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From the Hill: How the Canadian Senate operates (and kills bills)

MP Richard Cannings

Last week, the Canadian Senate killed all private members’ bills before them—29 bills, including my bill advocating for the use of wood in federal government infrastructure.  This was achieved by a very small group of Conservative Senators who wanted to block the passage of my colleague Romeo Saganash’s bill on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.  The easiest way they could kill that bill was to kill all private members’ bills.

When I first arrived in Ottawa as an MP, public sentiment was running strongly against the Senate.  We’d just been through the Mike Duffy scandal and most Canadians were fed up with stories of entitled, unelected Senators who didn’t show up for work, padded their expense accounts, and didn’t seem to play a very useful role in governing Canada.

As I met a number of Senators in my first couple of years my feelings about the institution began to soften.  Newly appointed Senators were chosen through a merit-based competition process and were independent of the government caucus. 

As I got to know more Senators, I was impressed with the hard work and long hours that most of them put into the job.  I witnessed government bills rammed through the House of Commons and saw the more involved debate that they faced in Senate committees.  I began to think that maybe there was a case for a truly independent body of “sober second thought.”

But the events of the last few months have changed my thoughts once again.  If abolishing the Senate is too difficult, we must at least reform its rules and procedures.

One example: the bizarre way the Senate arranges its debates. Instead of debating one bill for a few hours or days, the Senate puts all bills before it on the daily agenda (called “the scrolls”, hinting how old this practice must be) and deals with them in numerical order.  If someone wants to speak to a bill, they can talk for 45 minutes (we get 10 minutes in the House of Commons), or simply say “stand”, which puts off debate on that bill for another two weeks.  Private members bills come last each day.

My private members’ bill was passed through the House of Commons a year ago.  It was first debated in the Senate last October.  It required a speech from the Conservative critic (who was in favour of the bill) before it could be voted on and sent to committee.  He didn’t get around to giving the speech until May.  Then, as time wound down for this parliament, the real shocking procedures unrolled.

First, there were a few weeks of standoffs as senators jockeyed for committee time.  By the time that was sorted there were only two or three weeks left and I was getting a little anxious.  But I got a call from the committee clerk telling me my bill would be voted on that evening and then go to committee two days later.  I slipped back to the Senate to watch the vote.

But the vote on my bill never happened—the Senate never got to the private members bills at the end of the agenda.  A series of delaying votes, a two-hour supper break (we don’t get supper breaks at all in the House of Commons), and long speeches on government bills filled the evening.  Shortly after 11 pm, the Senators realized they weren’t going to get anything else done and adjourned for the night.  And that’s how my bill died.  That’s how every private members’ bill died over the following days.

Private members’ bills are written, developed, promoted and debated by elected Members of Parliament.  MPs work for years to get their bills passed by the House of Commons, and few substantive bills reach that milestone.  Then the bills go to the Senate.  It is unconscionable that a small group of unelected Conservative Senators—who don’t even have a majority in the Senate—can then kill the bills at their whim.  It’s time for change.