Sober second thought is not an attack on democracy

News comes from the Senate that they are ready to defeat Bill C-290, an NDP private members’ bill on allowing bets to be placed on single sports matches. It sounds benign enough, and the House passed it unanimously, so everything should be good, right? Well, not really. And herein lies a case where the Senate proves that its sober second thought is a very necessary part of the system.

If you look at the comments these Senators are making to the media, they focus on a very key fact – that it sailed through the House with virtually zero scrutiny. Less scrutiny, in fact, than most other private members’ legislation. If you look it up on LegisInfo, you’ll find that it had a mere hour of debate at second reading – and by “debate” I mean about four canned speeches about what a great idea it was, and that was it. It then received a single hour of study at committee where the only witness, other than the MP who sponsored it, was someone from the Canadian Gaming Association, who wants the bill to pass so that they can profit from it. And then it had twenty minutes at report stage, and twenty minutes of third reading debate. That was it. Not exactly a shining example of study, or hearing opposing points of view, or any of that.

And there are plenty of opposing points of view, from professional sports leagues, to psychologists who study gambling addictions, to law enforcement that deals with organised crime. Apparently some MPs were also concerned and wrote to Senators to say as much, but they apparently couldn’t be seen to vote against such a popular measure in the Commons (and this isn’t the first time that MPs have shown themselves to be particularly gutless, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment).

And so the Senate did their job. They presented opposing point of view in debate. They posed particular problems with this bill, from the social ills, to the problem of organised crime – the whole reason the law that prohibits single-game betting is on the books in the first place, since it’s much harder to rig the minimum of three games that one is allowed to bet on than a single game. And following the money, one also sees a bit of constituency self-interest, as it is estimated that the casinos in Windsor could stand to make some $70 million in the first year that this bill comes into law, and the MP who sponsored it is from that region. Senators then sent it to committee where they’ve been hearing from all kinds of witnesses. They held seven hours of hearings in the first three meetings alone (the other two meetings to date aren’t online yet, so I can’t count witnesses or hours clocked). Suffice to say, it’s being thoroughly studied, and senators are uncomfortable with what they’re hearing.

The result is that the Senate is about to exercise its constitutional powers to quash the bill. And this is where the absurdity comes in. There’s a lot of hand-waving and wailing and gnashing of teeth right now because the unelected Senate is about to kill a bill that passed the house unanimously. As though the unanimity somehow magically means that it’s impossible for the bill to be badly flawed. In fact, this is precisely why we have the Senate as an unelected body – so that you don’t have a bunch of politicians looking at the electoral math of voting against something that sounds good and will be feel good to voters.

Some of the arguments get even more bizarre, where someone even posits that allowing the Senate to defeat this bill that passed unanimously is somehow setting the precedent that a future non-Conservative government will be held hostage by a Conservative-dominated Senate. Because wow, the Liberal senate constantly held Conservative bills hostage when they dominated the Chamber and the Conservatives the Commons. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more bone-headed argument when the Senate is just doing its job, or a better example of knee-jerk partisan tribalism, where constitutionally mandated actions on the Senate which happens to currently be dominated by party you don’t like is suddenly interpreted as some kind of stealth attack on democracy. Give me a break.

The underlying issue here isn’t that the Senate is exercising its powers – it’s that MPs didn’t do their jobs. And the message that Senators are sending to MPs is that MPs should actually do their due diligence rather than leaving the work of scrutiny to the Senate. You know, like they often do with things that are unseemly, or because the math is too hard. Because really, if this is the kind of half-assed job that MPs are demonstrating that is sufficient for the Grand Inquest of the Nation, then why the hell would we even contemplate an elected Senate where we’d get nothing but more of the same?

4 thoughts on “Sober second thought is not an attack on democracy

  1. I concur.

    There is no legitimate constitutional argument why the Senate should not be able to kill this private members’ bill. It is certainly not a matter of confidence and did not require the royal recommendation. The Senate poses no threat to the primacy of the Commons by voting against a frivolous private members’ bill.

    • I think we’re forgetting that MPs are magically granted the powers of infallibility by virtue of having been elected to public office. Or, at least I think that’s the argument that they’re trying to present.

  2. If as you say due diligence is missing in the Upper House, but it exists in the Senate, why did they (Senate) allow the Omnibus Budget Bill slide through the senate so easily last spring?
    The Senators have always danced to the tune of the party that put them there. At the moment the Senate majority is Conservative. So who is to say they are not dancing to the tune of the Pied Piper?

    • 1) For future reference, the Senate is the Upper House, the Commons is the Lower House.
      2) The Omnibus Budget Bill got a lot more scrutiny in the Senate than it did in the Commons, and a number of different committees who broke it up for pre-study.
      3) The Senate is almost never going to turn down a budget bill because they’re confidence measures, and the Senate is not a confidence chamber. But as I said, they put in a lot more hours of scrutiny, heard from a lot more witnesses, and got all of those objections into the record.
      4) Senators do not always “dance to the tune” of the party that put them there. While it’s true that Senators who are more recently appointed to tend to be a bit more partisan and will tend to feel more beholden to the Prime Minister that appointed them, they actually have near-complete independence. Most Senators realise this within a few years, and start to act upon it, but it takes them a while to shake off that feeling. This crop of Conservative Senators is still largely new, and under the mistaken impression that they can be whipped. That will change soon enough – a process that will be hastened after the next leadership contest in the party. And considering that this bill passed the House with Conservative support, it seems highly unlikely that the “Pied Piper” would engineer it to pass the House in order to be defeated in the Senate.

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