The ISG’s blinkered vision of the future

Woo 2


Late last week, the “facilitators” of the Independent Senators Group, Senators Yuen Pau Woo and Raymonde Saint-Germain, sent an op-ed out to several newspapers that was printed widely, in which they contemplated the changes in the Senate over the past four years, and looked ahead to what might happen post-election should a different parliamentary configuration present itself once the votes have been counted.  As with the “progress report” put out by the Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, around the same time (which I remind you was a complete garbage fire), this op-ed has many of the hallmarks of the problems with the ISG, from their arrogance and ignorance of the institution, to a complete inability to see their own culpability in the problems that they created for themselves.

The op-ed starts out with the bizarre claim that in previous parliaments where the government of the day didn’t have a majority in the Senate, that they would co-exist by means of “understandings” among the caucuses, enforced by the discipline of the party whips.  Except that’s not really what happened.  Those so-called “understandings” was the self-awareness of senators who formed the opposition that their party didn’t win the election, and since they didn’t have the democratic legitimacy to outright frustrate the government of the day and veto all of their bills, they ensured that they would pass – but they also would do their due diligence and properly scrutinize bills and propose amendments (which the government of the day may or may not accept).  This had nothing to do with being whipped into compliance.

Which brings me to the second point in the op-ed, where Woo and Saint-Germain once again pat themselves on the back for not having a whip in the ISG – a favoured pastime for ISG members.  The problem, of course, is that it ignores that for the most part, the “whip” in the Senate was largely symbolic.  Yes, there was an aberration in the Harper years post-2008, when the mass-appointment of those 18 senators in one fell swoop during the prorogation crisis was done with those new senators erroneously being told that they were to be whipped, essentially appointed as backbenchers, but to reiterate, that was unusual in the course of history.

The ISG members have demonstrated an inability to grasp that in politics, people can agree and disagree on issues without the need for a whip – indeed, there is a complete demonstrated lack of understanding that politics works because people with a common cause come together within an institution like parliament.  Usually this is around a party banner, but even without one, there is still a fundamental agreement on most issues, which is why they vote together.  It doesn’t need to be by way of whip or coercion.

The op-ed moves onto more back-patting about the number of amendments proposed and accepted over the course of the previous parliament, but again, it lacks the self-awareness that most of the amendments that were accepted came from the government, and were laundered through the ISG by way of the senators sponsoring the bills in question.  This puts the fact that 60 percent of their amendments were accepted into more perspective.  As for the notion that they did not prove their independence by defeating government bills, they state that no bill met their self-imposed “test” for when their veto should be exercised.  This is one of the only decent points of the op-ed, which was that the Senate needs to be assessed based on its deliberations as opposed to counting votes – which is true (and which frustrates me about some of the political science applied to the Chamber).  But this is the only part that they get right.

And here is where we get to some of the most fundamentally wrong portions of the op-ed, where the pair complain that there has been too much resistance within the Senate to change the rules to better suit the Independents and their agenda.

This resistance to change is in part due to years of partisan horse trading, and the belief that a delay tactic that today frustrates one side will be the same delay tactic that can be used following a change in government.  It is the result of an institutional design that, for all its merits, overvalues tradition and privilege, and underrates transparency, accountability, and efficacy.

This is pretty much where my head exploded, because those rules and traditions exist for a reason, and they simply refuse to accept the reasons why.  For example, there is absolutely no awareness that the rules are written in a way that protects the rights of individual senators to have their say to every piece of business, and that they can’t be steamrolled easily by the majority of the Chamber.

It’s not about delay tactics, even though these rules may be exploited as such.  It’s also that these rules encourage the different caucuses in the chamber to negotiate – which is how the institution operated for nearly 150 years.  The fact that they qualify the horse-trading as partisan is a spotlight on the complete lack of self-awareness on the part of the ISG senators that just because they don’t sit with a party label, it doesn’t mean they’re not partisan.  They absolutely are – especially in the ways in which they have come to demonise the Conservative senators.

Add to this, there is a complete mental disconnect with how politics works.  They have no grasp that they are sitting in a political institution, where *gasp!* politics is being played.  That can mean strategy, laying down markers, and performance.  They haven’t learned that they can disagree within the Chamber and be friends outside of it, too many of them taking everything personally, or not respecting that sometimes debate can be jovial and poke fun at one another, and that not everything is a slight.  And this kind of humourlessness is killing the spark of debate within the Chamber – much as the way that declining collegiality in the Commons quashed it in that chamber.

So while the ISG senators pat themselves on the back for the claim they’ve reduced partisanship, while at the same time complaining that bills take too long, they refuse to look in the mirror and see their own culpability.  And unless they start to wake up, their blinkered vision of the future will be a Chamber that is at its most partisan and dysfunctional at any point in its history.

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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