Conservative senators need to do their jobs

The Senate Chamber.

There has been a succession of tales in the past few months about flawed bills making their way to the Senate after they leave the Commons, usually because un-amended versions of bills got sent along by the clerks by mistake or what have you.  But another egregious case popped up in the past week that makes one wonder if the current crop of Conservative senators isn’t trying to prove their own obsolescence, to the detriment of the institution as a whole.

The bill is C-525, a Conservative private member’s bill that is seeking to undermine the union certification process in the country, and has been the subject of a great deal of expert testimony about just how problematic it will be.  It saw some amendments in the Commons committee that took out some of the most obvious flaws with the bill, but when it reached the Senate committee, it was realized that there were further problems with the bill, and entirely because the Commons committee didn’t do their due diligence.

At this point, you would think that the Senate, being a revising chamber like it is, would do the right thing and make the necessary amendments and send it back to the Commons.  You know, the way the institution was designed to do, and how it has operated for nearly 150 years.  But no, that’s not what happened.  Instead, Conservative Senators, led by Alberta senator Scott Tannas, insisted that they pass it regardless but with observations, and let the government deal with the problem on their end before the bill comes into force.

“We kill the bill by sending it back,” Tannas said, under the rubric that because it’s a private member’s bill, it would not be able to clear all of the necessary hurdles before the Commons rises in June in advance of the next election.

You could pretty much hear my head hitting my desk, followed by a string of expletives, as Tannas and his chorus of like-minded senators insisted on going against their entire raison d’être as Senators.  Senator Cowan, the Liberal leader, even brought with him a copy of the Supreme Court reference decision, which spelled out the role of the Senate as a revising body that works in concert with the Commons as opposed to competing with them.  Tannas and company were unmoved, insisting that they had an obligation to pass legislation that the Commons had passed, and created this bizarre justification for proceeding despite the glaring error in the bill.

There are a couple of immediate observations that I have to make about what happened in that committee – the first is that if the Commons couldn’t do their due diligence and the bill got sent back to them, it’s their fault and they should have to live with the consequences if it doesn’t make it through before the election.  It’s a private member’s bill, and thus it’s part of the hazards of the game.  If it becomes an object lesson in ensuring that MPs learn the ramifications of their lack of attention, then so much the better.  Maybe they’ll do better in the future rather than blindly insisting that everything is fine because it fits within their ideological framework.

The other observation is that this is clearly a bill that the government was cheerleading, and even if the bill got sent back to the Commons for amendment, the government could have easily picked it up and run with it as government legislation, which provides the kinds of procedural mechanisms to speed it through (unlike a private member’s bill).  Considering that the government will have to pass legislation to fix the identified flaws in the bill as it passes the Senate now, one wonders what the difference would have been.  Of course, the change will be buried in the spring omnibus bill, which of course they could have done with the bill as a whole (as they recently did with a different private member’s bill around social security transfers as it relates to refugee claimants).  There is no good reason for those Conservative senators to have simply gone along with passing a flawed bill.

What is particularly noteworthy about Tannas and company’s actions are that this was precisely what Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, the new Speaker of the Senate, was referring to when he spoke about trying to educate his fellow senators about the Supreme Court decision and what it says about the role and function of the Upper Chamber.  Without saying it in so many words, and diplomatically demurring about saying anything direct, Nolin made it abundantly clear that many of his fellow Conservatives are not doing their jobs and are too content to take marching orders from the leader, who in turn gets them from the PMO.  Nolin, who was appointed by Brian Mulroney in 1993, is part of a fading class of senators who have been in the chamber long enough to have gained an independence streak and appreciation of their roles in speaking truth to power, especially behind the caucus room doors.  The vast majority of Conservative senators appointed under Harper are still too junior to have honed that ability, and while one or two of them will rebel on individual issues or bills, they nevertheless remain in the mode of ensuring that Conservative bills are passed with little challenge under the aegis of “supporting the prime minister.”

The Senate has a very important role to play.  The Supreme Court reaffirmed this in their reference decision, and it’s no wonder that Senators like Nolin and Cowan are trying to hammer this home when they brandish the document.  It would be nice if the newer Conservative senators would appreciate this fact and start doing their jobs of revision seriously.  Senators almost invariably get better with age, and most of this crop will as well, which I look forward to.  But in the interim, it’s disheartening and does a great disservice to our democracy that they’re simply not doing their jobs.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Ego and sore-loserism
The AG and the institutional problem
Stop referring to MPs as employees
Private Members’ Bills don’t mean much for debate

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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