Bill aims to legally recognize evolution to more independent, less partisan Senate

·4 min read

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is moving to legally recognize the evolution of Canada's Senate into a more independent, non-partisan chamber of sober second thought.

It has introduced a government bill in the Senate, which is now on its way through the upper house with the support of all four Senate groups.

It may be in for a rougher ride in the House of Commons, however, where it is expected to land as early as next week.

Bill S-4 would amend the Parliament of Canada Act to formally recognize the transformation that the Senate has undergone since 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began appointing only non-partisan senators nominated by an arm's-length advisory body.

The act currently acknowledges the existence of only recognized political parties in the Senate — in practice, just the Liberals and Conservatives, with one or the other designated as the government caucus and the other as the official Opposition caucus.

Bill S-4 would change that to reflect the reality that the vast majority of senators now sit in three groups unaffiliated with any party: the Independent Senators Group, the Progressive Senate Group and the Canadian Senators Group.

Along with that recognition comes funding for each group and its leadership.

It also comes with some additional powers, including giving them a say in any changes to the Senate's most powerful committee, the internal economy committee, and requiring that they be consulted on the appointment of some officers of Parliament.

The Conservatives, the last remaining partisan group in the Senate with just 20 members, would remain the official Opposition, with no diminution of their funding or powers.

But the bill would recognize that the government caucus now consists of just three senators: the government representative in the Senate, his or her legislative deputy and a government liaison.

The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Peter Harder, the first government representative in the chamber who now sits with the Progressive Senate Group.

He argues that the bill is a practical approach to reflecting the new reality in the upper house.

"As it stands, there are group leaders and facilitators who have little or no status when it comes to providing input or advice into government appointments, who do not have the legislative authority to make membership changes on the Senate's most powerful committee and who must rely on the benevolence of 'recognized' colleagues to fund and manage their groups and research staff without leadership allowances," Harder told the Senate during opening debate on the bill earlier this month.

"This needs to change and, with this bill, it will."

The bill received approval in principle from senators Wednesday. They sat in committee of the whole on Thursday to hear from Dominic LeBlanc, who as president of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada oversees the democratic institutions portfolio.

"Bill S-4 is an important next step forward in our government's support of a less partisan and more independent Senate," said LeBlanc, who is also the minister for intergovernmental affairs.

"The Senate was created … to play an important role in providing sober second thought in legislative review, regional representation and also the representation of minority voices."

The minister noted his father, former governor general Romeo LeBlanc, sat in the upper house from 1984 to 1994.

Conservative Senate leader Don Plett told LeBlanc that while he supports Bill S-4, he takes issue with any suggestion that the Senate is less partisan now than it has been since 1867.

"We may have groups that are not part of registered parties, but believe me, there isn't a person that serves in this august chamber that isn't, in fact, partisan," Plett said.

Harder said in an interview that he expects the bill to speedily pass third and final reading next week, after which it will move on to the House of Commons, where its reception will likely not be quite so enthusiastic.

Both the Bloc Québécois and NDP maintain that the unelected Senate is illegitimate and are, thus, likely to vote against the bill.

Hence, Trudeau's minority Liberal government will need the support of Conservative MPs to pass it.

Harder acknowledged that some senators wanted to go further by doing away with partisan groups in the chamber altogether. But he argued that would have been "disrespectful" of senators who choose to remain in the Conservative caucus.

Moreover, he said it would almost certainly have meant that Conservatives in both chambers would oppose the bill, leading to its defeat.

As it is, he's hopeful that Conservative MPs will follow the lead of their Senate compatriots and support swift passage of the bill.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has promised to encourage provinces to elect senators, whom he would appoint to the Senate should he become prime minister.

Harder said nothing in Bill S-4 would prevent O'Toole from changing the way senators are appointed in future or returning the Senate to a strictly partisan chamber, should he choose.

"It's completely permissive," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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