I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.
Also: If your only example of the Senate’s good work is the assisted dying bill, then you’re REALLY not paying attention.
Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.
So there were shenanigans in the Senate yesterday, the result of a confluence of a number of factors. Some of them are longer term – the terrible manner in which Harper has made his appointments has left a large cadre of Conservative senators who feel beholden to him and his largely imaginary whip. There are exceptions to the rule, but there are a lot of Senators right now who still feel they need to follow the PM’s rule because he appointed them, and that’s simply not the case. It was just a sensibility encouraged by the Senate leadership on the Conservative side who had far too many newbie senators in place at once. Then there’s the problem of the bill itself. The PMO has ruled they want to see this go through – never mind that it would create a giant bureaucracy at CRA, and that it could have “staggering” compliance costs for mutual funds and other organisations beyond the unions it’s targeting. It’s also a constitutional overreach because labour relations are a provincial jurisdiction, but the government wants this through because they see unions as a big threat to them. It never should have been a private members’ bill, but that was how they introduced it, and got it past the worst of the scrutiny on the Commons side because of automatic time limits. The Senate recognised it as unconstitutional and a threat to labour relations in this country, and even a number of Conservative senators opposed it. Led by Hugh Segal, they voted to amend the bill to near uselessness and sent it back to the Commons – but then prorogation happened, and the amendments were undone when the bill reset (thanks to Senate rules). In the interim, Hugh Segal retired, and Marjory LeBreton stepped down as government leader, almost certainly because of the caucus revolt over the bill. The Conservative senators sat on the bill for months before the PMO decided it wanted them to try and pass the bill. The Liberals, as is their right, filibustered. And they have the provinces on their side – seven provinces representing more than 80 percent of the population are opposed to the bill, and the Senate has a regional representation role. Things came to a head yesterday when the Conservatives tried to break the filibuster by trying to time allocate the bill – something they can’t do under Senate rules, and when the Speaker said no, the Conservatives challenged the ruling – something they can actually do under Senate rules. Kady O’Malley explains some of it here, and I responded with a Twitter essay.
One of the problems with PMBs in the Commons now is the automatic time allocation of 2 hours per stage. It severely limits debate… 2/n
The signs of the current government’s incompetence at handling the big files are numerous, but recent revelations about their anti-terrorism legislation just may take the cake. Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that last year, Canadian intelligence services said that they were looking for “significant improvements” to information sharing between the various agencies – but they wanted them within the existing legislative framework. They didn’t need all kinds of new powers or expanded mandates, and yet, the government turn around and brought in C-51, which did just that. Because this government, after almost a decade in office, apparently doesn’t know what they’re doing, gave the intelligence services a ham-fisted, overly broad new suite of powers that they didn’t need – or even want, if these documents are to be believed – because they had managed to terrify themselves thanks to a couple of lone-wolf attacks on home soil. They drafted a bill that was so sloppy and terrible that every expert on the subject could hardly believe it. And their inept communications strategy around the bill managed to get every civil society group up in arms over it, creating a second sweep of paranoia (despite the fact that no, the bill had nothing to do with trying to expand surveillance to civil society groups or use terrorists as cover for trying to bring the hammer down on First Nations – a simple look at the fact that the government has underfunded CSIS and the RCMP will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about their intentions). It looks to be just one more example of where this government once again rejected expert advice in order to make themselves look like they were getting tough on terrorism – as effectively as they’ve gotten “tough on crime” – and they managed to balls things up for themselves and everyone else in the process. Would that we could have some grown-ups leading this country for a change.
Justin Trudeau put on his penitent face yesterday and made his apology for making a quip about Russia intervening in Ukraine because of a hockey loss. He apologised to the ambassador, and signed the book of condolences there for the dead protesters – and everyone pointed out that none of the other leaders had done so, nor had they spoken to the ambassador. Because we need to play cheap politics over the situation there, and try and drag their ambassador into our domestic political mud fights. Way to show that any party leader in Canada is statesmanlike! Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is sending John Baird to Ukraine with a Canadian delegation in order to meet with the interim government to see if Canada can help out in any way (and it’ll likely involve being part of a bailout package, since much of what started this whole revolt was the $15 billion that the former president accepted from the Russian government).
Well, that was interesting. As the debate in the Senate over the suspension motions carried on, moving into the realms now of invoking time allocation and turning the motions from an independent one to government motions, something else completely weird and awkward happened. Senator Patrick Brazeau took to the floor and said that he had essentially been offered a backroom deal by the government leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan – that if he apologised to the Chamber and took full responsibility, then his punishment would be reduced. But none of it makes any sense, particularly when Carignan “clarified” that he was being too helpful and offered Brazeau options of how they could made amendments to the motion. But Brazeau doesn’t believe that he was in the wrong with his housing claims, and no amendments could have been moved because the Senate is still debating Senator Cowan’s amendment to send these three senators before a committee to have everything fully aired. Not to mention that Carignan said that suspension without pay still had to happen, so we’re not sure what could be negotiated other than perhaps the length of the suspension. And while the Conservatives in the House were demanding that the Liberal senators “step aside” and pass the suspension motions “for the good of the taxpayer,” the counter-narrative emerged that the Liberals were not going to be complicit in a cover-up – the notion that the only way all the facts will come out is before a committee where witnesses can be compelled to testify (and hopefully in a way that won’t interfere in the ongoing RCMP investigations). These Conservatives didn’t seem to remember that several Conservative senators are also against the suspensions – or are at least in favour of some better element of due process – though Harper took to talk radio in Toronto to urge those dissenters to vote for the suspension motions because it wasn’t about the RCMP investigations but about internal discipline – err, except there are some pretty valid arguments that at least some of these senators have been the victim of unclear rules and processes, and there are no established internal procedures for discipline this harsh, and they are very wary of setting a precedent that could be used against any others that the government of the day doesn’t like in the future. Not to mention that it is increasingly transparent that the Conservative brass wants this settled before their convention. And as for Senator Wallin, well, she continued to speak out, waiving her right to privacy with Internal Economy transcripts from in camera sessions, and tabling her own documents to help prove her case. Nothing is resolved, and the Senate returns Monday afternoon (which is another rarity, as normally only committees will sit on a Monday instead of the full chamber).