Speech from the Throne—Motion for Address in Reply

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Peace Tower and Parliament, Ottawa

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: Honourable senators, I rise in reply to the Speech From the Throne. Like former Senator Sinclair on December 8 and Senator Dean on February 8, I will focus on the government’s desire to advance Senate reform and the path ahead.

Since 2016, significant changes have occurred in the appointment and makeup of the Senate. Gender parity has been achieved, and we are fortunate to work with 10 senators who identify as members of Indigenous nations, but certainly, the most striking change is that, currently, 70 of the 90 members of this chamber appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau or his predecessors have chosen to affiliate with groups that are not linked to a political party in the House of Commons and do not caucus with them. The old two-party dynamics have been replaced by four vibrant groups and a culture of pluralism.

Moreover, votes are no longer being whipped in the Senate, as we have seen recently on significant bills. In reality, senators of all groups are more independent than at any time in the history of this chamber. Due to these changes, since 2016, the Senate has returned 34 government bills to the other place with amendments, and 31 bills have become law with amendments accepted by the government and the House of Commons.

Such amendments have brought about an appeal process around the revocation of citizenship, an end to historic gender discrimination in registration under the Indian Act, the protection of Quebec’s jurisdictions over consumer protection, better rail service for soybean farmers in Western Canada, the strengthening of RCMP members’ freedom of association in collective bargaining, a ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes, a ban on shark-fin imports, wide-ranging changes to access-to-information laws, the availability of federal services in Indigenous languages where capacity and demand exist and the expansion of access to medical assistance in dying.

Moreover, since we moved to this temporary chamber in early 2019, our debates are now accessible in real time on the web for the media and the public to watch. Excerpts of debates are broadcast by conventional media from time to time. This is especially beneficial for scheduled and themed debates that have allowed Canadians to follow our work on their behalf.

In 2016, under the leadership of Senator Harder, Senator Cowan and Senator Carignan, as well as senators from the newly formed Independent Senators Group, the Senate scheduled themed debates for Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts (medical assistance in dying).

In the first part of 2018, Senator Dean, with the support of the leaders of all groups and the government representatives, led the study on Bill C-45 on the legalization of cannabis. We were able to have themed debates of the bill based on the reports tabled by several committees.

In November 2018, the Senate devoted two days to the study of Bill C-89 on the resumption and continuation of postal services, which included a meeting in committee of the whole that lasted several hours and where ministers and representatives of the employer and the union testified. This did not happen in the House of Commons.

This year, Bill C-7 was another example of targeted debates on important government legislation, this time on medical assistance in dying.

Canadians were better able to consider all views shared in the Senate, including arguments for expanded access, the voices of racialized and Indigenous perspectives and representation of socially conservative values.

This accessibility helped make the Senate’s work more relevant to the national conversation, contributing to the robust policy response from the government and the House of Commons.

Thank you to Senator Gold and his team for their effective representation of this chamber’s views to the government.

This year, we also saw well-organized debates on Bill C-29 around the resumption of operations at the Port of Montreal and on bills advancing reconciliation.

Reading the Ottawa Citizen the other day, one passage jumped out regarding the structures of Senate proceedings:

The common practice of the Senate in adjourning and spreading debates on different subjects over so many days, or weeks, or months tends to dissipate interest in the questions and remove all chance of attaining any impact on public opinion on the matters being discussed.

Colleagues, the date of this article may surprise you, May 8, 1946.

With reasonable time frames, scheduling debates for government bills better serves Canadians, the Senate and any government of the day.

All these changes since 2016 have been noticed. At a conference I attended, one scholar specializing in political institutions said we were witnessing one of the most significant changes ever to Parliament.

Canadians have noticed these changes, as two polls conducted by Senator Dasko over the past three years have shown. In fact, 76% of Canadians, according to the polls, want independent appointments to continue. They are also twice as likely to think the reforms will improve the Senate as compared to making no difference. These polls also show that a lot remains to be done to earn the trust of the majority of Canadians. I know that we are all ready to do whatever is necessary to improve public confidence in our work.

