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Inquiry No. 24 ("Sober Second Thinking" Proposal)

Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise this afternoon to talk about the modernization of the Senate, specifically to speak to Senator Wallin’s inquiry of May 16, 2017, which encourages us to maintain momentum in evolving the Senate into a more vibrant, transparent, focused and deliberative institution.

Senator Wallin told us she supports more and better planning, scheduling and grouping of debates over consecutive days with the goal of providing more effective sober second thought. She would like to see timely consideration of legislation organized by a Senate business committee.

As we gear up once again for another busy fall agenda, I could not agree more. The scrutiny of legislation and application of sober second thought is one of our major constitutional responsibilities, alongside our obligation to represent regions and under-represented groups. The Senate does this by bringing the rich tapestry of expertise that each of you brings to this chamber. We have an obligation to Canadians, especially to Canadians who feel disengaged from the process of policy-making and decision-making to ensure that we carefully and efficiently review the legislation sent to us.

I think we would all agree this includes an obligation not only to do this but to be seen to do this by Canadians, which requires us to work transparently and to organize our work in ways that are accessible and predictable.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Modernization, I have participated in hearings over the past few months as the committee considered methods to make the Senate more effective within its current constitutional framework.

One of the more obvious and easily adaptable ideas heard from expert witnesses was the scheduling and organizing of debates, especially government business, by a business committee. This isn’t new: It is proven to be successful in other jurisdictions, with the United Kingdom and Scotland be most commonly cited.

A more focused and organized debate permits all senators an opportunity for effective deliberation and to examine the merits and weaknesses of bills in a more concentrated and transparent fashion.

You don’t need me to tell you this. You have done this very successfully already in your widely applauded work on Bill C-14, which dealt with medical assistance in dying. I can tell you that the quality and nature of that debate around Bill C-14 was one of several things that attracted me to this place, the Senate.

Although it was approved in June of 2016, five months prior to my appointment, I followed the debate — your debate — very closely like millions of other Canadians. It was historical. It was a highly successful project that saw senators working across party lines to ensure that the best interests of Canadians were recognized and protected.

The motion that was presented after first reading in May, 2016, allowed for debate on Bill C-14 to be organized by themes. It provided senators ample opportunity to speak and it didn’t limit the number of amendments. Instead, it clustered them together by subject matter. This experiment in scheduling speaks to the degree of flexibility we all have as we consider more efficient ways of organizing our work.

Now while the Modernization Committee continues to consider its options — including the creation of a business committee, which I support — in preparation for its next report to the Senate, we can move ahead and take action in the very near future by building on the success of the Bill C-14 process. We in fact have an opportunity before us with complex and historically important legislation that may well find its way here in the coming weeks or months; legislation that places a significant emphasis on public health and harm reduction.

As you all know, the House of Commons is studying Bill C-45, which proposes to legalize and restrict access to cannabis, and its companion legislation, Bill C-46, which seeks to further prevent injury and death from alcohol- and drug-impaired driving.

Should the Senate receive these bills, we have an obligation and an opportunity to provide and apply appropriate scrutiny and to provide for sufficient debate.

This proposed legislation is hugely significant and has attracted an enormous degree of public and stakeholder interest. I would like to think that as we consider these bills, should they arrive here, and especially in light of our modernization efforts, that we can do much better than applying a business-as-usual approach.

Canadians and a large number of public health and justice organizations, young people and older people, parents and business organizations, will be following our work closely.

If we can organize and bring focus to our deliberations on these bills by creating a process and timetable that is responsive to the interests of Canadians, and particularly younger Canadians, we can achieve the appropriate amount of scrutiny that citizens and stakeholders expect and deserve from us while doing that in a timely way.

I have started this discussion with some of you already, and I’ll be asking for meetings with our leaders and facilitators to move this proposal forward to develop an organized process for debating bills C-45 and C-46. But we needn’t stop there: If this becomes a more developed model of organizing our debates, we could approach all bills in this fashion.

I know that every one of us here shares the goal of doing the very best work we can on behalf of Canadians. We want to promote and improve an effective and efficient Senate, operating on the principles of equality, fairness, respect, transparency and accessibility.

With television cameras coming into the Senate in the year ahead, we have an additional incentive to organize scheduled, deliberative debates that engage Canadians and can also help regain public trust in our democratic institutions. We have the tools and the capacity to audition a new and modern way of doing Senate business.

I ask you sincerely to support this work in the weeks and months ahead, and I close by thanking Senator Wallin again for bringing attention to this important issue.