What, you thought just because Justice was denied that I’d slough off early, claiming some sort of procedural force majeure? I’m hurt. No, as soon as the crowd started to disperse at Wellington, I hit the bricks and headed for East Block, where I am currently dripping on the very plush carpet of Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the august senatorial body poised to deliberate on the anti-Senate election bill discussed earlier today. I am also eating a chocolate chip cookie.
The chair opens the meeting with a discreet, civilized bang of the gavel; she welcomes the minister—that would be Peter Van Loan—and his entourage, and tells the committee to be brief and succinct, as he has not one but two engagements at 5. And with that, over to PVL.
Change: it’s a good thing. That seems to be Van Loan’s theme today, at least, as far as the opening statement. Change good, sneaky attempts to stonewall change bad. He delivers a brief rah-rah on his government’s achievements to date—everything from Afghanistan to accountability—before moving onto his favourite topic in the world: How very, very bad the Liberals are, what with their pernicious refusal to force Muslim women to de-veil, and other perfidies.
Now, onto the bill at hand, which would “entrench the status quo”—an unacceptable move, as far as Van Loan is concerned, and just another way for Liberals to institutionalize patronage appointments, or so people say. He makes a (very weak) joke—it’s a Mulroney reference, which is courageous, given recent and ongoing events—and does his best to appear flexible, as far as considering alternative procedures for appointing senators.
Those are his views—bring on the questions.
First up, Senator Joyal, who notes that the committee actually studied his first attempt at backdoor Senate reform—S-4—and suggested that he send the whole question off to the Supreme Court. PVL, however, assures him that the bills are “utterly constitutional,” and notes that if the committee thinks otherwise, it will be forced to find this bill—the Senate preservation bill, let’s call it—to be unconstitutional as well. Touché!
Only not really, because Senator Joyal seems to have been ready for that salvo, and parries back (as I imagine any fencers in the audience wincing at the mixedness of my metaphors). He notes that any process that will lead to lengthy judicial squabbling is probably a bad idea, whatever the specific measure being proposed.
I’m surprised by how well-populated this meeting is. I can see other reporters lurking on the far side of the room—I’m tucked behind a cabal of Van Loanians, right next to the transcribers, who have the coolest little built-in keyboards under their desks. Oh, and Joyal is making his case; he once again points to the wisdom of appealing to the Supreme Court for justice, but it doesn’t seem to be having much influence on Van Loan, who notes that legislators can’t go running to the courts every time they don’t know whether something is constitutional. Which his bill—C-20—is, just by the by. He’s looking forward to watching these senators “pirouette on the head of a pin” if they don’t accept that.
And now, the sponsor of the bill speaks up—Wilfrid Moore, last spotted eviscerating Charles McVety over his views on film censorship and tax credits (as recorded elswhere on this blog). He reminds the minister that we have a constitution, and points out that his province, Nova Scotia, has a constitutional right to have its senators, even if the PM doesn’t feel like appointing anyone. He wants to see all those seats filled —with Tories, Reformers, independents—”all by women, if I had my way.” Ooh, that got Van Loan’s back up. He snarls that Senator Moore has no democratic mandate to say that, or anything else, and he has a poll to prove it. Senator Moore starts to snipe back, and is shushed by the chair; he does manage to point out that the Nova Scotia PC Party voted against moving to an elected Senate.
He—Moore—switches to the second provision of his proposed bill, which would require by-elections to be called within 180 days. Van Loan claims to be not all that fussed by the idea, in theory, and points out that even if by-elections had to be held within a prescribed period of time, the writ could be for as long as the PM likes.
Moore is sceptical.
Senator Andreychuk—and I suspect I just mangled the spelling horribly; my apologies to her—notes that a PM who chose not to follow the bill would be facing political, not legal, consequences. Just like C-20! (See, professors, I was listening last week.) Van Loan concurs, but Andreychuk is definitely unsettled by the strategic refusal to fill senate seats, and suggests that it may be hitting a “crisis,” as far as allowing senators to do their jobs. One witness, she recalls, even suggested this dearth of appointments was due to the personality of this particular prime minister; she declines to “cast aspersions,” but brings up Senator Fortier, and the aging caucus.
Van Loan confirms that this government continues to adhere to the policy of attrition, as far as Senate vacancies, and once again points to his bill, which would legitimize the senate by making it more democratic.
Okay, I want more Moore. He’s feisty.
Van Loan and Andreychuk debate—politely, but with feeling—whether there is a “crisis” in the Senate; he has one senator on his side, who keeps making supportive quips just off the mic.
