Conservatives in Canada's Senate have used their majority to overrule their own Speaker and force a final vote on a controversial labour bill.

In a 32-17 vote, the Senate shot down a ruling by Speaker Leo Housakos that would prevent the government from shutting down debate on private member's Bill C-377.

The appeal was brought by Claude Carignan, government leader in the Senate.

He was backed by all the Conservative senators except Diane Bellemare, who voted with the Liberals and Speaker, and five others who abstained. 

The stage is now set for the Senate to shut down debate on Bill C-377, which Carignan said will occur on Monday or Tuesday after the government gives notice of time allocation. The debate had been going on for days as Liberal senators conducted a filibuster they said they were prepared to continue until Parliament is dissolved for this fall's election, which would kill the legislation. 

Now, the bill is all but guaranteed to pass with a Conservative majority in the upper chamber, in spite of opposition from Liberal senators — and from seven provinces — who say the bill is unconstitutional.

Bill C-377 would require unions and labour organizations to publicly disclose the details of their spending, including how much goes to political activities.

"It's a bad bill," Senate Liberal Leader James Cowan said to reporters in the foyer, adding that the privacy commissioner has spoken out against it as well as constitutional and legal experts.

"We should not be passing bills that we know are unconstitutional," he said.

And the government challenging its own speaker, he said, is "extraordinary." 

Motion not 'very exceptional'

"That I think is, if not unprecedented, highly unusual," he said.

On Thursday, the government's deputy leader in the Senate, Yonah Martin, had risen to give notice of a motion to cut off debate and force a final vote on the bill.

Housakos, on Friday, ruled against the motion. Senate rules allow the government to limit debate only on government business, not on private member's bills such as the union disclosure bill.

Senate Expenses Wallin 20131105

Senate government leader Senator Claude Carignan said the upper chamber is the final arbiter of the rules and the move to overrule the speaker is nothing exceptional. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

 

The speaker, in his ruling, said that allowing the government to shut down debate on private member's bills like C-377 would violate the basic principles of how the Senate operates.

He cited one of his predecessors, Noel Kinsella, who ruled two years ago that the government couldn't shut down debate on a motion to suspend senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.

Allowing such an act would be an overreach of the governing side's power and would have a "profound effect" on the Senate's operations, Kinsella said at the time.

Seconds after Housakos delivered his ruling, Carignan announced he would appeal to the Senate as a whole.

"For me, it's very clear. It's in the rules. This type of motion [has existed for a] long time and it's not something very exceptional," he later said to reporters. "The final arbitrator of the rules is the Senate, so we are totally, 100 per cent in conformity with the rules."

In 2009, Liberal senators — who had the majority — challenged and overturned a ruling by Kinsella. 

With files from The Canadian Press