Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate)
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Therefore, honourable senators, in amendment, I move:
That the motion in amendment be not now adopted, but that it be amended:
1. by replacing the words “Opposition in the Senate to make a short statement during any Question Period” by the words “Government in the Senate, after consultation with the leaders and facilitators of all the recognized parties and recognized parliamentary groups, to make a short statement at the start of the Orders of the Day during any sitting”; and
2. by replacing the words “by the Leader of the Opposition will be in attendance by making a brief statement during Question Period” by the words “pursuant to this order will be in attendance by making a brief statement at the start of the Orders of the Day”.
To conclude, honourable senators, I leave you with the words of the former Leader of the Opposition Senator Carignan who also stated on December 9, 2015 —
When someone moves a motion in amendment or in subamendment, their speaking time is over once the subamendment is proposed. I heard the Leader of the Government in the Senate put forward a subamendment, and that brings his time to an end. He can’t keep talking after proposing his subamendment.
Hon. Patricia Bovey (The Hon. the Acting Speaker)
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As a subamendment, it is moved by the Honourable Senator Gold, seconded by the Honourable Senator Gagné, that the motion in amendment be not now adopted but that it be amended: (1) by replacing the words, “Opposition in the Senate” — may I dispense?
Thank you to the government leader for so quickly responding with a subamendment today to my amendment yesterday. It gives me an opportunity to get up and further express our concern with the process that the government has forced upon this institution.
It speaks volumes when your subamendment simply says, “The government will propose, in consultation with.” That is really what highlights the problem with your process, Senator Gold. Can you imagine any model of parliament anywhere in the world, particularly in our British parliamentary system, where the government proposes to the opposition — not to their elected colleagues, not to their appointed colleagues, but to the opposition.
Don’t roll your eyes, Senator Gold, because at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, this is an important principle. I can assure all of you who discard that principle today, because you’re on a majority sitting in a majority footing with a government that has appointed you, the day will come — I guarantee each and every one of you — where you will want to sit and defend these principles to the umpteenth degree the way we are doing. It’s just a matter of time. If you’re here long enough — and I’m starting to be here long enough — you’ll realize there’s a back and forth in our democracy.
So, Senator Gold, when the government is forcing upon this institution — because of the majority situation that your government sits in — a situation where you dictate which ministers come here and when, that is what we find to be totally egregious.
I also want to go a step further and remind the public who are watching this debate, the whole notion of bringing the government to account in bringing ministers here, even in this chamber, is not another Senate reform process that Mr. Trudeau or Senator Harder invented. It’s something that was actually called upon by the leadership of the government at the time, after the election in 2015, with Senator Carignan and Senator Cowan. Yes, we did consult and we provided a list to the government on the other side, and more often than not, they acquiesced. We have found that since that time, as time has progressed, our requests continue to be less and less heeded.
At the end of the day, we’re simply saying that we want to continue to have the ability to hold the government to account. But I don’t think it’s unusual or extraordinary to simply say that the Leader of the Opposition, the official opposition in this chamber, which opposes the government more often than government-appointed senators — and that is factual. If you look at the vote record and debate in this place, it’s only normal that government-appointed senators reflect the view of the government more often.
Despite that, yes, they have the opportunity to stand up. They are granted their independence by the fact that they are appointed on tenure, they’re here until the age of 75 and the Prime Minister who appointed them cannot remove them. The Prime Minister, of course, in the House of Commons, where you have elected Liberal MPs, has to sign their nomination papers.
Just as it would be unheard of for the government in the House of Commons to say to the opposition, “We will determine for you which ministers we bring before you, and we will even determine what questions you’re allowed to ask,” we think that’s completely unacceptable. We think it thwarts the role of this chamber.
I think your subamendment is another attempt to reinforce the fact that the government can enforce things upon this chamber because they have a majority. We’ve seen it the last few days, and we will continue to see it going forward.
If you take away from the opposition our last tool, which is the ability to hold the government to account and to bring ministers here whom we want to hear from, depending on the issues that are important to the minority voices in this country, then at that particular point this place becomes an echo chamber. The government might as well determine what’s on the agenda and when, and we will become a marginalized opposition in this place, which would be a sad day for our democracy.
