The fix is in — Senate will quietly allow popular Reform Act to die

Posted on May 13, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
May 12, 2015.   Andrew Coyne

On Tuesday at noon, in Room 160-S of Parliament’s Centre Block, Conservative members of the Senate of Canada will gather for their regular weekly caucus meeting. Among the items on the agenda: what to do about the Reform Act.

This would seem to be largely a courtesy. The Senate caucus is heavily whipped, perhaps even more so than the Commons caucus. And to judge by the actions of senators to date — on both sides of the aisle — the decision has already been made. The fix is in. The bill is as good as dead.

Not that it will be killed outright, you understand. The private member’s bill, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong, is popular with the public, as the first serious attempt to free MPs, even a little, from the iron grip of the party leadership. Moreover, it passed with all-party support in the House of Commons — by a vote of 260-17 — albeit in substantially watered-down form.

So it wouldn’t do to actually vote it down. Bad form, old chap. And anyway, unnecessary.

Instead it will simply never come to a vote. The Senate rises for the summer June 23, not to return until after the election. That’s just six weeks from now: 18 sitting days, by the Senate’s leisurely calendar. If the bill is not passed by then, it dies, along with every other piece of legislation still on the order paper.

It should not be difficult to stall it until then. It’s already been three months — the bill was first introduced in the Senate March 10, having passed the Commons Feb. 25 — and they haven’t even got through second reading. The first speech in debate (by the bill’s sponsor, Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas) did not occur until April 23.

This is not by accident. The Senate leadership has many ways at its disposal to slow down a piece of legislation it does not want passed. And not only on the government side. Senators need not go to such unseemly lengths as a filibuster to pocket the bill. Rather than speak for hours on end, they can simply decline to speak at all.

Debate continues, after all, only when a senator rises to speak. And if, following a senator’s speech, another senator moves adjournment, debate is again put on hold, until such time as another senator rises. In this way, a bill can be debated almost indefinitely, without ever being put to a vote.

That’s exactly what’s been happening to the Reform Act. The first Liberal to speak on the bill, Sen. Joan Fraser, did not get to her feet until May 7, two months after its introduction; a motion to adjourn quickly followed. It has not been debated since.

Perhaps the bill may yet pass second reading, at this pace. Perhaps it might even be reported back from the Senate’s standing committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament. But it’s a safe bet that it will fall just short of passing before the Senate closes up shop. So near and yet so far. Sorry, old bean.

There is no necessity of this: be clear on that. If the Senate leadership, Conservative and Liberal, wanted the bill to pass before then, it would. Bill C-51, the government’s centrepiece anti-terrorism legislation, only passed the House last Wednesday. The odds that it won’t be safely passed into law by June 23? Nil.

This is disgraceful on any number of levels. The Reform Act, in its present form, already represents something of a defeat for reformers. It was modest enough as first drafted (its two key measures: removing the requirement for a candidate to obtain the party leader’s signature on his nomination paper, at the same time as it set out a process for MPs to remove their leader). But when that met with resistance from the leaders’ offices, it was amended, and amended again, until there was very little left.

It would now apply, even in attenuated form, only if a party caucus, meeting after an election, decided it should — though why MPs would be any more likely to buck the leader then is a bit of a puzzle. Nevertheless, it was at least a symbolic victory. Perhaps, the template having been laid out, some party might eventually choose to adopt it, and the precedent having been set, so might another, and so on. You never know.

Which is why it had to be killed. What Chong’s bill represented, more than anything, was hope: hope that one day MPs might escape the whip, hope that parliamentary reform, even if it is not possible now, might be in time. And for those in power, hope is a dangerous thing to allow. The whole system depends on MPs being kept in a state of hopelessness, unable even to imagine a better life. What is the point of making trouble, if the effort is futile?

It would be outrageous enough for senators, a good number of whom may soon be under indictment, to defeat any bill passed by a democratically elected House, whether overtly or, as in the present case, by stealth. It is particularly outrageous given the subject matter of the bill, which is entirely to do with the internal workings of the Commons, on which the Senate traditionally has no voice.

I might add it is even more outrageous given the overwhelming, all-party support the bill enjoyed in the House, but it seems now that was all part of the show.

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