Senator Jim Cowan brings up the Commons’ most recent legislative shame: Passing C-10 without even noticing the bit about film censorship, which really ought to make MPs feel rather silly; he also lists some of the other 11th-hour sanity saves by the Senate, including a provision in a census bill that would have led to prank phonecalls to senior citizens, and the Federal Accountability Act—don’t even get him started on the flaws in that. “We are fixing what the House of Commons is doing,” he thunders. “We probably wouldn’t do it if we were elcted, because we’d just behave like politicians. Like you people do.” Does Van Loan really want to eliminate the secondary check that the Senate poses to his government?
Nova Scotia has the best senators, y’all.
Cowan is getting all cross-examiney, and just crushing Van Loan, who is claiming that the Tories “had to” vote for amendments to the accountability act; in defence of C-10, he blames—no, guess. Really, guess. Did you say the Liberals? Because that’s the right answer! Anyway, the Liberal senators should have told the Liberal members about the censorship provisions.
The chair somewhat coldly reminds Van Loan that it was this very committee that fixed the census bill.
“You’re making terrible mistakes in legislation in the House of Commons,” insists another senator whose name I didn’t catch. Van Loan doesn’t think that being unelected makes the senate “magic”—he “appreciates the views of the aristocrat from Newfoundland” but thinks democracy is a better idea.
Cowan asks whether he believes that only elected chambers are democratic, and after some hemming and hawing, Van Loan says yes. I wonder why no one is asking him about Elections Canada. Regardless, I can’t help thinking that Cowan is going somewhere with this; wherever it is, Van Loan is following obediently.
“Are you suggesting that you can move from an appointed senate to some sort of elected, consultative senate without a constitutional amendment, or consulting with the provinces,” he demands of the minister. Well, yes. It’s not ideal, Van Loan admits, but it’s one way of doing it. Elected 45 year terms are better than appointed 45 year terms, he notes, although hardly perfect.
Van Loan asks whether Cowan considers Bert Brown to be a legitimate senator—of course, Cowan says, he was appointed in full compliance with the constitution.
And now, Senator Merchant. She wants to know when, exactly, the PM intends to start filling vacancies; after C-20 goes through seems to be the gist. He hopes that the bill will be passed within this Parliament, but if not, there’s always next time. Except that by next year, Merchant points out, there will be almost 30 empty seats.
Senator… Tardif? Is that right? Anyway, she doesn’t like his tone when it comes to describing the Senate, and she and the minister bicker over whether the bill is constitutional or not. Eventually, they nearly come to blows over the legal meanings of words like “when” and “shall.” The Prime Minister doesn’t have an option of appointing senators when the mood strikes him, she argues.
Peter Van Loan turns the table, and suggests that, if that’s the case, why introduce this bill at all? An interesting argument. I think because this way, they can make him—and the PM—mad by holding him to account for the growing number of vacancies. Which actually may be what this is all about; I know that senators on both sides of the House are becoming more than a little frustrated over their ever diminishing numbers.
“This bill is all about process,” argues Van Loan, which puts it on the same plane as C-20; he doesn’t think it requires a constitutional amendment, which I believe he’s mentioned once or twice before. Senator Joyal, however, reminds him that there are three provinces that have given notice that they will challenge Van Loan’s bill if it gets Royal Assent. The minister doesn’t seem to be put off by the prospect of hypothetical litigation.
Now he’s talking about “injunctive relief”—how can something like that be quantified, though? This isn’t like Ontario slipping on the ice on Ottawa’s unsalted driveway, this is about the very machinery of democracy, and why is no one bringing up the fact that Van Loan himself has spent the last few weeks casting aspersions on the integrity and impartiality of Elections Canada?
And now, one last question from Tommy Banks. He, too, wonders what the consequences would be if a PM failed to respect the bill. Oh, this is lovely: Van Loan thinks that the Senate should take the PM to court if they think he’s breaking the rules by failing to fill the empty seats. Because that is apparently this government’s answer to everything: Sue us, or shut the hell up.
On that note, as it turns out, we’re out of time, although it’s a little confusing; the minister just left, but his officially stuck around, and I’m not sure whether the committee is in camera or not, but nobody has thrown me out yet so here I sit.
Senator Joyal takes the chair up on her offer, and asks the officials—who have names, I’m sure; I just can’t see what they are—why there was nothing about the constitutionality of the bill in the presentation. He expects political speeches from politicians, but expects more substance in the official departmental briefs.
Dan McDougall—for that, it seems, is his name; he’s one of Van Loan’s democracy advisors (but not the one tangled up in the in-and-out scandal)—insists that the constitutionality was expressed in the minister’s comments, if not his presentation.
Senator Moore asks if they helped the minister put together his remarks—no, they didn’t—and then goes off on a tangent about the rule of law, and whether the constitution must be followed until it’s changed. McDougall agrees completely; one can only hope that on this, he speaks for the minister as well.
And with that, it’s really over. Okay, that was totally worth the walk to East Block.