Honourable senators, I appreciate having the opportunity to participate in this discussion. I thank Senator Housakos for the narrative he has put forward. It’s one that I have often heard and frequently on a myriad of issues as the debate about modernization, reform and change of the Senate takes place.
Respectfully, understanding the direction we’re going and the role of all senators, including senators who are part of the opposition caucus here, which is part of the official opposition national caucus — something that many of us think is not part of what a modern Senate should be, but it exists and we are respectful of that — I appreciate and have heard those comments before.
I would like to say what his motion, in fact, does. It takes away the right from every other senator to participate and to do their job for their regions in holding the government to account on a range of items that may be of concern to them and the people of their province — in my case it’s a province, and in other cases it’s a region of the country — and the right to represent those voices.
It sounded as though Senator Housakos was making an argument that something in the government representative’s motion was taking away something the opposition had. We’ve had a process in place where there has been discussion and negotiation. I think from the record, as I have seen it, every attempt has been made to meet the requests of all senators, including the opposition — which will often speak with one voice through their leader — in terms of who they would like to see come forward. However, there are other voices that should be heard as well, and I believe that has been accommodated.
To the best of my understanding, when there has been a problem with respect to the scheduling commitments of ministers whom any senator in this chamber has put forward as a suggestion to be brought before us for Question Period, there has been an attempt to reschedule and/or to bring that minister forward as soon as is possible.
On behalf of your caucus, there is a daily presence of the opportunity to ask questions in the other place of the ministers. We all see the news and/or Hansard coverage of that.
In this place, there are 105 equal senators who should all have that opportunity. I think the system we had in place, which was collegial and appeared to work — I’ve heard no specific grievances or examples brought forward where it hasn’t worked — serves the entirety of the chamber better.
Honourable senators, I want to contribute a few points to this particular part of the debate and remind our honourable colleagues, many of whom weren’t here yet at the particular time that this innovation was started by Senator Carignan when he was the opposition leader in the Senate, that the original reason for ministers’ Question Period in the Senate arose because, for the first five months of the Trudeau government, there was no government leader in the Senate. There was no one to have Question Period with. That very important factor of accountability in the other chamber of Parliament — not just the House of Commons but also the Senate — could not happen without anybody to ask questions to. That was why the original innovation occurred.
Initially how it went, for the first year and a half or two years, was that the opposition Senate leader provided the government with a list of a few ministers that the opposition wanted to hear from in ministers’ Question Period, and then arrangements were made to have those particular ministers appear in the next few weeks. That went quite well.
Then, unfortunately, this process morphed in the last two years, in the last Parliament, to a process where the Trudeau government leader told the opposition which ministers would come to ministerial Question Period over the course of the next six or seven weeks. Minister so-and-so this week, morphing from a period of six or seven weeks. By then, you were no longer able to discern what might be topical issues for that period of time, and it took away the very principle of Question Period. Question Period is supposed to be an accountability session for the government, and it’s supposed to be on demand, without notice.
Having some notice allows the government to ensure the availability of ministers. However, providing the government with reasonable notice — perhaps a week or two, not six — is not intended to be a period of time where the government tells the opposition who is going to come to Question Period. That is not acceptable. That is simply yet another way the Trudeau government is trying to silence opposition and ensure that we can’t do our jobs properly to get accountability and represent our regions.
Earlier today, Senator Gold indicated there was a collaborative consensus-based approach by the government leader in the Senate. What I’ve just explained casts doubt on that. I submit that the process outlined by Senator Gold in his Trudeau government subamendment gets so far away from that accountability process and also the fact that it’s supposed to be on demand, without notice. That is what we need to have. That is what I think Senator Housakos’s motion gets closer to. Thank you very much.
Honourable senators, I was happy to hear the Government Representative in the Senate provide a more eloquent articulation of concerns with respect to Senator Housakos’s motion, but I feel bound to rise to do a fact check on Senator Housakos’s speech.
I don’t speak to defend myself as former government representative on the issue of attendance at cabinet, the conduct of Question Period or Senator Gold’s role, but I do rise to defend the leadership of the Conservative Party in the Senate.
Senator Carignan was referenced by omission in Senator Housakos’s eloquent nostalgic reprise of Senator Marjory LeBreton, who was the last government leader to sit in cabinet, as many senators will know. When Senator Carignan was appointed as Government Leader in the Senate, he was sworn into the Privy Council, of course, and like me, he attended cabinet, as appropriate, but he was not a member of cabinet. Somehow that got lost in the recollection of this nostalgic age.
If you want a bit of nostalgia around that, I invite you to read the last 20 pages of Justice Vaillancourt’s judgment, which tells you a lot about the independence displayed by the previous executive toward the Senate, but I digress.
Let me speak directly to Senate Question Period. Absolutely, it is a tribute to Senator Carignan. I invite you to look at the speech of February 24, 2016, where he eloquently describes why it is important for this chamber to hear from ministers directly. That is, of course, what was put in place. The movement in that direction was adopted on February 24, I believe. I arrived on March 23. I think that’s less than five months, but you never know.
In my first meeting with leaders, we discussed how best to have a consensus on how we should proceed. Everyone will know that Senator Carignan, Senator Smith and certainly Senator Plett are very shy to express their points of view, but I was able to coax out of them their priorities, and I sought to identify the ministers to come for Senate Question Period. Other leaders were also invited to suggest names. Often, there were many parallels there, because the issues of the day, to determine in a very obvious way senators’ desire to have ministerial attendance.
That is the history of the experience. Not once — and I should be clear not to reflect on the leadership discussions — but there was never a discussion to which I was a party over my four years regarding discomfort among any of the leaders with respect to this. My office did get a letter from the staff of the Leader of the Opposition, who suggested we should do away with ministerial Question Period. I properly ignored that, and it was never raised with me by any leader.
However, it’s important for us to build on the experience of the last four years and to bring this innovation back to the Senate promptly so we can hear from ministers and hold the government to account, as is our proper role.
Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition)
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Honourable senators, sometimes the debate inspires more debate, and I wanted to speak at this time.
When I first came into this chamber over a decade ago, we were in government and the Liberal opposition sat on this side. I remember Question Period in those days.
During Question Period, our leader — Senator Marjory LeBreton and then Senator Claude Carignan for a time, and I was his deputy in government — expected to be pummelled by the opposition with question after question. Most of Question Period was taken up by questions to the government leader. The government leader was expected to respond to any type of question. They had very thick binders, with notes on a range of issues. They were prepared for those times.
I know those days are gone, and we are here. In the last four years, the frustration has built up. The opposition is feeling this frustration because proportionality is one of the main principles on which we decide upon seats in committees and other things. In Question Period, where the opposition should be able to hold the government to account, the number of questions we’re asking has been reduced, based on proportionality. I’m not saying other senators in this chamber do not have a right to ask questions; however, I’m simply saying that the frustration is building because that’s how Question Period has transformed.
The opposition has a duty to question the government, to put the government’s feet to the fire and ask those questions. Because there isn’t a government leader, per se, we have decided, as we have explained, that we have Question Period with ministers.
I recall the first few ministers being in the middle of our chamber rather than sitting on the government side, because then it showed the independence of this chamber. It showed the Trudeau-appointed senators also asking questions of the ministers of the government of the day. However, I think we had some sound or technical issues, and that’s when we decided to move the minister to the government side. These are some of the developments that have caused the frustration.
With all due respect to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, your subamendment further aggravates our sense of frustration regarding what we’d like to see. That said, I understand we’ll work toward it. We have seen changes in Question Period, but the right of the opposition to be able to hold the government to account is a very important point. I hope all senators will consider that in their decisions on the subamendment.
I would like to correct something Senator Harder said, specifically, that I was not a member of cabinet. I sat on a number of cabinet committees, including the communications committee and the committee responsible for operations. I was a full member of cabinet, unlike him who was not. He was a guest. I, on the other hand, was not a guest. I was a full cabinet member. I wanted to clarify that.
Second, I cannot accept the government’s subamendment, since its objective, as many others have indicated, is to receive a minister who will address current issues. It is a question of holding the government to account for its actions. It is important that the Leader of the Opposition play an active role in choosing the ministers who appear in the Senate over the next few weeks.
