Don’t Forget About The Senate – Time’s They Are A Changin’

Senate of Canada chamber. Public Domain. Photo by Makaristos.

MPs have returned home for the summer after pushing through the Liberal government’s top legislative priorities. With the now closed off Senate’s rubber stamp era – it prepares for a summer of legislative limbo in which elected officials can no longer assume their job is done. Indeed, the Senate’s new independent streak means stakeholders will continue to deploy their lobbying efforts over the summer months, targeting Senators who have empowered themselves to alter bills like never before, as well as MPs who may be called on to revisit legislation once it has been amended by the Senate.

Senators had serious objections to the constitutionality of an impaired driving bill that they argue could paralyze the court system. They worried that the cannabis legalization would give rise to snowbirds being rejected from their usual Florida golf trip because they had a puff of a joint during a Phish concert in ‘85. Senators also complained loudly about how the House of Commons was not giving them long enough to give fulsome review to a suite of bills, while also asking them to pass them within weeks.

The Senate has been increasingly watched by journalists and observers due to their in-flux raison d’être. Their Modernization committee currently reflecting on its own purpose has released twelve reports that add to a long list of other Senate reform proposals.

Instead of volleying back-and-forth on cannabis or even impaired driving – they really only took a stand on a piece of government transportation legislation. They decided that arguments around ‘interswitching’, ‘maritime fairness’, and impacts on commodity movements via rail companies were worth going to bat in the media and legislatively.

What does a Senate that has a more adversarial mandate as an institution mean? Where will Senators draw a line in the sand next? 

By convention, Senators bow to the will of the House of Commons when push comes to shove on government legislation; however, in June of 2017, the Senate sent a forceful message to elected MPs prior to the last summer recess about their right to amend budget bills and even divide them. At the time, some Senators wanted to pull out the Canada Infrastructure Bank element of the budget bill in order to examine it more closely. The government fought to get this moved ahead on, with hopes of delivering on ambitious infrastructure commitments before the 2019 election.

Before this summer recess, the Senate again showed it would pick its battles. It backed down when the stakes were high and their public polling chips were down in terms of getting the government to walk back some of its more politically charged promises, particularly on cannabis.

Senators, in their pursuit of modernization, are using novel tactics – notably sending some government bills to two or more committees depending on the topics the bill touches upon.

Reconciling multiple committees’ takes on the impacts of a bill has been a favoured practice for them. In the House of Commons, we are seeing the Heritage and Industry committees studying component parts of the Copyright Act during its statutory review. This may be something that House committees do more and more on multifaceted proposals.

For the Senate, these new behaviours can be expected to continue. The times that the Senate decides to mount of a direct challenge to the elected House will ebb and flow, particularly if they see that their perceived value by the public could wain.

With each new Senate appointment, the Trudeau government is finding that these recruits’ orientation into the ranks of the independents will depend upon which relationships they form and which Senators they decide to model themselves after. There are a lot of big personalities in the Senate who can make or break a tight vote swinging one way or the other.

For organizations and businesses, a tailored Senate Strategy is no longer a nice-to-have, and now a must-have. 

Going into a busy fall for legislation and a CPTPP Implementation Act to deliver upon – Senators will come back rested and spoiling for a chance to add their two cents.

Until now, Senators and MPs have worked just down the main hall from each other in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. But that is about to change.

During the renovation of Centre Block, the House of Commons will move to an interim chamber in West Block next door. However, the Senate is going father, to a specially built chamber in the Government Conference Centre in the old railway station across from the Chateau Laurier.

Will the physical separation and reduced face-time lead to great policy separation? And what would the consequences of that be? Stay tuned for Senate showdowns in the lead-up to the final summer recess wrap-up before 2019’s election.