The government representative in the Senate is accusing Conservative senators of deliberately trying to sabotage Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s efforts to turn the upper house into a less partisan, independent chamber of sober second thought.
Sen. Peter Harder says the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper “swung a partisan wrecking ball” at the Senate, turning it into little more than “a rubber-stamping echo chamber.”
But now he says the 33 Conservatives senators — all but two of whom were appointed by Harper — are “swinging yet another wrecking ball,” aimed at demonstrating that Trudeau’s reformed upper house can’t work.
Harder makes the charge in a lengthy paper released today outlining the principles he believes should guide independent senators as they scrutinize, amend and, on rare occasions, defeat legislation passed by the elected House of Commons.
While there have been some growing pains, Harder says Trudeau’s reforms are restoring the credibility of “Canada’s most maligned political institution” and returning the Senate to the role envisaged by the fathers of Confederation: an independent chamber that is complementary to the House of Commons, neither a rubber stamp of the government nor a rival to the elected chamber.
Two years into the new model, Harder says the Senate is “on its way to achieving this high wire act.”
However, he says the transformation remains a “colossal” challenge, one made significantly more difficult by Conservative senators’ determination to play partisan games.
He accuses them of voting as a bloc to defeat legislation that would implement the Liberal government’s election platform — including trying to defeat a bill to legalize marijuana at second reading last month — and to insist on amendments on confidence matters, such as budgetary legislation, even after they’re rejected by the Commons.
Moreover, he says the Conservative senators use procedural tactics to “routinely and relentlessly” delay legislation or to prevent votes from ever taking place on bills passed by wide margins in the Commons.
Their apparent goal, Harder says, is to give “the public the false impression that a complementary, less partisan and more independent Senate cannot work diligently or efficiently.”
He accuses the Conservatives of hypocrisy, given the way they conducted themselves when Harper was in power. He cites the judge who presided over the Sen. Mike Duffy trial, who commented that Harper’s office had been “ordering senior (Conservative) members of the Senate around as if they were mere pawns on a chess board” and they had acquiesced, “robotically marching forth to recite their provided scripted lines.”
Yet now, Harder says, those same senators see their role as blocking the government at every turn.
‘Partisan wrecking ball’
“On the face of it, some Conservative senators would have the institution be a rubber stamp when their party is in power and an aggressive rival to the elected House when their party is in opposition,” Harder writes.
“The upper echelons of the previous government swung a partisan wrecking ball at the Senate. These days, certain senators are swinging yet another wrecking ball, this time directed at the current government’s Senate renewal initiative.
“They have shown a willingness to go to great lengths to work toward its failure, a sought-after prize for their arsenal in the forthcoming election campaign.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said he’d end Trudeau’s approach to Senate appointments — naming only independent individuals recommended by a non-partisan, arm’s length advisory group — and would revert to the age-old practice of appointing only partisan supporters to the upper house.
The Conservatives are the only remaining partisan caucus in the 105-seat Senate, which is now dominated by independent senators.
Focus on constitutional compliance
In keeping with the intent of the founding fathers, Harder argues that appointed senators should be “selective” in proposing amendments to legislation passed by the elected Commons, focusing on those which pertain to ensuring compliance with the Constitution and international agreements, protecting the rights and interests of vulnerable minorities and impacted regions and correcting any drafting errors.
He says senators should generally defer to the Commons if it rejects Senate amendments — especially if the bill delivers on a platform commitment of the governing party — and should defeat government legislation only “as a rare last resort.”
The independent senators have, by and large, already adopted those principles. In the current session of Parliament, they’ve proposed amendments to nine government bills, some but not all of which have been accepted. They’ve bowed to the will of the Commons when amendments have been rejected and they’ve defeated no bills.
In all, Harder says the Senate has amended 17 per cent of the Trudeau government’s legislation. By contrast, the Conservative-dominated Senate amended only one government bill during Harper’s last session of Parliament.