The Order Paper crisis in the Senate went nuclear on Tuesday afternoon, as Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, tabled an unprecedented seven-page programming motion in the Senate Chamber, which for all intents and purposes was a declaration of procedural war against the opposition. More than that, it’s an absolute admission of failure by Harder – that his refusal to do his own job to negotiate the passage of bills through the Chamber, and the subsequent crisis on the Order Paper that he created, led him to take the nuclear option well before it should have even been necessary to contemplate. It’s gross incompetence, and is going to leave lasting damage to the institution.
There has never been such a programming motion in the Senate before, and certainly not one of this magnitude, which covers eleven different bills, all of them at different stages – some still at Second Reading, some in committee. This goes beyond simple time allocation – the rules of the Senate stipulate that it can only be used for one stage of one bill per motion. To say that this programming motion is unprecedented is an understatement – it actively undermines all of Harder’s own high-minded rhetoric on the deliberative work of the Senate.
In the hours since the motion was tabled, Harder put out a press release and tweeted some self-aggrandizing justification for doing so, citing that he was “proposing a schedule that will allow Canadians to better follow the Senate’s work, with organized debates and votes.” That’s, to be frank, dishonest claptrap. Saying you’re doing this to “organize” debates is just imposing time allocation using the excuse of televised proceedings as a fig leaf. In the press release, Harder said that some of these bills were moving too slowly. The problem there, however, is that it’s his own fault that things are not proceeding because he refuses to do his job. He cited Bill C-57 as an example of Conservative obstruction, but they were obstructing because they were trying to force negotiations on other bills, and when they did get an agreement on moving forward on that bill, Harder overplayed his hand and was ready to move time allocation when the Conservatives were about to pass it.
Harder wrote that a programming motion was used to organize the debates and votes on the cannabis bill, so it’s just fine. That was a motion on one bill that was done in agreement by the various caucuses. Using a motion for eleven bills at various stages is not even in the same universe as the motion on C-45.
“Given past practice and ongoing delay, we just can’t be sure that the Opposition wants to give these bills fair and timely consideration,” Harder quoted himself in his release. “Canadians expect Senators to respect public business, and to do their work in both a thorough and diligent fashion.”
The Opposition has been asking for negotiation on timelines on bills. They had an agreement on two bills that Harder wanted to move forward on Tuesday morning and were ready to fast-track them (one bill to a committee with an overloaded docket, one that they were fully in support of) and he went back on his word and moved ahead with the programming motion. This after his going back on a previous agreement around C-57. This is how he expects to manage the agenda in the Senate? Really?
Trying to blame these delays on the Opposition is frankly dishonest. Nearly every single prime minister since Confederation has had to deal with a Senate where the opposition was the majority at one point, and things still got done. Bills got passed, and the government’s agenda (largely) got through because the two sides could negotiate – something Harder refuses to do. It’s not helped by the fact that the Independent Senators Group refuses to engage in the necessary horse-trading of getting stuff done because they are under the mistaken impression that it’s “partisan.” Harder has been trying to call for a business committee to time allocate all debates going forward on his behalf, so that he can do even less work than he is currently, and it’s been suspected that he’s engineered this Order Paper crisis in order to make the case for it. This heavy-handed and ham-fisted programming motion is quite likely a salvo in that campaign, which shows the apparent “need” for such time allocation because the Bad Opposition is being partisan, and that’s bad. That he’ll use the excuse of organizing debates for the sake of television just adds to the flimsy excuses that he won’t do his own job.
And because he’s taken this action, he has effectively declared war on the Conservatives, and they are having none of it. You can expect them to take every procedural tactic they can in the coming weeks to frustrate Harder’s agenda to make a point, and if that means needing bells for all proceedings, or having their leader give four-hour-long speeches on bills, then they are fully prepared to do so. I can’t imagine that the Senate Liberals are going to go for any of this either, particularly because this is such an unprecedented and ham-fisted manoeuvre. That leaves the Independents. I’ve heard that Senator Woo, the ISG “facilitator,” is going to wait to listen to the debate on Harder’s programming motion before he comes to any conclusion one way or the other, and Harder will only get his way if he can bring the Independents on-side. But they need to realize that this is about giving Harder the power to impose the most draconian version of time allocation in Senate history, simply because he has refused to do his job to negotiate with the various caucuses to get his agenda through.
We also can’t forget that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t blameless in all of this either. His decision to completely divorce himself from the Senate is not a situation of benign neglect – it’s actual neglect, and his chosen “representative” is causing real damage to the institution, and will continue to cause damage the longer he goes unchecked. This situation should never have happened, and yet here we are. It’s now up to the Independents to see if they’ll let Harder abuse his authority and turn the chamber into the very rubber stamp that he accused it of being under the old regime.
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