The Senate must move past partisan paralysis

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OP-ED

by Hugh Segal

Ottawa Citizen
April 10, 2017

Sen. Peter Harder’s recently released paper on a procedural way ahead for the Senate of Canada is a substantive step forward in making a more independent Senate also more able to debate, amend, approve and dispense with legislation in a timely fashion.

The approach Harder is suggesting – of a focused Business Planning Committee, reflecting all aspects of Senate membership, with agreed-to time frames and ample room for debate, engagement, hearings and consideration – goes right to the role envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation.

So important was the Senate as an agenda item in 1865 that our founders spent six of their 14-day discussion on the establishment of the Upper Chamber. So in this, our 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is good to remember that without an agreement on the Senate, neither Confederation nor Canada would have been realized.

Currently, Senate rules allow one senator or cadre of senators to adjourn (delay) a bill or motion forever, at intervals of five weeks, disallowing debate or vote. I seriously doubt this was in the founders’ plans when establishing the Senate. But this is the crazy rule now in place – often exploited by partisan excess. In my day, motions on televising proceedings, or a referendum on Senate reform or abolition were adjourned by opponents on both sides of the Chamber for months. I know because those motions were mine.

The absence of a partisan government majority in the Senate does not negate the convention that government legislation, mandated by Canadians who cast ballots, must be studied and dealt with in a timely fashion. Establishing a Business Committee to determine the order and time frame for the handling of government business does not negate the right of those who oppose such legislation to put forward their reasoned opposition.

Forcing four one-hour votes in one day (as happened in March) based on procedural delay, is a waste of time for the institution and for senators. Those four hours would have been better spent with delegates of all or no stripes, sitting down and planning an efficient way forward, allowing time for substantive debate and possible amendments to legislation. The right of the Opposition to oppose is soundly embedded in Sen. Harder’s paper. The right to oppose only through arcane delay is what is being questioned.

The government representative in the Senate cannot and must not ever commit to the guaranteed passage of an unamended bill. He too was appointed as an Independent. His role is to shepherd government legislation and ensure that it receives adequate review and debate. In the House of Lords at Westminster, no government has had a majority for decades. Yet government legislation receives its due consideration and is dealt with in a timely fashion. Sen. Harder should be able to facilitate, through good-faith negotiation, those matters to be debated, considered in depth and then decided one way or another by all members of the Upper Chamber.

The newly appointed Independent senators bring a vast mix of expertise, professional and academic skills and solid government, private sector and community service experience to their roles. These individuals add their experience to those already in the chamber who also have successful backgrounds and years of constructive knowledge. Being originally appointed as a partisan does not negate one’s ability or wisdom of contribution. Both traditions are an important part of our legislative context. Having served as a “partisan,” I know first-hand that there are those whose independent-mindedness was not wiped away by virtue of sitting in an organized caucus. And I suspect that they too can see the value of better structuring the business of government since they fully understand that the business of government is actually the business of Canadians. I don’t think they would want Canadians to perceive the Senate as stalling government bills simply in order to flex partisan muscle.

Sen. Harder’s paper is a totally reasonable way for all senators to work together and ensure that a government bill is dealt with honourably and in a reasonable time frame – even when there might be disagreement on the merits of the matter.

Letting tactical delay, especially when deployed for partisan purposes, replace strategic debate, discussion, examination, considered hearing and ultimate disposition, is to bring the institution into unnecessary disrepute around its core function.

Hugh Segal is a former Conservative senator (Ontario) and Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto.

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