Politics

Senators to meet in private to talk Red Chamber reform

Regardless of which party wins the election, things will never be the same for the Senate after Oct. 19. Senators are set to meet right afterward to discuss their future.

'Everything is on the table' in 3 days of post-election meetings in Ottawa

Conservative Senator Stephen Greene and Liberal-appointed Senator Paul Massicotte have invited their colleagues to Ottawa for post-election discussions about Senate reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Regardless of which party wins the election, there will be no status quo for the Senate after Oct. 19.

To tackle the prospect of change head-on, Conservative Senator Stephen Greene and Liberal-appointed Senator Paul Massicotte have invited their peers to Ottawa for a post-election meeting on how they can reform the Senate from within. 

"Everything is on the table," Massicotte said of the meeting, which will be held from Oct. 26 to 28.

"The Senate, obviously, is constitutionally created. But the way we operate and the rules we set, and the process we follow, is totally within the responsibility and the authority of the Senate. 

"There's no limits relative to what we can change," says Massicotte.  

In June, Greene and Massicotte sent out a questionnaire asking their colleagues for feedback on ideas for reform.

There's no limits relative to what we can change.- Liberal-appointed Senator Paul Massicotte

Massicotte says the point was to get an idea of where there might be consensus.

"Can we modernize the Senate, can we make it more relevant, can we make it more useful, can we gain better credibility with the public so they understand a bit better what we're doing?"

The two senators are summarizing their findings and will moderate discussions at the end of next month. Massicotte says they are keeping all responses confidential.

Senators push for greater independence

Even so, CBC News has learned there is a great deal of interest among senators in electing their own Speaker, abolishing Senate question period and significantly reducing the number of senators sitting on each Senate committee.

With 22 vacancies in the 105-seat upper house, senators have said they're spread too thin over too many committees where there is no real need for so many members.

Senate question period may not make much sense in the event of a Liberal or NDP government, when there would presumably be no leader of the government in the Senate.

The Conservatives recently ended the practice of having that person in cabinet, making it more difficult to answer questions on behalf of the government.

A Conservative election loss would also force senators to seriously consider electing their own Speaker. They have long bristled at the prime minister appointing a Speaker for the Senate while MPs elect a Speaker in the House of Commons.

Liberal-appointed Senator Larry Campbell says he is keen to address the role of the Speaker, especially after the Conservatives overruled Speaker Leo Housakos in June to force a vote on a controversial private member's anti-union bill.

Senate Speaker Leo Housakos speaks with the media in the foyer of the Senate on May 26, 2015. Housakos was overruled by the Conservatives on a union bill that had passed the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Senate rules allow the government to limit debate only on government business.

"I mean, he made a decision in the Senate and the Conservatives disagreed and just continued on with it," Campbell said in reference to the union reform bill. 

"This is in regard to a private member's bills. This to me is unprecedented. There should be an appeal, obviously, but how that looks certainly should not just be the government standing up and saying we don't agree and we're going on with it."

Liberal-appointed Senator Jim Munson says there are a lot of good proposals in the questionnaire. And while he won't speak to the specifics, Munson says the Red Chamber should be less partisan.

"Let's exercise our independence even more and be totally separate from the House of Commons," Munson said. 

Change coming whether senators like it or not

Massicotte says taking on this project hasn't been easy, especially when there are no bosses per se in the Senate and each person is free to express their feelings.

"Human nature is such that people are always scared with change and they're always hesitant and so this is a process that is complicated for many."

Ready or not, change is certain come to the Senate, and soon.

The Conservatives say they will appoint no more senators until the body is reformed or until a Tory government has trouble passing its legislation.

The NDP wants to formalize abolition by amending the Constitution, and the Liberals promise to make the Senate less partisan by setting up an independent process for appointing senators.

About the Author

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.

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