We therefore need to ensure that the minister who appears before the Senate addresses current issues that we want to draw attention to or ask questions about.
For example, we don’t want a repeat of the situation that happened this week, where the issues that were all over the news had to do with Indigenous affairs, natural resources and transport, and the government decided to send the Minister of Sport to appear before the Senate. In a case like that, there weren’t as many current issues that we wanted to ask the minister about.
That’s why the Leader of the Opposition must play an active role in choosing the minister.
Although the existing or previous iteration of the motion doesn’t contain a more specific framework, there was still good collaboration on the part of the Leader of the Government in the other place. We were aware of the context of accountability and we chose a minister that respected both the opposition’s positions and the ministers’ very busy schedules. There was some negotiation that took place, since the opposition leader’s role is fundamental in choosing a minister in the interests of transparency and keeping the government accountable for its actions.
Honourable senators, the matter before us is, in some ways, a foreshadowing of the motion I hoped to speak to that is under consideration because of the point of order.
It boils down to the issue, colleagues, of whether the opposition has special rights and privileges that other senators do not have. This is the essence of the amendment that Senator Housakos has put before us — that the opposition has the special privilege of naming and calling ministers. Even if the rest of us constitute the large majority of the Senate, we do not have that same privilege.
Senator Gold’s subamendment does, in effect, the same thing that my motion seeks to do, which is to create the equality of senators and Senate groups.
I ask you to consider the question of Senator Housakos’s amendment in that context. Do you or do you not believe in the equality of senators? And do you or do you not believe in the equality of Senate groups?
Colleagues, let me give you one other reason why it is so important to consider the views of all senators and groups in the determination of ministerial Question Period rather than leaving it just to the opposition, insofar as the opposition characterizes itself proudly as part of the Conservative caucus that is in the house.
I’m glad to hear the confirmation that our colleagues in the Conservative caucus believe it to be an intrinsic part of the Conservative Party in the house because it means that the Question Period we have here, coming from the Conservative opposition, is going to be the same —
— and Question Period here, which is exactly why we need other senators representing other interests — non-partisan senators, the Canadian Senators Group, progressive senators — asking questions that are not necessarily tied to the interests of colleagues in the House of Commons.
That is how we distinguish the Senate as a body that is different from the House of Commons. That is how we distinguish ourselves not as an echo chamber but as a complementary chamber of sober second thought.
I was listening to your speech, and I was thinking that I don’t feel equal. I am not an equal senator when it comes to getting up and making statements or asking questions because I belong to a progressive Senate group who are below the magic number of nine. We have an unaffiliated group between 10 and 12, but where are we in terms of proportionality and equality?
Your speech was based on being a recognized group. Therefore, we don’t always get the same opportunity because our numbers as the progressives are not at that magic number nine.
You raise a point that goes beyond the matter we are currently discussing — and we cannot go into negotiations that are ongoing — but your leader will know that I believe, and my group believes, that all senators deserve a seat on committees based roughly on their proportions in the chamber. I’m hoping I will get validation of that assurance I’ve given. That’s as far as I can go at this time.
Yes, I am. Your Honour, we are having a leader of 55 independents sharing things that are being discussed at a committee where he is telling the exact opposite of what he said at that committee. When he says something here that is false, that’s a point of order.
He did not want to give the progressives seats on any committee.
I will not raise a point of privilege, but I can say that there are those in the room who know the conversations I have had, and I will leave them to speak should they see fit.
I will conclude on the point that this matter is fundamentally about equality of senators and Senate groups. As we deliberate the subamendment, I hope we will fall on the side of the equality of Senate groups rather than the duopoly of the government and the opposition.
In your speech, you talked about the Senate being different than the House of Commons. I don’t know how many times I have reminded colleagues that under section 18 of the Constitution Act, when the forefathers created this hybrid upper chamber, it was created with the same privileges, immunities and the rights of the House of Commons in Westminster. Keep that in mind.
Second, Senator Dyck is absolutely right. There is no such thing as equality. Any Westminster model has a government side with immunities, privileges and rights; an opposition with unique rights and privileges; a third party with their rights and privileges; and independent parliamentarians with their rights and privileges.
