Trudeau's Senate point man withdraws motion condemned by Tories as 'time allocation on steroids'
Some of the bills in question have been in the Senate for more than a year
Peter Harder, the federal Liberal government's representative in the Senate, has withdrawn a controversial 'programming motion' that had the Conservative opposition up in arms.
There are roughly eight weeks left in the current session before Parliament is scheduled to rise for its summer recess. This is also the last sitting before an expected fall federal election — meaning there is extra pressure on the Liberal government to clear the decks of legislation before it asks voters for another mandate.
Claiming that Tory intransigence had forced his hand, Harder tabled a motion Tuesday that would have curtailed the amount of time the upper house would have to study and debate 11 pieces of government legislation.
The Conservatives slammed the motion as "time allocation on steroids," calling it a betrayal of the government's promise to "do politics differently."
Harder defended the motion, saying it was made necessary by an impasse in his negotiations with Conservative leadership on a timeline for seeing a number of Liberal bills through the Senate before summer.
Today, Harder said he'd reached an arrangement with all parlimentary caucuses "on a way forward for the timely consideration of government legislation." Harder withdrew his motion shortly after question period today, saying only that a deal had been reached on timelines without specifying what those timelines would be.
Some of the bills in question have been in the Senate for more than a year, while others were only recently introduced and are still at early stages of passage through the upper house.
Harder had proposed strict timelines for wrapping up both committee study and third reading debate on the bills, to ensure any amended legislation could be sent to the Commons in early June for review by government and MPs in the lower house.
The bills awaiting passage include some key items of Liberal legislation, such as: Bill C-48, the northern B.C. oil tanker ban; Bill C-58, changes to the Access to Information Act; Bill C-69, the overhaul of existing environmental assessment regime for natural resources projects; Bill C-71, changes to the country's firearms law; Bill C-81, which makes sweeping changes to federal law for people with disabilities; and Bill C-85, the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
It is not the first time Conservative senators have been accused during this parliamentary session of holding up bills, including legislation on trans rights, a gender-neutral O Canada and a ban on holding whales in captivity. The Conservatives maintain that, as the opposition, it's their job to oppose government business at every turn.
"With the media focused on the prime minister booting two members of caucus, the government quietly put forward a motion that shuts down the abilities of senators to review and question government legislation," Larry Smith, the Conservative leader in the Senate, said of Harder's motion.
Harder has said senators on all sides of the chamber will have ample time to debate, study and move amendments to the legislation.
'This is not some schoolyard squabble'
To date, Harder largely has avoided introducing time allocation motions in the Senate. Time allocation is a tool used by all previous government leaders in the Senate to curtail how long members of the upper house can study, debate or amend government legislation. It's also used frequently in the Commons.
Harder threatened to use the tool on Bill C-45, the government's cannabis legislation, but backed off after securing a timeline with the Tories.
Speaking in the Senate Wednesday before Harder withdrew his motion, Conservative Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, the party's whip, said he and Smith have always negotiated in good faith with Harder and his manoeuvre came as a surprise.
"I met with you in your office. We had what I thought was a very collegial conversation about moving legislation forward," Plett said in question period, addressing Harder. "I kept my part of the bargain. You did not. In complete contradiction of your word to me, you tabled a programming motion that is seven pages long and impacts 11 bills.
"This is not some schoolyard squabble. What you have done impacts the ability to move legislation forward in a manner which respects the traditions, conventions and values of this chamber. Having broken your word to us on this matter, how am I or any other senator in this chamber supposed to trust your word going forward?"
Harder said the "programming approach" should come as no surprise to the Conservative opposition.
"It is my responsibility to prepare for all eventualities, and those preparations have been under way for some time," Harder said. "Without going into all of the details ... let me simply reiterate that I have, over the last number of weeks, spoken about the need to have a programming approach."
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo is the 'facilitator', or leader, of the Independent Senators Group (ISG), which now constitutes a majority in the upper house after a series of appointments by Trudeau. He also has agreed to a set of timelines for legislation, but said this dispute over a planning motion could have been avoided through better negotiations.
He said the Conservative caucus has tried to exclude the ISG from these scheduling talks.
(While most of the ISG members were appointed by Trudeau, they do not officially sit as members of the government caucus — which is composed of just Harder and two lieutenants — because they prefer to sit as Independents.)
"While the ISG supports an orderly planning process, the creation of a programming motion ... is a blunt instrument that should only be used as a last resort," he said.