Liberals seek new approach to Senate amid legislative roadblocks

After two years of a relatively lacklustre legislative agenda, the Liberal government is taking a second look at how it engages with the chamber tasked with giving bills sober second thought on its bills.

For first time, Liberals invited their senate representative to cabinet retreat

Senator Peter Harder, the Trudeau government's representative in the Senate, says Conservative senators are holding legislation 'hostage.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

After two years of a relatively lacklustre legislative agenda, the Liberal government is taking a second look at how it engages with the chamber tasked with giving bills sober second thought.

For the first time, the Liberal government invited its representative in the Senate, Sen. Peter Harder, to its cabinet retreat for briefings this week, as it fine tunes outreach efforts to senators of all political stripes.

That's just one step it has taken as it looks to improve its lobbying efforts amid a new spirit of independence in the upper chamber. The government has also instructed the bureaucracy to bolster its cabinet briefings to include tips on how to pass bills into law in the new Senate — where senators aren't necessarily loyal to the government.

Among Liberal insiders, there is a developing consensus that the increasingly independent Senate — something that came about largely because of their own doing — is partly to blame for the comparatively small number of government bills that have received royal assent since the Liberals were elected in 2015. Delays and amendments, by senators on all sides of the chamber, have left some bills on the order paper for months on end.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured at the Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., Friday, acknowledged this week that Senate changes have resulted in delays getting their bills passed. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Now, two years before a re-election bid, the Liberals want to get more legislation — including the cannabis bill, something they need passed before a planned July 1 legalization date — through the Senate in a more timely manner.

While historically the upper house has spent far less time studying bills than the Commons, that convention has been challenged during this parliamentary session.

We've done really, really big things, and we've done them in ways that respect Parliament, that have a more independent Senate, that yes, perhaps pose certain challenges in terms of the pace of things through the House,- Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister

Trudeau himself acknowledged this week that Senate changes have resulted in some delays to the Liberal agenda.

"We've done really, really big things, and we've done them in ways that respect Parliament, that have a more independent Senate, that yes, perhaps pose certain challenges in terms of the pace of things through the House," he said in an interview on CBC Radio in Halifax Tuesday.

It was a sentiment Trudeau repeated at the retreat's closing news conference Friday.

"We've seen over the past two years a tremendous transformation and improvement in the Senate, less partisanship, more independence … but at the same time there is certainly a need to figure out new ways of doing things."

While Trudeau said he welcomes Senate "reflections" on legislation, he said the government and senators need to work together to "deliver the important things Canadians expect."

To that end, Harder was summoned to the Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., this week, the first such meeting for the nominally independent senator who is tasked with ushering government bills through the upper chamber.

Harder, unlike virtually every other past government leader in the Senate, is not a member of cabinet and is not party to all discussions around the cabinet table, where ministers decide how best to proceed on important matters.

He is, however, a privy councillor, giving him the right to attend these meetings — if an invitation is extended. Such requests have been rare over the last two years.

Harder was on hand to brief ministers in London about the state of the Liberal agenda in the Senate, detail what bills are likely to pass before the summer recess and identify which senators might need to be further lobbied to secure their votes.

He also briefed cabinet on the rough ride C-45, the cannabis bill, is expected to face over the next few months. Conservative senators have already telegraphed they have serious concerns about legalizing the drug.

Time allocation considered for pot bill

Harder has been loath to use parliamentary mechanisms like time allocation to shut down debate on a bill for fear of comparisons to Senate leaders who served under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Time-limiting measures were used 100 times in the Harper era, three times as often as any other government that proceeded it.

Harder has not yet used that tool despite prolonged debate on some major bills, such as C-16, the trans rights bill.

According to Independent Senate sources, there is a new openness to using such a mechanism if so-called "Tory antics" stall debate beyond a "reasonable" time frame. Sources point to the national anthem bill as an example, which still awaits Senate approval 18 months after it passed the House with ease. 

Conservatives have pushed back against any suggestion they are serial delayers. In a statement to CBC News, the Conservative leader in the Senate, Sen. Larry Smith, said his senators "have and will continue to act responsibly on the mandate and duties we have in the Senate as the Official Opposition."

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith says he doesn't 'anticipate the need to get into the matter of time allocation.' (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

In response to the suggestion the government could use measures to speed up its legislation, Smith said the Conservatives "don't anticipate the need to get into the matter of time allocation."

Briefing notes

The bureaucracy is also responding to the changing nature of the Senate, where individual senators are less beholden to the party line and freer to vote as they see fit.

Bureaucrats have long briefed cabinet about forthcoming legislation or proposed changes to regulations through "memorandums to cabinet," secret documents that are designed to elicit approval from cabinet for certain actions while warning about potential pitfalls.

While these memos to cabinet have traditionally outlined what cabinet members can expect from stakeholder groups, as well as potential communications problems or legal hurdles, those will now also have a section dedicated to "parliamentary strategy" and what cabinet might expect from the Senate, the Privy Council Office confirmed to CBC News.

Thus, the machinery of government is also preparing to head off sustained opposition to the Liberal agenda from those inside the upper house.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.