The Sunday Magazine

The Senate is more representative of Canada than the House of Commons, says former Senator André Pratte

Pratte shares his views on what is and isn't working in the Senate and how Trudeau’s attempt to make the Senate less partisan has panned out.
Former journalist André Pratte stepped down from his seat in the Upper House as an independent senator on Election Day. (Radio-Canada)

In 2016, André Pratte was one of Canada's most respected journalists before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed him to what most would consider a cushy job for life — a seat in the Upper House as an independent senator. But Pratte resigned his post on election day — 13 years before his mandatory retirement age of 75.

Pratte speaks with Michael about what is and isn't working in the Senate that is busily reconfiguring itself. Independent senators are now the majority, and the last remaining Liberal senators recently formed the new Progressive Senate Group, which they say has no ties at all to the Liberal Party. There is also speculation a new Indigenous senators group may form.

André Pratte's interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

It seems that the Senate is breaking up into factions. Is that right?

That's the challenge. We, as independent senators, have been trying to think of what the new Senate would look like. In the past, it was pretty clear. You had the government and the opposition, the Liberals and the Conservatives. That changed depending on the election results eventually. So it was very simple. 

Once you decide that you want senators to be independent from political parties, then what will the rules be? It's pretty clear what the role of the government is. It is to pass their bills. And the rule of the opposition is to oppose. Now, if you won't have any political parties eventually in the Senate, then you have to establish new rules. Rules as to how this is going to function or whether this will turn into what some people have said — a group of loose fish. The new rules have not been established yet.

The problem with the old Senate was not really partisanship. It was party discipline, the party line. You can be a Liberal or Conservative or NDP or Bloc Quebecois and still be an independent thinker. You agree with your political party on most policies, but you can decide that you have the choice to vote on one specific bill differently from your party. But once you impose party discipline in the Senate, as it exists in the House of Commons, then you have a problem because party discipline and independent thinking simply do not go together. 

You said that it was a partisan circus. 

It certainly was while I was there. I don't know what the new dynamics will be because since I've resigned these new groups came about. Certainly when I was there, there was a tremendous amount of time that was wasted on things, like useless votes and useless amendments just to delay the passage of a bill. We spent hours literally waiting for votes to happen, up to midnight. It's not important that we sat late. What's important is when we sat late, we did something. We were just waiting for the bells to ring and for the votes. 

So that's what I call the partisan circus. The goal of the opposition oftentimes was not really to examine and amend a bill; it was simply to delay it to death. And the government [reacted] to that, of course. What they wanted to do is to pass their bills as fast and as intact as possible. And in such a context, it's very difficult to have reasoned discussions as to how you can improve a bill and eventually pass it, when really no one is interested in the reasonable compromises that are necessary. 

You sponsored four bills while you were in the Senate. And you talk about sitting till midnight over nothing. Can you share a couple of examples?

One example is a Bill C-48, which bans tankers from the north shore of British Columbia, a very important bill for the government. The bill was passed in the House of Commons, even though there was a lot of opposition to it from the Conservatives. When it arrived in the Senate, there were many concerns even within the independent senators group about this bill. And we were moving towards a defeat of the bill in the Senate. The government was very concerned. They were looking for some kind of compromise. A group of senators, myself included, worked on a compromise. We managed to find a compromise which got the support of Alberta senators, Saskatchewan senators, independent senators, Liberal senators, Indigenous senators (very important). We passed the bill thanks to this compromise. We received signals from the government that they found the compromise quite interesting. 

In the end, the government rejected the compromise. We don't really know why. But all this work was wasted. The government got what it wanted because it got the bill passed instead of defeated by the Senate, which meant that it would simply have died as it was. But in the end, they rejected the compromise that we had worked on, thanks to which the bill was passed. 

Another example is maybe even more telling. It's the SNC Lavalin scandal. The Liberals decided that there would not be an investigation in the House of Commons, or at least they blocked it. So there was a real investigation of the issue. The Conservatives in the Senate tried to have an investigation. But the way they did it was extremely partisan. 

And so there was no future for such a motion to pass. I and others believed that if you looked at it independently, this scandal was important and warranted a parliamentary investigation. And since the House wouldn't do it, the Senate would do it, but in a very objective, rigorous, non-partisan manner. In the end, the group of senators who proposed this compromise, which was, I think, in the public interest, were denounced by the government and by the Conservatives, the government telling us that we were simply playing into the Conservatives' hands and the Conservatives saying that we were trying to protect the government. The idea of having a really independent, non-partisan point of view with the public interest in was very difficult to have that kind of Senate exist. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.


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