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Senate committee seat debate about principle more than partisanship

As insider debates go, this one is for the cognoscenti.

And yet, the issue of how seats on Senate standing committees are assigned is important for what it says about decision-making in Canada’s Upper House.

A recent deadlock in negotiations on the allocation of committee seats has exposed different points of view on whether Senators should be able to retain their committee seats if they change affiliation. An agreement has been reached by the leadership of most groups in the Senate, but a band of holdouts disagree with a provision which ties committee seats to the group, rather than to the Senator.

The holdouts argue that tying seats to groups runs counter to the idea of a more independent Senate. At the heart of this position is the view that committee seats “belong” to individual Senators and hence those seats should be portable.

This position is founded on the notion that as independent members, Senators should be able to act and vote as they see fit, without the constraints of partisan discipline and fear of a party whip. So far, so good.

But does independence extend to the right of Senators to hold a committee seat regardless of how they obtained it?

The reality is that Senators do not get their particular committee seats by entitlement. Any process of assigning a limited number of seats on a committee involves negotiation: first among recognized groups, and then within groups. The former is relatively easy because it is guided by the principle of proportionality whereby seats are distributed among the groups roughly according to their relative weight in the Chamber.

The internal negotiation is trickier and different groups have their own protocols. The success of any protocol depends on the willingness of members to respect that process and to accept the outcomes.

The simple math of seat supply versus senatorial demand guarantees that many Senators will not get the committees they want. Failure to get a seat is not a reflection of their lack of qualifications, but is simply the product of a protocol which gave higher priority to other members.

Conversely, Senators who got the seats they wanted were successful not because of divine entitlement, but because the process which they agreed to be part of produced a result which was positive for them.

For this reason, Senators who have been assigned seats through a group process violate that process if they then take the seat when they leave the group. More to the point, the removal of a seat from the group is an affront to other Senators in the group who were contenders for that seat.

The point is not whether Senators are entitled to sit on committees. The current agreement provides for all Senators, including non-affiliated members, to be “sheltered” by one of the recognized groups, such that every Senator can sit on committees. In the same way, a Senator who has shed committees because he or she has left a group to join another is still entitled to sit on a committee. But not necessarily the committee of his or her choice.

It may well be that Senators who are in favour of portability are fundamentally against the process of committee assignment via caucuses and groups. Saying as much would be a more logically consistent position than agreeing with group allocation but insisting on portability.

Indeed, if Senators were assigned their seats through an all-Senate process rather than by group negotiations, a case can be made that the seats “belong” to individual Senators. In that scenario, there would be no violation of the seat-assignment process if Senators change groups. But good luck to anyone trying to come up with a Senate-wide system of assigning committee seats by individual member.

Advocates of portability argue that group control of committee seats fosters caucus-like behaviour, in that a Senator will be reluctant to leave a group on a matter of principle if he or she fears losing a committee seat. This begs the real question, which is how much the Senator values the seat over the principle.

Proponents of committee seat portability are wrong to frame the issue as one of Senate independence and senatorial autonomy. The less-glamorous reality is that committee seat assignment is a routine allocation puzzle that necessitates a negotiated solution.  There are different ways to solve the puzzle but any realistic solution for the foreseeable future will require some form of group-mediated allocation of seats.

It is in this spirit that an agreement was reached by the majority of Senate group leaders and why this agreement should be adopted as soon as possible.

Yuen Pau Woo is an Independent Senator representing British Columbia.

The Hill Times