Important internal reforms have also succeeded through collaboration during this Parliament despite the pandemic. Thanks to the work of Senator Wells and others, the Senate now has an Audit and Oversight Committee with external membership, and thanks to the work of Senator Saint-Germain and many at CIBA, a modern harassment policy. We also have our first process for election, by all senators, of the Speaker pro tempore.

Since 2017, our rules have recognized parliamentary groups of nine or more senators, thus moving away from the old two-party dynamic. Other changes have been suggested by Senator Woo and Senator Tannas around group procedural powers and remain to be debated. The new reality is also reflected in Bill S-4; government legislation proposing changes to the Parliament of Canada Act. Thanks to the collaboration of Senator Plett and other leaders, the bill was passed by the Senate at the beginning of this month. Hopefully Bill S-4 will soon become law.

This Parliament, we have also considered possible reforms around non-government bills through an inquiry initiated by former Senator Sinclair and I, and a task force led by Senators Massicotte and Busson. Models we have looked to include the Rules of the House of Commons, and the 2014 proposal of former Speaker Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, former Senator Joyal and Senator White. I look forward to further discussions on these important issues. Recent days have shown the need for due diligence, with the possibility of reaching decisions in reasonable time frames while fully discharging our function of sober second thought.

I am certainly pleased with the recent agreement in principle between all groups, including the official opposition, to have fulsome debates and votes on as many private members’ bills and Senate public bills as may be feasible. However, why should we be less stringent on these bills that do not have the benefit of departmental scrutiny?

This is particularly the case when private members’ bills venture into financial and other areas more appropriate to the government. But we can think about this in the fall. However, I will reiterate that a main benefit of rule changes on private members’ bills will be that Canadians and elected members of Parliament could understand and follow our proceedings.

On this point, senators may be interested to know that two caucus chairs in the House of Commons have reached out to Senator Sinclair and myself in personal support of the initiative. First, the member for Windsor West and caucus chair of the NDP, Brian Masse, supports these changes. Second, the member for Lac-Saint-Louis and caucus chair for the Liberal Party of Canada, Francis Scarpaleggia, supports these changes. This support is a reminder of the importance of private members’ bills for non-government caucuses and for backbench members of any government caucus.

Looking ahead, we should also take a close look at the roles of sponsors and critics. For example, in the previous Parliament, two chairs of committees, Senator Andreychuk and Senator Runciman temporarily gave up the chair when bills they sponsored came before their committees. Recently though, a sponsor served as chair for her own bill at the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. I believe that critics should speak early on in the process and not last in the debate. That’s why we give them more time to explain positions in order to enlighten and inform the debate.

These issues require consideration, and I hope we find the time this fall. In closing, I would recommend to you, for inspiration around Senate reforms, the great historic senator from my division of De Lorimier, the Honourable Raoul Dandurand, whose bust is upstairs in the senators’ lounge.

Appointed by former prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1898, he served in the Senate for 44 years, including as Speaker for five years; as Government Leader three times, for a total of 18 years — maybe Senator Gold you can see that as a record to beat — and as Leader of the Opposition three times. In 1985, he also served as President of the League of Nations Assembly, so not exactly a lightweight.

Commenting on his career in the Senate, the Library of Parliament indicates:

. . . Dandurand was a firm advocate of non-partisanship in the Senate, which he felt distinguished it from the House of Commons and led to better scrutiny and revision of legislation. Professor Robert MacKay of Cornell University maintained in 1926 that, as a result, “few, if any, senators have exercised such lasting influence on the character of the Senate as did Dandurand.”

Honourable senators, let us carry on former Senator Dandurand’s quest. We have taken steps in the right direction and there is much to celebrate, but much work remains. I know many senators are ready to move forward. In the meantime, have a great summer. Thank you, meegwetch.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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