Checking in on the Senate

A brief review of the quagmire

Pierre Poilievre apparently once mused about abolishing the Senate.

The man Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed to oversee democratic reform — including revamping the Senate — once threatened to personally see to abolishing the upper chamber if it killed a bill about union financing. Newly minted Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre made the comments during a heated debate in a national Conservative caucus meeting with MPs and senators earlier this year.

For some, it was Poilievre’s emotions getting the better of him during a passionate debate. But to his counterparts in the Senate, the episode is an example of what they want to avoid: Being threatened. There are hopes within the Tory Senate caucus that Poilievre can change his tone and work with a group of newly emboldened senators who have shown they won’t be pushed in towing the party line.

It has indeed previously been suggested that the amending of C-377 was the result of some kind of Senate Spring. But if there was a legislative principle here for Conservatives to assert about the purview of the Senate, it would have to be rather narrowly defined—unless Conservatives want to now express regret that the Senate previously killed the NDP’s Climate Change Accountability Act and fatally stalled the NDP’s generic medicine bill. Given those two recent precedents, the Senate would, for instance, seem to have free reign to do whatever it pleases to Russ Hiebert’s union disclosure bill, but the Prime Minister’s Office seems to think the Senate should bow to the will of the House and Mr. Hiebert’s bill might be turned into a government bill.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is ready to table a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate (unless he isn’t?) and the Prime Minister is apparently thinking about opting for abolition if the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t let him make changes without provincial agreement.

Sources suggest the Prime Minister is coming around to the idea that his government should push abolition, if the court says any changes require provincial approval. The concern in Ottawa is that the forthcoming Auditor General’s audit of all Senate expenses is likely to reveal widespread abuse and leave the government in the cross-hairs of criticism from the opposition parties, particularly the NDP, which is in favour of abolition. One senior Conservative MP said privately this week that the government cannot risk being seen as the defender of the status quo.

The Prime Minister has already decided that his cabinet will be senator-free.

Liberal Senator Mac Harb is challenging the Senate’s ruling against him. The audit of Pamela Wallin’s expenses is expected to be released on August 13. The Senate has also sought a legal opinion on the constitutional requirement of residency.

And now enter the conservative-minded Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which has a giant, inflatable Mike Duffy and wants a non-binding national referendum on the future of the Senate, not just because of the troubles of Mr. Duffy, but also because the Senate amended Mr. Hiebert’s bill. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who moved the amendment to Mr. Hiebert’s bill, has previously called for a referendum on abolition.

In his statement to Postmedia, Mr. Poilievre repeated the party line that only the Conservatives have a “real plan” to reform the Senate, but the only plan right now seems to be to wait for the Supreme Court to tell the government what it can do.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hold hearings on the government’s reference in November. All ten provinces and two of the territories are now registered as intervenors. If the court rules that some amount of provincial agreement is required to elect senators and impose term limits, the Prime Minister will have to decide whether he wants to pursue such negotiations. If the court rules that the government can proceed without provincial agreement, the Prime Minister will have to decide whether he wants to finally move forward with the government’s legislation and whether he has the support in the Senate to pass it.

If an elected Senate is established without provincial consent, the Prime Minister might still have to deal with provinces that do not wish to go along with his plan. And, in either event, if the Prime Minister does still want an elected Senate, there’s the small matter of whether or not he has any interest in a mechanism to limit the Senate’s ability to block legislation passed by the House.

Thus is the Senate now beset by scandal, questions about its authority, caucus tension, a court challenge, a Supreme Court reference, an Auditor General’s review, renewed questions about the shape and nature of its future and a giant, inflatable version of its most famous member. It is unclear at this moment which of those is most problematic.

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