On Monday, Independent Senator Donna Dasko released a poll about how Canadians perceive the “new” Senate, and surprise, surprise, Canadians largely liked the categories they were asked to rate, such as whether they liked senators not being aligned with political parties, or the “independent” selection process – even though the overall perception of the Senate remains poor. In her press release, Dasko wrote “The past year of the COVID pandemic led to a cancellation of many Senate sittings and very little committee work, and Canadians have had few chances to see the Senate in action,” as an excuse why those perceptions remained so low. There is a bit of a lack of self-awareness with that assessment, given that the Senate had every opportunity to show just how useful they could be during this pandemic, and they completely blew it.
First of all, this is not Dasko’s first poll on the perceptions of the Senate – she did so two years ago and came to the same stunning conclusion that people were so enthralled with the “new” Senate that there were Senators who wanted to make this an issue during the 2019 election, as a tacit endorsement of Justin Trudeau as this is his project and no other party has any interest in maintaining it. This poll comes as the Senate is contemplating Bill S-4, which would amend the Parliament of Canada Act to entrench some of these changes. Of course, the problem with these kinds of poll questions is that people respond to “non-partisan” and “independent” because it sounds good, without really understanding how these have impacted the operations of the Senate; or they fail to understand that ideology is still very much present with many of these “independent” appointments.
The bigger part of Dasko’s lament for the lack of sittings during the pandemic is difficult to pin down, but there is some blame to go around. While I am perfectly aware that there is frustration among senators, who want to be able to sit and do more, control over sittings largely rests with the government, and in this case, that is the Government Leader in the Senate, Senator Marc Gold. Part of this has to do with the fact that there has been a dearth of government legislation for the Senate to deal with – thank the Conservatives for the procedural games they have been playing to slow-walk a number of bills that should have passed months ago, but also other opposition parties because they went along with these games until a few weeks ago. The Senate’s protocol has largely been to not sit unless there is government business to take care of, though the real value of the Senate has always been it’s committees.
Of course, this was another sticking point – committees didn’t get situated for almost a year-and-a-half after the election because of a protracted fight that Senator Yuen Pau Woo, leader if the Independent Senators Group, was having over his attempt to set a rule that if a senator was to leave a caucus that they could not take their committee seat with them, in defiance of established practice within the Chamber that maximizes the independence of individual senators. That was only recently resolved, depriving senators of meaningful work that they could have been doing on these committees over the past fourteen months. As it stands, only two committees – National Finance and Social Affairs, Science and Technology – have been regularly meeting in order to provide some oversight of the government’s pandemic response, though the lack of any reports on their findings has meant that work has been largely invisible to the public.
Even if committees were up and running, there has been a resourcing issue, particularly around hybrid sittings, because the Senate shares IT resources with the House of Commons, and the Commons has been gobbling up the lion’s share of those resources to run its own (dysfunctional) committees – and then complaining that there aren’t enough resources to keep those committees running longer. To add to that, Senators have been told that it takes twenty staff to run a committee meeting, and there has been a sense of guilt that they don’t want to put those clerks, interpreters, stenographers and IT staff in harm’s way to run these meetings, and some have taken on the notion that they can’t consider themselves as “essential” as other front-line workers out there.
I think this kind of thinking has hobbled both chambers of our Parliament, and devalues the work that Parliament does, especially now when the government requires oversight of their extraordinary actions. It also goes back to my point that so much more could have been accomplished if MPs and Senators agreed to create a parliamentary bubble in order to ensure that sittings could happen safely, that staff would not be as affected in order to run meetings, and there be much less drain on resources because meetings could happen live, and the interpreters wouldn’t be burning themselves out or suffering acoustic injuries in order to accommodate hybrid sittings. And even given that MPs have refused to contemplate this situation, Senators could more easily have done so because they are fewer in number, and there is literally a tunnel between the Chateau Laurier and the Senate building to accommodate the bubble, which would reduce travel and the need to quarantine in certain parts of the country.
But none of this has happened, and as a result, the Senate has been missing in action for so much of the pandemic. While the leaders of the various independent caucuses have little in the way of formal powers under the current rules, I would have to think that there would have been more they could have done to come to a consensus on how to better hold sittings and impress it up on Senator Gold, rather than to stick the current protocols. I fear that this absence during the pandemic has done more lasting harm to the institution than it has to protect its members and staff, and that will be really hard to overcome once this pandemic is over.
Photo Credit: CBC News
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