Senate Rules Committee Report: Equity Between Recognized Parties & Recognized Parliamentary Groups
Honourable senators, I would like to speak to the fifth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. It has been adjourned in the name of our chair, Senator Bellemare. She has kindly agreed for me to speak today, following which, I believe, she will take the adjournment and reset the clock.
I would like to offer some reflections on this fifth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. The report is compact, coming in at less than one page, not including appendices. Brevity, however, does not always translate into clarity, which is why I want to take a few minutes to highlight what I consider to be the most important finding of the report.
First, let me share a little context.
The object of our study was the rule changes needed for equity between recognized parties and recognized parliamentary groups. I had tabled a motion in February 2020 proposing a set of changes of the Rules for this purpose, which Senator Tannas amended slightly in June. The motion died on the Order Paper with the conclusion of the Forty-third Parliament.
The so-called Woo-Tannas motion provided a starting point for our study, since it identified a wide range of Senate Rules that do not reflect equity among groups and caucuses. For example, the Government Representative in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition have unlimited speaking time in debate, whereas the leaders and facilitators of other groups are restricted to just 15 minutes.
On standing votes in the chamber, only the Government Representative Office, or GRO, and the opposition have a say on the duration of bells or on the possibility of a deferred vote, to the exclusion of other recognized parliamentary groups.
When it comes to committees looking to meet on days that the Senate is adjourned, including the first Monday after a break, only the government and the opposition have the power to give consent for such. How many times have we encountered a situation where committee members are ready and willing to meet, only to be thwarted by an opposition veto?
I don’t need to remind all of us here that the sum total of GRO and Conservative Party senators is less than 20% of the Senate membership, and yet their leaderships have the power to make decisions that affect us all.
The vast majority of senators in today’s upper house are non-partisan. We are dispersed among three different groups, with some sitting as non-affiliated members. We are not part of the government. Rather, we are part of what has traditionally been described by this institution as the “opposition.”
There are, however, those who would deny us the ability to fully exercise our equal rights as senators who are not part of the government. They would have us as second-class senators who are allowed, from time to time, to sit in the front of the bus, but only with their consent. The modest changes to the Rules of the Senate and to the Parliament of Canada Act to date have been offered grudgingly and with the condescension of noblesse oblige. We are constantly reminded of how grateful we should be for what we have already been granted and why we should not expect full equality.
Such is the case with the fifth report of the Rules Committee. It is, in many respects, a “non-report” because it offers no solution to the manifest inequality in the Rules of the Senate. Mind you, there was no disagreement in the committee over which rules entrench the unequal treatment of Senate groups. You can see this for yourself in Appendix 2 of the report. A majority of members would have supported changes to those rules, but the committee as a whole was unable to proceed with those changes because of one group’s insistence on maintaining its privileged position in the Senate.
To quote the report:
. . . the Opposition in the Senate considers that its role as opposition comes with certain rights in the Senate’s operating rules and procedures;
Whereas other recognized parliamentary groups consider that they should have the same rights as the Opposition in the Senate’s operating rules and procedures . . .
To paraphrase, one group of senators thinks it should have powers that other groups don’t have.
I’m, of course, referring to the Conservative caucus, which styles itself as the official opposition in the Senate, even though there is no such term in our rules or in the Parliament of Canada Act. The Speaker confirmed as much in her recent response to my point of order. Yet some Conservative senators continue to use the term — indeed, the very senators who claim to be arch‑defenders of parliamentary tradition.
There is a certain desperation in this deliberate distortion of our nomenclature, but it is made worse by the underlying premise that the way the Conservatives carry out the work of opposing in the Senate is superior to the way non-partisan senators do. And what is that allegedly superior style of opposition? Let me quote Senator Plett, who, in response to my question on a speech he made on the Income Tax Act — a speech full of internal contradictions and non sequiturs — had this to say:
I am making a speech that is contrary to what the government is doing, and I don’t need to defend that. . . .
Well, Senator Plett is correct that he doesn’t need to defend a speech that is contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, but, colleagues, that is not what is meant by “sober second thought” and that surely is not the form of opposition that should be privileged by our institution.
The Conservatives pretend to be the true opposition in the Senate, but their goal in doing so is to become the government after the next election. That is the prerogative of political partisans, but it is not reflective of today’s Senate of Canada, which consists overwhelmingly of non-partisan members. Whereas Conservative senators are opposition members for as long as their party is not in power, the rest of us will remain independent of the government — whichever party is in charge. How can we take seriously the claim that the real opposition in the Senate is the group that will ditch that title as soon as it has the opportunity?
Honourable colleagues, we can, of course, have different views on the definition of “opposition,” but I am convinced that senators who remain independent through changes of government reflect a more principled and consistent understanding of what it means to be the opposition in an unelected upper house.
To conclude, allow me to recall how we got into this situation and explain why we have to find a way out. In the discussions surrounding the so-called Woo-Tannas motion, some senators said the proposed rule changes should be first considered by the Rules Committee before coming to the chamber for a decision. Well, the Woo-Tannas motion was studied by the Rules Committee for many months and it failed to come up with a path forward — not because most senators could not agree on the changes that needed to be made, but because one group of senators representing less than 15% of members does not believe in equity among all Senate groups. That is what it boils down to, and that is what I ask all senators to reflect on as we ponder next steps for bringing about a fairer distribution of powers among Senate groups. Thank you.