Senator Gold keeping an open mind on rule changes

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Senator Marc Gold is a couple of weeks into the job as the new Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” and is still feeling the ropes of the position, but he did take time to sit down with me this week to talk about how he sees his role.

In spite of a number of reported senators turning down the job, Gold says that he is very honoured to be doing it.

“When I was first asked if I would consider doing it, I was a bit surprised to be asked,” says Gold.  “But as I thought about it, I realized that this job would give me an opportunity to do the same work that I wanted to do when I joined the Senate.  I believe that the Senate best serves Canadians when it reduces the partisanship in the [chamber], and becomes more independent of government and the House of Commons.”

Gold says that in the role of government “representative,” he can play a role in working with his colleagues to move that project forward.

Having been sworn into Privy Council, Gold has access to the briefing books provided to the prime minister, and is entitled to attend Cabinet meetings and Cabinet committee meetings when the need arises.  While he has not yet attended a Cabinet meeting, he has attended a Cabinet committee meeting.  His primary liaisons with the Cabinet will be through the President of the Queen’s Privy Council, Dominic LeBlanc, as well as the Government House Leader, Pablo Rodriguez.

“I am developing relationships with both of them, because they both have important jobs to do in the Other Place, but both of them are going to be helpful to us in the Senate to do our job in Parliament,” says Gold.

Gold repeats one of the favoured lines of his predecessor in that one of his jobs is to represent the Senate to the government, both with regard to what the Senate needs to be an independent institution, as well as to specific pieces of legislation.

“I have a responsibility to let the government know, to the best of my ability, where Senate preoccupations might be so that we can try to work effectively,” says Gold, citing that this could be even more important in a hung parliament.

On the subject of management of the Senate’s timelines, Gold disputes the characterization (from numerous sources) that his predecessor rarely would engage in negotiations with other caucus leaders, but Gold does concede that the Senate works best when people can come to an agreement on making the place work.  Which leads me to ask about the talk about whether there is a need for a business committee (or “programming committee”).

“I share the objective of having our debates and our deliberations effective, done in a way that’s accessible to Canadians, where we can really join the issues,” says Gold.  “The best way to get there?  I’m two weeks on the job, we’ve had one leaders’ meeting – I know this is going to be a subject that we’re going to be discussing, and I know how strongly that some in the Senate feel about it, and I know some of the resistance that others have to it.  It’s complicated.”

Gold says his approach is to try to work things out consensually, owing to his background in business, as well as university politics and Jewish community politics.

“My starting point is let’s sit down and talk about [these issues],” says Gold.  “What did I find frustrating in the last parliament?  Sometimes you’d have a good speech, and it would be a week or two weeks later [before the reply] – so you can’t join issues.  That was frustrating, not only because things dragged out longer than they should have, but you didn’t have a proper debate.”

As an aside, the understanding of Senate debates has been problematic – while there is a desire among newer senators to have speeches one following the other as they do in the Commons, that runs the risk of the epidemic of canned speeches that we see there, unlike the usual Senate practice of the sponsor of a bill speaking to it, and the critic of the bill taking time to craft a considered response before it is sent to committee.

Gold does admit that the pervious parliament was an “experiment,” but adds that he can be persuaded that there can be too many Second Reading speeches at times, and things got drawn out.

Regarding the various proposals for rules changes, Gold says the proposals to date he is both sympathetic to, but is keeping an open mind.

“The rules have to be brought into line with the reality of the Senate,” says Gold.  “We did it with sessional orders in the last time with the cooperation of all groups.  I don’t feel like I’m an outlier in saying I agree.  Exactly how we do it, and what’s the right form and procedures?  That’s what we’ve already begun to discuss among leaders.  I am keeping an open mind – I have an interest in this, but feel a responsibility as a senator and as the government representative to make parliament work well.”

Gold says that ultimately, it’s up to the leaders and their caucuses to come to a common understanding to move forward.

Gold says that when it comes to sponsoring government legislation, he is still considering how much he will do – particularly when it comes to things like budget bills.

“I have two really talented senators that are working with me, and the three of us share a kind of responsibility for thinking this through,” says Gold.  “We will continue to approach senators in all groups – some will be more open than others – where they have the right expertise and interest to continue to sponsor bills when they’re comfortable with that.  We wouldn’t be doing a service to Canadians if we took on more than we could chew.”

While Gold seems to be striking a slightly more positive tone than his predecessor – perhaps because he has a couple of years of Senate experience now rather than taking on the Government Leader job without any previous Senate experience – there remain a number of questions as to how proposed changes will unfold.  While I can see where some of his thinking comes from in terms of what he hopes those changes will accomplish, I nevertheless maintain that some of it – like hoping for blocks of debate on certain bills – is ultimately misguided.  Nevertheless, Gold has indicated a willingness to continue our dialogue, and I fully plan to take him up on it.

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More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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