Question Period: Role of Government Representative

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

Share this post:

Hon. Marty Klyne: My question is for Senator Gold. In our debate on April 25, you expressed concern that eight years into the independent Senate reform, our Rules have received minimal updates. For example, the Senate is unable to vote on non-government bills if even a small group of senators seek to prevent a vote. In 2019, one such filibuster killed 15 House of Commons’ private members’ bills. In 2020, Senators Sinclair and Dalphond proposed a reform to bring fairness and transparency to our process for independent initiatives. Their model is based on the rules of the House of Commons and the 2014 proposal of the Conservative Senate caucus and Senator Joyal.

With many government bills languishing on the Order Paper, is it time to change the Rules?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you for raising this question. First, I would note in reference to the comment that I had made to which you referred that I was not speaking about the Rules in general but specifically about the fair and equitable recognition of parliamentary groups in the various processes under our Rules, where I do think there is a broadly shared sense of urgency.

Having said that, properly processing non-government bills is an important part of the work that we do in the chamber and one that’s valued by parliamentarians in the other place and by Canadians alike. Senator Harder, for example, has written about the Senate’s silent or “pocket” veto on private members’ bills that come to us from elected members of the other place and how its exercise has harmed the reputation of the Senate in the past.

My office, the Government Representative Office in the Senate, has long supported the principle that law and non-government business should be debated and considered fully by this chamber and that bills should be able to move forward appropriately following proper debate and study. Although the Government Representative Office would like to see non-government legislation debated in a timely way, currently, the management of non-government business is an area that is to be taken up collectively by all groups and senators. It is my understanding that there are ongoing discussions amongst the deputy leaders and scroll coordinators about moving several non-government bills forward.

If you’ll allow me an observation, which I would stress is my view alone, I think there are two problems with the way that we handle non-government business: The first is the one you have identified, where non-government bills can be stalled until there is a negotiated settlement, or until more robust or concerted procedural action. The second is a sense that I know is broadly shared — in many cases, non-government bills are expedited in a way that is not fulsome at times in order to make good on deals that have been made. It is often the case that private members’ bills that pass the Senate are rarely amended, and that’s not because they are perfect. We do see government legislation receiving much more scrutiny and levels of consideration.

With regard to specific changes in the Rules on other business — and I apologize, colleagues, for the length of this response, but I think it’s important — we, in the Government Representative Office, are always open to policy engagement with colleagues. I recall the proposal that you raised with me several years ago, which was creative, very well put together and built off a proposal backed by former Senator White. I also recall that others have floated different and interesting ideas, including the notion of adopting a lottery system similar to that in the other place.

In order for the Senate to be in a position to move forward on changes relating to the treatment of other business, there is a need to garner a sense of where the consensus lies in terms of preferred policy options. If only to distill where such a policy consensus may lie, I would certainly encourage our Senate Rules Committee to take up the issue, examine the proposal that you mentioned and evaluate the practices and methods used by our colleagues in the other place, as well as any other perspective that could lead to a modernized approach.

Senator Klyne: Senator Gold, you may have answered this point, but could you comment on this? Maybe it’s an opportunity to underscore something.

In one of his final speeches to this chamber, the Honourable Murray Sinclair said, “. . . the Senate should proceed with adopting fair and transparent rules regardless of whether there is unanimity.”

He continued:

The benefit of a government procedural avenue for internal reforms would be that such a process could more readily involve a conclusion after a reasonable period of time.

Can you comment on that?

Senator Gold: Thank you. I do agree. First of all, consensus does not necessarily mean unanimity. Unanimity should not be a threshold for change in the Senate — that would simply be a recipe for paralysis. However, as I just said, on the issue of our approach to other business, given the different proposals that have been circulated in the past, I think there needs to be a process of engagement that would yield a policy consensus, or at least to see where one might lie. Again, I would encourage the Rules Committee to take up this issue.

You mentioned Senator Murray Sinclair; he was an important voice in this chamber. His vision of the Senate as Canada’s council of elders is certainly one vision that could inform our debate as we continue our efforts to modernize the Senate, and for the Senate to better correspond to contemporary needs and reality.

Share this post: