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Motion 470 (Authorize Committee to Examine Certain Events Relating to the Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and to Call Witnesses—Motion in Amendment)

Hon. Tony Dean: Honourable senators, I rise to contribute to what I think is an important discussion. Senator Ringuette’s proposed amendment, first of all, is responsive to my concerns about Senator Plett’s motion and, in particular, its narrow focus.

Senator Ringuette’s proposal to broaden an inquiry to explore the relationship among all three branches of government is important, and I think it fits well with the non-partisan rubric of the original motion. It would allow us to examine the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government, on the one hand, and the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, on the other — two interesting case studies.

Second, we know that the issues related to SNC-Lavalin are still under review by the Ethics Commissioner for the House of Commons. If it’s anything as exhaustive as Ontario’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner’s review of the Doug Ford hiring issue, we can expect the current review to be exhaustive. It’s important that we wait for that review to conclude before doing anything further, regardless of the scope of the proposals in front of us.

Third, for the time being, we know all we need to know about the facts associated with this issue. The House of Commons Justice Committee has heard extensive testimony from two former ministers, the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary. There has been supplementary evidence, recorded conferences and more recent statements from two of the principal complainants, to the effect that we already know all we need to know.

I now want to transition over to another feature of the debate that occurred last week — and it has come up again tonight — namely, points made about independent senators in this place. These are embedded in the record. I am following up on debate from last week on this motion, and from the debate and comments made by Senator Batters a few moments ago.

We heard this last week — and it was echoed afterwards in social media — two Conservative senators referring, on May 5, 2019, to Trudeau’s “fake independent Senate.” We heard something like that earlier tonight.

I will first point out something rather obvious, namely, that a couple of weeks prior to this, in a debate about a programming motion, Conservative senators took the opposing view, stating that since the ISG was not a partisan caucus, it should have no role in discussion of programming agreements. You can probably tell where I’m going with this. It is that our colleagues across the way might start by getting their stories straight because right now it seems we are variably being described as partisan or not partisan on any given day.

Indeed, I stand — and sit — with a terrific group of independent senator colleagues in this chamber who demonstrate daily their integrity, their professionalism, their focus on policy and, indeed, following through on deals they make.

Hon. David M. Wells (Acting Deputy Leader of the Opposition): On a point of order, and not at all with any disrespect to Senator Dean, I believe we’re on Motion No. 470, and I haven’t heard one word regarding that topic.

The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, Senator Dean has entered debate on the amendment. As I said earlier, we give a fair amount of leeway until we start bumping into unparliamentary language. I will allow him to continue, but the debate is on the amendment to motion no. 470.

Senator Dean: Yes. Your Honour, I will make a further point on the amendment, and that is my perspective from my work and observations while working in government.

I said earlier in debate about the SNC-Lavalin issue that our political colleagues work within a governance context guided by rules, conventions and practicality. There is both a formal and informal governance structure, and it works well. Ministers talk to one another, Prime Ministers talk to ministers, and staff talk to ministers. That is commonplace; it happens all the time. And, yes, sometimes people talk to Attorneys General. These are the realities of daily political and ministerial life. Those of you with a political background know that only too well.

As my colleagues did last week, and as Senator Batters did tonight, I will transition back to comments made about my colleagues on this side of the house, and I will do that with parliamentary language and with respect.

Here’s the real point, though: In perhaps a surprise move following the 2015 election, the Prime Minister chose to set aside historical patterns of predominantly filling Senate seats with party faithful, and he also removed Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus.

Instead, through an independent selection process, he selected a group of independent senators, with each one being asked by the PM to do only one thing: to work towards a more independent and less partisan Senate — nothing more; no mention at all of supporting his election platform or anything else, and nothing since.

Indeed, most, if not all, of the independent senators appointed since 2015 would not have accepted a political appointment. I certainly would not have. It was independence that attracted me here — the freedom to make up our own minds and vote as we see fit as opposed to taking instructions from anyone.

