It’s a point that’s almost funny: after we spent years complaining about how successive governments packed the Senate with their own party faithful and supporters, we’re now complaining about the same House of Parliament gradually filling with independents who have their own ideas about legislation, and aren’t afraid to use them.
First it was bad that they rubber-stamped legislation; now that they are actually reviewing proposed laws along the lines of the sober second thought they were always supposed to apply, there are some looking back fondly at the days of the stamp-pad.
Truth is, though, it’s an improvement — especially now that a majority government can be put in place by a minority of Canadians.
At the moment, the Senate is tangled up reviewing the federal budget — and taking an especially close look at the Liberal government’s planned infrastructure bank. They’ve got concerns, and want to see those concerns address. (It’s shame that those same senators weren’t in place when the federal government was dismantling the long-form census and gutting science employees in this country — a little long-term, non-partisan thinking would have been welcome back then.)
Clearly, senators have to keep one crucial point in mind at all times: while they are now being picked on the basis of their skills and abilities (instead of their seal-like willingness to unceasingly flap their flippers on their desks in support of the government that put them into their positions), they are still unelected members of an upper house.
That means that, above all, they have to have clear deference for the will of the people.
“We actually made a Senate that is freer from partisanship … and doing the real work of advising, recommending, doing studies and being a thoughtful place of sober second thought,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Global News last week.
“The issue around budgets, of course, is it’s the House of Commons that votes on budgetary measures, and the Senate is, of course, welcome to look at it and make recommendations,” Trudeau said, adding, “But the legitimacy happens from the House of Commons on this.”
At the moment, the Senate is primarily examining bills and sending recommendations back to the House of Commons for consideration, a process that slows the legislation down, but doesn’t force Parliament to make changes.
Sometimes, the House of Commons and the government take that advice.
Changes to legislation are being made, and it can be argued that the upper house has saved the government from having to face expensive constitutional challenges already.
So, here’s to a new kind of Senate, one still finding its way after years of being a comfortable feeding trough for over-the-hill party bagmen and acolytes — just as long as they clearly recognize the unique privilege and limited responsibilities of the seats they hold.