A Rowdy, Revamped Red Chamber

Relentless, all-day media coverage recently put all eyes on the Senate. With baited breath, we watched as Senators put the Independents’ majority to the test over the government’s cannabis bill.

The message coming out of last Thursday’s landmark vote was clear: you cannot ignore the Upper Chamber anymore. It’s increasingly a pivotal part of government relations and of the government’s path to passing its own agenda.

Bill C-45’s (The Cannabis Act) second reading vote coverage raised questions around what this shifting balance of power might result in.

Rampant speculation led to the vote being billed as tighter than it ended up being. This was a result of dicey legislative math due to illnesses and absences, an overestimation of the title “Independent”, and swirling rumours of “secret flights” back to Ottawa.

It passed 44 to 29, which is arguably not that tight considering current standings.

As it was reported after, this “live-or-die vote” panned out, which helped the government “avoid defeat on a key pot bill vote.”

The coverage and anticipation caused industry to panic and could have had serious impacts on the markets.

For observers, this Senate vote follows on a string of precedents: Senator Pratte’s filibuster over the Canada Infrastructure Bank; legislative ping-pong over diverse corporate boards; and forcing the elected government to miss their committed July deadline for cannabis legalization and regulation.

Some are surprised there have not been Senate abolitionists marching on Ottawa.

In this new reality, votes don’t go the government’s way on occasion. This was is on display this week with some Independent Senators helping Conservatives to seek to force the Prime Minister’s security advisor to appear before their Senate security committee; something even over 20 hours of marathon voting could not accomplish on the House side.

It’s safe to say that we cannot ignore what the Senate means for relations with government anymore.

Uncertainty for legislation can have impacts on investment and infrastructure timelines, and it’s crucial to have a solid strategy to help get good bills through in predictable and timely ways.

The Senate can play a very valuable role through the vision laid out for them as a source of independent suggestions that give the elected government room to adopt good amendments, without any partisan considerations.

Independent Senators make up 43/105 Senate seats. The Conservatives (33) and Liberals (11) are decreasing through attrition. The Senate Speaker and ‘Government Representative Team’ are technically non-affiliated, and there are a few misfits without caucus homes. 12 seats remain vacant.

The Senate has seldom provided excitement to Canadian politicos and journalists, save for real coups by Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister Bowell who both served as Senators during their tenures, rather than having to deal with the indignity of running to be Members of Parliament.

In this new era of watching the Senate more closely, it is crucial to understand that there are bellwether personalities that swing votes, precedents that may help make sense of voting patterns, and complicated rules and conventions particular to “The Other Place” as they are called in the House of Commons.

The Senate is still working on modernizing itself, but it will continue to suggest more and more amendments as it finds its footing.

To meet your goals, the smoothest road through the revamped Red Chamber must be mapped carefully and building those relationships can provide a key second juncture to make your case.

Shane Mackenzie is an Associate Consultant with Ensight. He is a seasoned campaigner at all levels, previously worked on Parliament Hill for Liberal Members of Parliament, and at the Liberal Party of Canada headquarters.