Government motion 165—Motion to amend the Rules of the Senate

By: The Hon. Diane Bellemare

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East and West block of Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Diane Bellemare: Honourable senators, I rise in support of this motion introduced by Senator Gold. I will speak on three issues: first, the importance of Motion No. 165; second, the principle of equality between senators and the issue of non-affiliated senators; and finally, the role of the Rules Committee in the process of modernizing our rules and procedure.

I won’t repeat what has already been said about the content of Motion No. 165, since I only have 15 minutes to speak. However, I would like to make it clear that this motion is very important to ensure greater sustainability for the changes that have been made over the past 10 years regarding the necessary existence of a number of groups and caucuses in the Senate.

In this motion, most of these proposed changes to the Rules are a complement to the amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act made in 2022 to recognize additional Senate groups and federal statutory law. They also relate to earlier reforms toward a more independent Senate, including the recognition in the Rules in 2017 of groups not affiliated with a political party. This was a crucial step toward the Senate becoming more independent and less partisan. This change put an end to the duopoly Senate which existed since 1867, composed of a Liberal and a Conservative caucus.

Notably, the Liberal and the Conservative parties served in the Senate as the opposition when the Bloc and the NDP served as the opposition in the other place. This shows that a duopoly in the Senate does not reflect the diverse views of Canadian society.

The 2017 rule change, together with a more transparent appointment process, spoke to Canadians who don’t identify as partisans, enhancing independent voices in the Senate of Canada. Also, it helped the Senate to have more groups, countering the risk of majoritarianism.

Honourable senators, let me remind you that the Fathers of Confederation, when they adopted a bicameral Parliament, took inspiration from the British philosopher, economist and political scientist John Stuart Mill, who wrote Considerations on Representative Government in 1861. I can assure you that this book is worth reading, even while on vacation.

He wrote:

The consideration which tells most, in my judgment, in favour of two Chambers . . . is the evil effect produced upon the mind of any holder of power, whether an individual or an assembly, by the consciousness of having only themselves to consult.

Such a situation can be exacerbated in a unicameral Parliament. So, this is one reason why the Senate exists. It gives some assurance to minority populations and regions that they can be heard through the Senate. But the tyranny of the majority, as John Stuart Mill put it, can also exist in bicameral Parliament.

Motion No. 165, along with the previous changes and the amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act, makes it possible to prevent it.

Although the purpose of bicameralism is to prevent the tyranny of the majority, the mere existence of a Senate is not enough. The Senate must also be independent.

But what does an independent Senate really mean? In a few words, it means it is not controlled by the party in power, and particularly by the Prime Minister’s Office. It does not mean that the Senate or senators can do whatever they want. An independent Senate must show restraint and respect the democratic preferences of Canadians and the elected chamber while protecting the interests of minorities and regions at the same time. This has been well explained by the Supreme Court in 2014, as well as by senator Ian Shugart, who left us too soon, but with this vital message.

Unfortunately, in Canada, as documented by political scientists, it has been tempting for the party in power to control the Senate caucus affiliated with it and impose its party line. This was done through the appointment process and through a system of fear and favour and, ultimately, through majority votes under party discipline. Thus, the checks and balances of John Stuart Mill could be negated. When the Senate has at least three groups, it becomes more difficult for the party in power to exercise control. This is one landmark innovation of the Senate reform of the Forty-second Parliament.

Honourable senators, especially those of you who have been sworn in since 2016, I urge you not to forget that majoritarianism has been a real practice in the federal Parliament since the early days of Confederation. Successive governing parties have always sought to secure the majority of votes in the Senate and, above all, to impose a party line. It’s not surprising that the Senate was seen as the institution that rubber-stamped the decisions of the other place. The Senate must not go back to its old ways.

The Senate’s most recent existential crisis, which began in 2013 and which I watched with astonishment, was the culmination of the ruling party’s strategy to control the Senate. You have to have lived it to believe it. This control strategy was documented by Justice Vaillancourt in his ruling in the Duffy case.

