social media. 
  •  Many Senators are also ready to make rule changes to end the frivolous delays and obstruction which can be invoked by just one or two senators, in some cases killing important bills such as Bill S-228 (which would have restricted junk food ads directed at kids). Senator Dalphond has teamed up with ISG Senator Murray Sinclair on a Senate motion addressing the most troubling tactics used to stifle Senate debates.  
  • Consideration is also being given to reform of the budget allocation process for recognized groups; and to rule changes that would ensure that the benefits and privileges of Senate groups are on par with those of the government and opposition groups. 

The Independent Senators Group remains unique in making the goal of a more independent and non-partisan senate a central part of its raison d’etre — which is a testament to both its members and the effective leadership of Sen. Yuen Pau Woo and Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain.  

Further progress will be contingent on amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act to recognize all Senate groups and to extend them the same rights and privileges available to the Government Representative and Official Opposition.

Senate reform is proceeding steadily which should be good news for Canadians, who understandably expect an effective and efficient Senate of Canada as opposed to the previous partisan mirror of the House of Commons.

 

This article appeared in the May 31, 2020 edition of iPolitics