There has been, I know, discomfort about this from some of my colleagues in this place, and I know that the notion of a more independent Senate is a bit threatening in a change-resistant environment. It is uncomfortable, I suspect, to fill the institution under threat of change, even if that is change for the better.

Now I will take on the question of fake independent senators.

First, obviously the PM might not have made this change in appointing independent senators at all. He could have followed the crowd that went before him and appointed a majority of explicit party loyalists, as his predecessors did. He certainly would have had a happier, larger and more powerful Liberal caucus in the Senate, and I dare say this might have sat well with those in the balance of the Senate.

There was a more direct and easier route to the continuation of a partisan Senate. To his credit, the Prime Minister, likely guided by the Supreme Court, set out to build a more independent and less partisan Senate. I emphasize “less” because no one is talking about a non-partisan Senate.

The PM likely not only had an unhappy group of former Liberals in the Senate, but he had a group of independently minded senators. Early independent appointees, including Senator Lankin, weighed in on amendments to medical assistance in dying. Senator Pratte led the charge against the inclusion of the federal Infrastructure Bank in a budget bill and brought everyone else along with him — probably not the sort of partisan gesture I’m hearing about earlier. Senator Pratte, a Liberal in sheep’s clothing? I think not.

Senator Pate has consistently defended the rights of Indigenous and other persons incarcerated in prisons, and especially solitary confinement. How is that working for the PM? Her work on mandatory minimum sentences and segregation is groundbreaking, admirable and entirely independent.

Senator Omidvar, a champion of immigration and refugees, has taken on the government on a number of bills, including some parts of Bill C-45 which would see non-permanent residents treated inequitably in the justice system. I’m not seeing our colleague Senator D. Black here, so I’m not going to commend his work on Bill C-69 in his absence.

This is only a partial series of examples of a more policy-focused, less partisan and more independent Senate at work. But look around beyond this group to the broader group of ISG senators in this place and ask yourselves how many of us would have been on the traditional Liberal faithful list? How many of us would have agreed to leave our jobs behind as senior leaders in a number of sectors if it was for the purpose of taking orders from the Prime Minister’s Office? Very few, probably none.

Now, you know all of this. Indeed, you continue to make the case that it is otherwise. I know there would be more comfort with the old duopoly, with senators from the Liberal world and the Conservative world sharing power, but that’s not what we have right now.

Now let’s go back to the substance of Senator Ringuette’s motion, and I thank you for your indulgence.

I had talked about the fact that politicians, ministers, Prime Ministers chat with one another from time to time and indeed they talk to their Attorneys General. You know this; everybody in this place who has worked in government and on public policy knows this. There’s a clear exception to the practice of this, of course, where it involves the Attorney General, who is the chief law officer of the Crown. This doesn’t mean that justice ministers or Attorneys General are immunized from advice, lobbying or an expression of preferences. Let’s be realistic about that.

However, an AG, unlike other ministers, has the ability, independence and responsibility to determine their own cause having regard to the law and public interest. This is what appears to have happened in this case, and it happened in another case that was in the news last night.

The one thing that’s strikingly clear is that there has been no variance in the well-known position taken by the federal prosecution service. To this point in time, SNC-Lavalin’s request for a deferred prosecution arrangement has been denied. I’m simply going to observe that the government’s process we have in place in our political process to protect the integrity of the rule of law and our justice system has worked as intended.

Is this process sometimes messy? Yes, it is. Are these sorts of discussions between PMs and ministers tough? You bet they are. You’ve been involved in some of them. Some of you have been on the receiving end of them. Can they be embarrassing? Yes. Are they newsworthy? Absolutely. Are they scandalous? Questionably. Are they political fodder? Absolutely, without a doubt.

Honourable senators, all of this messiness applies equally to the governance challenges faced by the former PM, as was described by Senator Ringuette, in that particular case dealing with tense relations between the executive and legislative branches of government and crucially, in that case, going to the heart of the Senate’s independence.

For all of these reasons, I support Senator Ringuette’s amendment.