Therefore, Motion No. 165 is very important in the process of modernizing the Senate, but it is not the end of the process. Other rules need to be changed to help all senators to perform their constitutional duties.

The Senate needs to address the issue of equality among senators, including non-affiliated senators. On this point, let me remind you of this chamber’s debates in 2015 and 2016 when senator John Wallace, appointed by Prime Minister Harper, introduced a motion to mandate the Rules Committee to study this specific issue.

In summary, Senator Wallace proposed that the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament be authorized to examine and report on the practices of the Senate and the rules relating to committees, in order to assess whether all senators are, in fact, treated equally, fairly and equitably, no matter if they are sitting as members of the government, as members of the opposition, as members of recognized parties, or as independent or non-affiliated senators. They all should have the same reasonable opportunity to contribute fully to the Senate through their committee work.

His motion also highlighted the importance of our committee seat selection process in this context. At the time, I believed that we, the Senate, should first focus on amending the Rules so that independent groups would be recognized. That was done in 2017 and will be reinforced by this motion.

But I think that now the time has come to reintroduce Senator Wallace’s motion.

Finally, let me speak briefly on the role of the Rules Committee. But before I do, let me tell you this anecdote. In March 2015, I had the privilege to accompany Speaker Nolin in London with a few other senators to visit the Lords Chamber. Charles Robert, the Clerk of the Senate and the Clerk of the Rules Committee, accompanied us. I asked him why it takes so long for the Rules Committee to propose any changes on our rules and procedures. He said, “Because the Rules Committee tries to reach consensus.” It makes sense to me. It has always made sense to me.

Indeed, I repeat, I believe that the Rules Committee needs to try honestly to reach consensus. But what if it cannot? It could happen that the committee is not able to reach a consensus involving all groups. When that happens and when leaders clearly cannot agree either, then the Senate as a whole has to decide for the good of the country.

As I said earlier, the content of Motion No. 165 was studied in the Rules Committee, which reported to the Senate in March 2023. The fifth report did not include any recommendations because the committee failed to reach consensus. Some items were strongly opposed by the Conservative members of the committee.

Also, I need to say that when all groups and caucuses in the committee agreed to study the motion concerning the equality of groups, it was not with the intent to vote on the issue.

From the start of this study, many suspected that it would be impossible to reach consensus on all items. The objective of our study was to clarify the items on which the Senate could find consensus. One could say that the Rules Committee did a kind of pre-study of Motion No. 165. In other words, the committee decided to get a clear picture of the issue and present it to the Senate.

I decided not to call votes on different items because I respected the committee’s original will. A battle on the matter would have compromised the future work of the committee in order to produce a report of the committee tabled under Other Business that would remain vulnerable to a filibuster in the chamber.

In my view, in exploring our procedures, the Rules Committee should try to reach a reasonable consensus. That means the members should try to work toward common ground in good faith. When consensus is not possible, its role is to enlighten the chamber on the different possibilities. This is what has been done in the fifth report. Then, it is for the Senate as a whole to decide.

I believe Canadians expect more of us and aren’t looking for a “game of thrones” in the Senate. That is why I am happy that Senator Gold has commenced this transparent debate after years of frustrated efforts to have our Rules match the ideals of our constitutional role. The debate over power and equity is not a zero-sum game. Indeed, what is at stake is the independence of the Senate from the control by the party in power over our decisions, for the good of all Canadians. The public will be the true winner in achieving a better Senate.

I am happy that this motion was introduced by the government because at the end of the day, in an appointed Senate such as ours, Canadians cannot vote us out, as is the case in most senates around the world. If the Senate cannot be made accountable to the voters, who is to assure them that this institution can accomplish its role of sober second thought for all Canadians? To ask this question is, maybe, to answer it.

In closing, let me remind you that the development of Motion No. 165 took many years of hard work, dialogue and committee study. This includes the work of the Special Senate Committee on Modernization and the Rules Committee, as well as discussions in working groups and debates in this chamber. I want to give special thanks to Senator Gold and Senator Lankin for their hard work on this.

In my view, the time has now finally come to do the right thing and vote.

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