In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.
For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.
Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) September 20, 2017