The House: The Senate's 'sober second thought' and gearing up for the election

This week on The House, we sit down with Sen. Peter Harder to talk about the evolving Senate, amendments and lobbying. We also take a special tour of Parliament with House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan. And we ask strategists from the three main federal parties how they're getting ready for October's election.
Sen. Peter Harder, the government representative in the Senate, says all the amendments to bills are proof that the chamber is doing its job. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode50:00

Canadians have seen a shift in how the Red Chamber operates over the last few years, and the government's representative in the Senate says the changes show that senators are doing their jobs.

The Senate has amended 16 out of the 41 bills brought forward by the Trudeau government, and more senators are sitting as independents now.

"I think it's a norm," Peter Harder told The House. And while he said there's no hard-and-fast rule on how amendments occur in the Senate, they're getting more common.

Several recent bills have shown that the Senate isn't afraid to disagree with the House of Commons.

In a rare move, Bill C-49 — the government's wide-reaching overhaul of national transportation regulations — was sent back to the Commons twice.

The legalization of recreational marijuana use was another topic that bounced between the two chambers. Senators proposed 46 amendments to the Trudeau government's main cannabis bill, C-45. The government rejected a number of them.

And now the headaches are coming from C-69, which would set new rules for energy projects in Canada. Opponents of the bill argue it would make it virtually impossible to get approval for any new projects, and that it ignores responsible resource development. The bill would require the assessment of not just environmental considerations but also of health, social and economic impacts, as well as effects on Indigenous peoples, over the long term. 

The bill's second reading in the Senate was completed in mid December. C-69 is now with the Senate committee on energy, the environment and natural resources.

Harder said he's been lobbied by stakeholders on that bill, and many other groups have reached out regarding other legislation.

"It informs part of the reflections senators are called to exercise," he said. "I see nothing nefarious in that."

Asked about the roles of the Senate and Commons moving into an election year, Harder said the chambers have to play complementary roles as the two cogs of Parliament.

"The Senate is a revising chamber, not a defeating chamber," he said.

Senator Peter Harder, the government representative in the Senate, tells Chris Hall how an emboldened Senate will deal with the government's legislative priorities before the House rises for the summer. 9:01

Tour Centre Block with the Speaker of the House of Commons

Speaker of the House Geoff Regan rises during Question Period in the House of Commons. He gave a special tour of the building and the Chamber to The House. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's Parliament has welcomed prime ministers, kings, queens and presidents. Its chambers have handled legislation that has forever changed Canada, and its halls have seen scandal. And starting this month, its doors will be closed for a decade.

The House of Commons moves into the newly renovated West Block for the duration of the renovations in Centre Block, while the Senate will move off Parliament Hill.

Even with the politicians elsewhere, every detail of Parliament's stone corridors has a story to tell, from the portraits and carvings to the scars left behind in Centre Block by a gunman's attack in 2014.

One of the people who spends much of his time on Parliament Hill is the Speaker of the House of Commons — and we asked Geoff Regan to give us a tour of the parts of Centre Block that tourists and journalists almost never see, and to share his memories of the building.

As the House of Commons moves into a new home for the next decade or so, The House takes a tour of Centre Block with Speaker Geoff Regan to discuss its history and why preserving the building is so important. 16:06

Planning for October: How the 3 big parties are preparing for an election

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right), leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer (top left) and leader of the federal NDP, Jagmeet Singh (bottom left). (Getty Images/CP Images)

Ringing in 2019 also meant ushering in the start of an election year.

In October, Canadians will go to the polls to decide which party will govern the country.

Policies, strategies and messaging separate the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP. So how will that play out on the campaign trail?

Leading up to the election, The House will be checking in with senior officials and strategists from each of the three main parties.

We asked Suzanne Cowan, the president of the Liberal Party of Canada, Hamish Marshall, the Conservatives' national campaign chair, and Michael Balagus, a senior campaign strategist with the NDP, to walk us through how each of their parties will be approaching the lead-up to the campaign.

"I do think we have a record that we're running on," Cowan said, adding that creates both benefits and challenges.

Marshall agreed, saying the incumbent government's record is both a "blessing and a curse." The Conservatives will be vying to get back into power after Stephen Harper lost to Justin Trudeau in the 2015 federal election.

"We have to present a new and different vision for the country from the current government," he said.

The NDP have an initial challenge to overcome before their leader tries for the country's top job — he needs a seat in the House of Commons.

Jagmeet Singh is running in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby South, and Balagus says the timing could be perfect.

"The irony is that this is the point in the electoral cycle where you tend to take your leader out of the House and put him or her on the road a lot more," he said. Having Singh in the Commons does free up more options, but the leaders will all be circling the country anyway, he added.

But approaches to elections are also changing, and parties have been wrestling with how to use technology to target voters.

Currently, political parties aren't beholden to privacy rules. Given the sensitive nature of some of the personal data they collect, all three strategists said it's the parties' responsibility to ensure voters know how their information is collected and how it's used.

Chris Hall sits down with our panel of party strategists to look ahead to the 2019 campaign. Liberal Suzanne Cowan, Conservative Hamish Marshall and New Democrat Michael Balagus discuss their tactics, challenges and successes. 11:26