Over the weekend, there was a piece on Policy Options from University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas about the “new” and improved Senate. While most of the piece was a recounting of what brought us to the current set of circumstances in the Upper Chamber, it ended with a series of recommendations of what Thomas thought the Senate should adopt going forward as it enters into this uncharted territory. But I’m not entirely convinced by his particular reasoning. To wit:
- The Senate should only engage in “judicious combativeness” by rarely seeking to defeat or fundamentally alter legislation, but use more subtle means of altering policy over the medium and long term. Which is fine on the surface, but legislation is contextual, and the Senate has long engaged in long-term policy development through committee studies that are usually of some of the top caliber in the country, doing more than Royal Commissions could on a more cost-effective basis. This suggestion is not much of a change from the status quo.
- More pre-study of regular legislation. I’m a bit dubious of this because while pre-study makes sense with some bills that are more complex or time-sensitive, it defeats part of the purpose of the Senate to do the work after the Commons has in order to look for things that the Commons missed and addressing it then, rather than trying to run committee processes in parallel. Meanwhile, there was a time when the Senate did a lot more pre-study of bills, and were subsequently accused of just rubber-stamping legislation when it made its way to the Senate, and bitter feelings erupted.
- Including timetables with legislation. Nope. Nooooope. This is the kind of nonsense that Senator Peter Harder is trying to bring in with his business committee nonsense, and it goes a long way to defeating the purpose of the Senate. Sometimes sober second thought takes time. Sometimes it takes a while for senators who see problems with legislation to convince the rest of the chamber, and including timetables from the start not only create a largely unnecessary sense of haste (and the Senate generally passes legislation more swiftly than the Commons, with few exceptions already) means that you’re applying unnecessary pressure that gives the message that you would rather a rubber stamp than sober second thought. And like I said – legislation is contextual, and no two bills are the same, so to have someone come in from the start and start assigning timetables lacks any sense.
I get that there’s a mood to pre-emptively start reining in a more activist upper chamber, and I have my own concerns with some of the newer appointees and their sense of self, which is all well and good. But to start demanding rule or process changes is foolhardy, and will almost certainly result in unintended consequences. The “new and improved” Senate is working, and they’re responding to the signals that the government is sending them when it comes to their willingness to accepted amended bills. There’s no problem to fix, and I wish that people would leave well enough alone.