The Senate and C-377 as Rorschach test

The red chamber amends a bill

So the Senate has amended C-377, Russ Hiebert’s bill on union disclosure, and sent it back to the House for consideration. Mr. Hiebert is displeased. And, despite this being a private member’s bill, the Prime Minister’s Office has been moved to issue a statement.

We continue to support union transparency and the principles of the bill, which will be returned to the House as part of the normal process.

As per Parliamentary convention, we expect that the Senate will respect the will of the House of Commons should the Bill be returned to the Senate.

A Conservative source tells the Canadian Press that the bill will now be reintroduced as a government bill. In that case, Mr. Harper might claim the convention of supporting the legislation proposed by one’s party (although Conservative senators might then point to the platform promise of free votes on all but matters related to the budget and main estimates).

Otherwise, there will probably be some debate now as to what “convention” the PMO might wish to see applied here. The Senate’s official “fact sheet” on the legislative process explains that “If a bill introduced in the House of Commons and was amended in the Senate, a message about the amendments is sent to the Commons, asking for their agreement. If the Senate and the House of Commons do not agree on the contents of a bill, they may propose amendments until they reach agreement. Once the two Houses agree on a final version, the bill is granted Royal Assent by the Queen or one of her Canadian representatives (usually the Governor General or a deputy), making it law.” The House of Commons guide to practice and procedure explains likewise.

Of the bills amended by the Senate since 1960, several have been subject to such negotiation—note, for instance, the back-and-forth over the Federal Accountability Act in 2006.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s Office might have a clearer democratic principle to assert here if the Prime Minister had expressed outrage in 2010 when Conservative senators outright defeated and killed an NDP MP’s bill. At the time, Mr. Harper said the bill was flawed. Several Conservative senators would seem to now feel likewise about C-377.

(For added irony, it is being noted that the Senate’s amendments to C-377 mirror the amendments that were forced onto Brent Rathgeber’s bill.)

Regardless of one’s views on the original bill and the amendments now proposed, the basic question remains: Should a chamber of political appointees be able to obstruct the work of elected MPs?

I am of the opinion that it should not be. (And, further, I am of the opinion that an elected Senate is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, an unnecessary mess.) Some might point to the situation of C-377 and say that here is the Senate doing what we need it to do: offering sober second thought for the purposes of possibly improving a possibly problematic piece of legislation. To which I would say, this much is sort of a nice idea, but it does not justify the fundamental nature of the Senate’s existence. But what if the Senate hadn’t been here to make these amendments? What if this bill had been allowed to become law without this instance of sober second thought? Well, then Mr. Hiebert and all of the MPs who supported his bill would have to be responsible for whatever ensued. And maybe problems and court challenges would have resulted, but such is life and democracy.

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