Re­vamped Se­nate makes it­self heard

Metro Canada (Ottawa) - - Ottawa -

With a po­ten­tial im­passe brew­ing in the Se­nate over his govern­ment’s lat­est bud­get, it’s tempt­ing to won­der if Justin Trudeau pri­vately re­grets his de­ci­sion to turn the up­per house into a more in­de­pen­dent, less-par­ti­san cham­ber.

Not at all, the prime min­is­ter in­sisted in an in­ter­view with Global’s West Block on Sun­day, it’s work­ing out ex­actly as he’d hoped.

Just bravado?

Em­mett Macfar­lane, who ad­vised Trudeau back in 2014 on the kind of Se­nate re­forms that could be achieved with­out re­quir­ing a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment, doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think the prime min­is­ter could have ex­pected much bet­ter than this,” says the Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist.

Based on Macfar­lane’s ad­vice, Trudeau kicked sen­a­tors out of the Lib­eral cau­cus and, once in power, cre­ated an arms-length body to rec­om­mend non-par­ti­san in­di­vid­u­als for ap­point­ment to the up­per house.

Since the new regime was in­sti­tuted, the Se­nate has passed 25 govern­ment bills. On six of those bills — 25 per cent — sen­a­tors pro­posed amend­ments, a big jump over the av­er­age four per cent of bills that the pre-re­form Se­nate used to amend.

Some of the amend­ments on those six bills were ac­cepted by the House of Com­mons, some were mod­i­fied and oth­ers were re­jected. In ev­ery case, sen­a­tors ul­ti­mately bowed to the will of the elected cham­ber and passed the bills, even if they didn’t get all the changes they wanted.

The record thus far “means that we’re de­vel­op­ing a con­ven­tion of def­er­ence to the elected cham­ber,” says Peter Harder, the govern­ment’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the Se­nate.

“We are a com­ple­men­tary body to the House of Com­mons. That doesn’t mean we’re a rub­ber stamp. It means that we do de­lib­er­ate, we do re­view, we do make rec­om­men­da­tions and some­times amend­ments,” he says, adding that the govern­ment “takes those amend­ments se­ri­ously” even if it doesn’t al­ways ac­cept them.

While Trudeau may “not per­haps ev­ery day, in ev­ery way” think the Se­nate is be­hav­ing the way he’d hoped, Harder says it is “gen­er­ally” work­ing out as he in­tended.

Macfar­lane agrees, say­ing it’s “ab­surd to call the Se­nate’s cur­rent be­hav­iour a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis,” as some crit­ics have done.

“Not a sin­gle piece of leg­is­la­tion has been blocked. Where the House has as­serted its will and re­jected Se­nate amend­ments, the Se­nate has, thus far, re­lented and passed the bill.”

The Se­nate’s pro­cliv­ity for amend­ing bills does mean it takes longer for leg­is­la­tion to be passed. And that’s con­trib­uted to the Trudeau govern­ment’s rel­a­tively light leg­isla­tive record — it has en­acted half the num­ber of bills that were en­acted by the pre­vi­ous Harper govern­ment by the half­way point of its man­date.

But Macfar­lane says amend­ing bills is “per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate” be­hav­iour for a cham­ber that was cre­ated by the fa­thers of Con­fed­er­a­tion pre­cisely to pro­vide sober sec­ond thought. And if that causes de­lays, he says that’s not a bad thing if it re­sults in im­prove­ments to leg­is­la­tion.

“I would ar­gue it’s not even be­ing ob­struc­tion­ist, but help­ful.”

In­deed, in two in­stances where the Com­mons ac­cepted Se­nate amend­ments, Macfar­lane says “the govern­ment ar­guably saved it­self from fu­ture con­sti­tu­tional chal­lenges. I’d say that counts as an im­prove­ment.”

i don’t think the prime min­is­ter

could have ex­pected much bet­ter than this.

Em­mett Macfar­lane

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