Senate’s mob rule could backfire
OTTAWA — The Senate’s recent return to the headlines has nothing to do with dubious expense claims by any of its current occupants.
Instead, the majority of senators — the Conservative majority, specifically — appear to have decided that the fundamental rules of parliamentary democracy can be ignored on a case-bycase basis.
On Friday, the Conservative senate caucus voted to overturn a ruling handed down by the Speaker — a Conservative Speaker, chosen by no less loyal a Conservative than Prime Minister Stephen Harper — that, if allowed to stand, would have prevented the Tories from shutting down a filibuster debate on a controversial proposal from the House of Commons backbench to force unions to publicly disclose detailed financial information on their operations.
And if your eyes started to glaze over midway through that sentence, read it from beginning to end, because this is actually important. The House and Senate chambers voluntarily cede to their respective Speakers the power to decide what is and isn’t allowed within the rules as written.
That’s the Speaker’s job. He or she is supposed to deliver rulings on everything from post-question period points of order about who said what, to privilege claims over the inherent rights of Parliamentarians. And the Speaker is supposed to do this based on precedent, tradition and common sense — not partisan interests or political opportunism.
In the House, those rulings cannot be appealed although, in theory, MPs do have the ultimate recourse of voting non-confidence in the Speaker.
However, there is a mechanism that allows the Senate, as a whole, to overturn its Speaker by simple majority, which is exactly what happened on Friday after the Conservatives, en masse, decided they just didn’t have the patience to spend a few more days running down the clock in the red chamber until the filibuster expired on its own, which likely would have happened at some point next week.
At that point, the bill would have gone to a final vote, which almost certainly would have passed, and been added to the Governor General’s summer Royal Assent to-do list, and we all would have lived happily ever after, particularly the lawyers who will instantly seize upon the opportunity to challenge the new law on constitutional grounds.
Yes, technically, the rules absolutely allowed the senators to do what they did.
Possibly those rules should be changed — and hey, while they’re at it, perhaps the Senate could follow the House’s lead and move to a system of electing Speakers by secret ballot, rather than having one handed down from on high by the prime minister.
In the meantime, though, those Conservative senators who voted Friday may want to imagine what it will feel like when — and not if — their caucus is not affiliated with the government of the day, but on the opposition side of the chamber.
Of the 49 currently active Conservative senators, all but five were appointed by Harper and, since 2010, their party has held a majority in the Senate chamber.
As a result, many of those Tories may not ever have seriously considered what happens when the math doesn’t go their way. Here’s a hint: You lose. That, however, is where the Speaker comes in: specifically, to make sure the majority can’t run entirely roughshod over the rights of the minority — not by putting his thumb on the scale, but by making sure everyone plays by the same rules.
That basic principle is why those Conservative senators who joined forces to overturn Friday’s ruling — which, incidentally, doesn’t include the five who abstained on that vote — will have no one but themselves to blame if they end up on the wrong side of an attempt to circumvent a Speaker’s ruling in their favour in the future.