Senate proceedings should be televised, committee says

The committee charged with modernizing the Senate recommends that all proceedings in the chamber be televised to show Canadians the "value" of the upper house.

Report says broadcasting proceedings would demonstrate 'high quality of debate' in Red Chamber

Senator Thomas Johnson McInnis, right to left, Senator Serge Joyal, and Senator Elaine McCoy present the Senate committee on modernization's report, which recommends televising chamber proceedings and altering committee membership. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The committee charged with modernizing the Senate recommends that all proceedings in the chamber be televised to show Canadians the "value" of the upper house.

"The committee's recommendation to allow the broadcasting of Senate proceedings would demonstrate the high quality of debate that is the hallmark of the Red Chamber," the report released Tuesday says. "Senators are independent thinkers who argue from evidence, not from talking points — their debates are a model for how parliamentarians should behave."

The committee recommends that when the Senate moves from its place in Centre Block across the street to the government conference centre in 2018 — to allow for extensive renovations of the historic building — the temporary chamber should be outfitted with broadcast equipment.

"Allow me to be blunt," Senator Thomas McInnis, the chair of the committee, told reporters Tuesday. "The Senate is misunderstood and is seen as an unnecessary parliamentary appendage."

But, he said, that characterization is unfair, as the Red Chamber is a "model parliamentary institution" where substantive debate on legislation still rules the day.

"When we do not see eye to eye, we use substance and logic to persuade."

Space is being created in the government conference centre in Ottawa to house the Canadian Senate while renovations take place at Parliament Hill's Centre Block. The Senate committee on modernization is recommending cameras be installed in this temporary space to broadcast the proceedings. (Public Services and Procurement Canada)

Omnibus legislation recommendation

McInnis said debate could also be strengthened by one of the committee's proposals: divide up omnibus legislation passed by the House to allow for a more thorough analysis. Omnibus bills were frequently used by the former Harper government, and critics said they were used to bury controversial legislative changes to avoid attracting attention.

"Bills jam packed with disparate clauses cannot easily be referred to specialized committees where experienced senators provide necessary scrutiny," he said. "Omnibus bills are opaque and undemocratic; they prevent the government from being held to account."

The committee also hopes to make ministers' question period permanent.

Since last fall, cabinet ministers have taken the unusual step of appearing in the chamber to answer questions from senators, in part because there is not a traditional government leader in the Senate to field questions from the opposition.

Senator Peter Harder, who serves as the government's "representative," is not equipped to speak with authority on all files before Parliament, and has frequently asked for time to come back to the chamber with answers to specific inquiries.

Health Minister Jane Philpott answers questions about the federal government's controversial bill on assisted dying before the entire Senate. The Senate committee on modernization has recommended making ministers' question period a permanent feature. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The report suggests reducing question period to just two days a week — one for a visiting minister, and another for Harder to answer questions.

All the proposed changes will be debated in the Senate, and must pass the chamber to be enacted.

More robust role for Independents

The committee also proposes expanding the definition of "caucus" to include groups of nine or more senators "formed for a parliamentary purpose," which would give those senators access to Senate resources — namely bigger research budgets — and would make it easier for Independent senators to be represented on committees.

It is at committees that legislation from the House is studied and debated, and senators can also exercise their "sober second thought" function.

Until now, it has been difficult for Independent senators to sit on committees of their choice because membership has been controlled by the two political parties.

The number of Independent senators will soon dwarf the number of those from the Conservative and Liberal caucuses, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to fill all 21 remaining vacancies by the end of this year.

Independent Senator Elaine McCoy said there are still many "traditionalists" in the Senate who are opposed to these major changes and the move away from partisanship, but others are increasingly on board.

"I am seeing a shift towards a more open, collaborative approach, one that stresses review of legislation based on evidence, not speaking notes, and one that stresses our obligations to Canadians," she said.

The committee is also proposing changes to how the Senate Speaker is chosen.

Currently, the prime minister makes the pick, but the report released Tuesday suggests senators themselves draw up a short list of 5 possible names from which the Speaker can be selected.

"Members of the committee believe senators are best placed to put forward the names of colleagues who are particularly diligent and respected," the report said.

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