Independent senators want rule changes to prevent partisan stalling on bills
'If there is obstinate resistance to these reforms we'll have to look at all options that are available to us'
The largest group of independents in the Senate wants some rule changes to reflect the new reality of a less partisan chamber of sober second thought — and to rein in obstruction tactics by Conservative senators, who make up the last remaining unabashedly partisan caucus in the upper house.
But the Independent Senators Group will first have to find a way to prevent the Conservatives from blocking attempts to change the rules.
The group wants to reform the rules "so that we can reduce the amount of dilatory practices, waste of time and gamesmanship, partisan gamesmanship, that has slowed down and which has obstructed the work of the Senate," its leader Sen. Yuen Pau Woo said Thursday at the end of a three-day retreat with his fellow group members.
He recalled "vividly" one day in which the Senate was still on the first item of business on the order paper at 11 p.m., after seven hours of procedural manoeuvring by the Conservatives that resulted in repeated bell ringing for votes on motions to adjourn.
"The problem is dilatory practices, the problem is excessive partisan gamesmanship which all leads to an unproductive and wasteful use of Senate time and resources," Woo said.
"We are not against, by any means ... the need for thorough debate, exhaustive debate. But if you are spending your time sitting in the chamber or in your offices waiting for the bells to stop, that's not a good use of Senate time."
But Conservative Senate leader Don Plett rejected suggestions his senators have been obstructionist.
On all government bills, he said the Conservatives negotiated timelines for debate, committee study and votes with the government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder.
The delaying tactics Woo is "whining about" involve private member's bills and motions, not government business, Plett insisted.
Delay but not deny
At the end of the last parliamentary session in June, Conservative senators ran out the clock on a number of private member's bills, including one sponsored by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose requiring judges to take training in sexual-assault law and another aimed at ensuring federal laws are harmonized with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to reintroduce both measures as government bills.
Plett said those bills got "caught up in the vortex" of business the government wanted wrapped up before the election. Despite Conservative opposition to the bills, he said they would have eventually come to a vote in the Senate had they been introduced earlier — just as a private member's bill to make the lyrics to 'O Canada' gender neutral eventually passed last year after 18 months of procedural delays by the Conservatives.
Plett said the Conservatives have a number of tools to delay bills but can't ultimately stop them from ever coming to a vote.
Amending the Parliament of Canada Act
He suggested Woo needs to learn how to use the rules, not change them.
He chuckled when asked if Conservative senators would deploy those tools to block any move by the Independent Senators Group to change the rules.
"Let me just say it wouldn't pass in a week," he said.
Woo said he would appeal to public opinion and Conservative supporters to pressure senators to end time-wasting partisan tactics.
"But, if there is obstinate resistance to these reforms, we'll have to look at all options that are available to us," he added.
The group also intends to push the Liberal government to deliver quickly on a platform promise to amend the Parliament of Canada Act, which at this time officially recognizes and provides resources only for government and Opposition caucuses in the Senate. It does not recognize how the chamber has evolved over the past four years.
"The reality has not yet been matched by the statute or by a number of rules of Senate which continue to give privilege and status and special standing to the government and Opposition," Woo said.
Since becoming prime minister in 2015, Trudeau has dramatically changed the makeup and operation of the upper house, appointing only independents recommended by an arm's-length advisory body.
Since Trudeau's re-election last month, the trend towards less partisanship has accelerated, with some Conservatives and other like-minded senators forming the Canadian Senators Group and independent Liberal senators reorganizing themselves as the new Progressive Senate Group.
The Independent Senators Group now has 51 members, the Conservatives 24 and the Canadian Senators Group 13. There are 12 non-affiliated senators, including the eight in the Progressive Senate Group, and five vacancies in the 105-seat chamber.