Conservative senators holding legislation 'hostage,' Trudeau's point man in the Red Chamber says

Relations between Senator Peter Harder, the prime minister's point man in the Senate, and the Conservative Party have reached new lows, with accusations of gamesmanship, "threats," and legislative "ambushing," being lobbed across the aisles.

'The opposition's job is not to pass government legislation quickly,' Tory senator says

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

Relations between Senator Peter Harder, the prime minister's point man in the Senate, and Conservative senators have reached a new low, with accusations of gamesmanship, "threats," and legislative "ambushing," being lobbed across the aisles.

The government's representative in the Senate told CBC News that Conservative senators are determined to stymie legislative progress through the routine use of adjournments, a procedural tool that delays debate or votes on a bill, something that has turned the Red Chamber into a "sorry state of affairs."

"These are tactical manoeuvres which may be appropriate in another chamber, but they just aren't appropriate in a chamber that prides itself on sobriety, second thought, reflection and less partisanship," Harder said. "I don't think government legislation should be held hostage to tactical politics."

The result of these "awkward" adjournments is prolonged delays on a number of government bills, including C-4, which would reverse Conservative changes to laws affecting labour unions, C-6, legislation that would make changes to the Citizenship Act, and C-16, a bill that would extend human rights protections to transgender Canadians.

I'm reminded of something John Diefenbaker once said, 'The duty of an opposition is to propose nothing, to oppose everything and to turn out the government.- Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald

All of the bills, already passed by the House of Commons, have been in "limbo" in the Red Chamber for more than six months, Harder said.

"In my view, each day a bill like [C-16] is delayed, justice is denied. Reviewing legislation is not a game, and obstruction may have moral consequences," he added, in a newly released discussion paper. "Some senators would prefer for the Senate to remain stuck in time, available as a platform to advance partisan interests. So we wait, delay, and delay further."

Conservative Manitoba Senator Don Plett has been behind many of the adjournments. He pushed back speaking on one motion in February because the Senate had just returned from a break and he said he didn't have time to finish his notes "on the beaches of the Dominican Republic."

Conservative Senator Don Plett requested an adjournment because he had been on vacation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Harder said that's simply not an appropriate excuse, adding that the installation of television cameras in the chamber couldn't come fast enough, something he believes will shed light on some questionable parliamentary practices.

"I think it would be self-disciplining on senators in the chamber, and Canadians would be able to see and judge for themselves the motivations." (Cameras are expected to be installed when the Senate moves temporarily to the old Ottawa train station in 2018.)

'The duty of an opposition is to propose nothing'

The Conservatives maintain they need more time to study legislation and craft speeches.

"The opposition's job is not to pass government legislation quickly," Conservative Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters said Monday. "Our role is to oppose the government and hold it accountable for its decisions. [Harder] is attempting to destroy the traditional parliamentary system of government and an opposition." (Harder has mused about organizing the chamber along regional lines, rather than party caucuses.)

Conservative Nova Scotia Senator Michael MacDonald said Tory senators take issue with Harder's attempt to rid the place of partisanship.

Nova Scotia Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald says Tory senators take issue with Harder's attempt to rid the Senate of partisanship. (Senate of Canada)

"Mr. Harder is a lifelong bureaucrat, and he seems to want the Senate to be a department of government, and he's the deputy minister. I'm not there to be a bureaucrat, and there's nothing wrong with people who have been politically engaged," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"We're the loyal opposition, we can be constructive, and I want to judge everything on its own merits, but I'm reminded of something [former prime minister] John Diefenbaker once said, 'The duty of an opposition is to propose nothing, to oppose everything and to turn out the government.'"

'Not too fast'

Harder said the "most successful" tactic he's used so far, to move legislation along, is to threaten senators with the prospect of curtailing "non-sitting periods" — like sitting on a Friday — or shortening summer and Christmas vacations, a tactic he said shouldn't be relied on.

"To win the confidence of Canadians we have to demonstrate that we deal with the nation's business in a deliberate fashion, not too fast, not in two days, rammed down through closure [like the Conservatives did], but not 10 months waltzing through holidays," Harder said.

As a result, Harder is pitching the creation of a "Senate business committee," chaired by the Speaker of the Senate, with membership from all the caucuses, to draw up a schedule and hash out appropriate time limits on debate.

Batters said the proposal is simply an attempt to "dismantle the Senate's opposition tools for holding a powerful majority government to account.

"Make no mistake — these changes would strike at the very heart of our democracy," she said.

Harder said it's rich for Conservatives to be critical of him when the former government leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, and her successor, Claude Carignan, imposed time allocation 22 times over the course of the last Parliament.

He said he has been reluctant to impose time allocation in the Senate — a legislative manoeuvre sometimes called the "guillotine" because it formally limits the length of debate on a bill in order to force a vote — but, because his patience is eroding, he won't now rule it out.

This is the next chapter in a saga of discontent, one characterized by increasing frustration on the part of both Harder, who has called some Tory senators cogs in the wheel of reform, and Conservatives who feel Independent senators are unilaterally dismantling the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

The acrimony started shortly after Harder was first appointed, with Conservatives accusing newly appointed Independent senators of being big-L Liberal shills, while deriding the new merit-based appointments progress as a "con job."


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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