If we read the rules and the precedents of all the Westminster parliamentary models, those are the facts.
Senator Woo, when you take all those elements under consideration and you look at the House of Commons — which we’re modelled on, by the way, on the other side — can you tell me if the majority there are not equal just because they don’t dictate and are the driving force at Question Period in the House of Commons?
There was a question in there, but let me start by addressing the false assertion about the Senate vis-à-vis the House of Commons. I won’t give honourable senators, as Senator Housakos did, my personal interpretation of the difference. I will give you the Supreme Court 2014 reference:
. . . “[i]n creating the Senate in the manner provided in the Act, it is clear that the intention was to make the Senate a thoroughly independent body which could canvass dispassionately the measures of the House of Commons” . . . . The framers sought to endow the Senate with independence from the electoral process to which members of the House of Commons were subject, in order to remove Senators from a partisan political arena that required unremitting consideration of short-term political objectives.
There is no need to say more than that. I read directly from the Supreme Court reference, and it clearly distinguishes the work of the Senate from that of the House of Commons and why we should continually try to find ways to distinguish ourselves, including in Question Period. And if we have found a model that works for us, the model that Senator Gold described, the model that Senator Harder implemented — which, by the way, I can confirm without divulging any secrets from leaders’ meetings, that it was cordial, it was collegial and it worked with the full participation of all the members around the room most of the time; I can confirm all of that — why would we not continue with that practice, particularly if it helps us distinguish how the Senate is different, how it makes a contribution above and beyond the House of Commons? Do we really want to be just like the House of Commons, to have a Question Period that’s like the House of Commons? We want more than that. Yes, we can have that, too. Yes, we can ask and we should ask Senator Gold tough questions, but we should have more than that too.
Colleagues, I hope again to reiterate my point. This is not only a matter of Question Period; it is also a matter of the equality of Senate groups. It is a matter that we have in our power to make happen. It’s within our power — nothing to do with a statute, nothing to do with the Constitution. It is within our power. We are masters of our domain, and we should take that opportunity.
Senator Woo, aren’t you confusing things? Aren’t you confusing your role as a senator with different positions that exist in the Senate, such as the Speaker of the Senate, the government leader and the opposition leader, who all play roles recognized in the Parliament of Canada Act and the Rules of the Senate? I understand that all senators are equal, but they don’t all play the same role in the Senate, so they don’t all have the same powers and duties. I think you’re confusing things.
I’m not confusing things. The reality of what we might call the “multipolar Senate” is not something that happened yesterday. It has been with us since 2015. The Modernization Committee studied the issue and made numerous recommendations about what needs to change. In fact, their report recommended changes that were implemented, that recognized the reality of groups other than a government and an opposition.
The reality is that we have senators who belong to groups other than a government or opposition in committees. That is a recognition of the new reality. That new reality, colleagues, is one that we need to see reflected in our rules. We should not allow that reality to be thwarted by an amendment of the sort that has been put forward by Senator Housakos. If that amendment goes through, the effect of the amendment is to undo all of the good work that was started three or four years ago in recognizing the new reality, recognizing the existence of other groups and giving them the measure of rights and privileges that they deserve as senators in this upper chamber.
Senator Woo, can you answer this question: Do you not agree that when we met in your office to consider the makeup of committees and the numbers on committees that your suggestion, Senator Woo — one that we almost settled on — was that on committees of 15 members, the ISG would get 9, the Conservatives 4, the CSG 2. On committees of 12, the ISG would get 8, the Conservatives 3 and the CSG 1. On committees of 9, the ISG would get 5, the Conservatives 3 and the CSG 1. And in no instance was the progressive group or the non-affiliated included. In fact, we agreed that after the committees would be constituted, if we couldn’t fill a spot and Senator Dyck or Senator Dawson wanted a committee spot, they could come to any one of those groups and ask — I’m talking to you, Senator Woo — they could ask any one of us to fill a spot. Is that not correct, Senator Woo? Is that not what we decided, or did we decide to include the progressives in the proportionality?
It would be a breach of protocol and good manners to respond to the question because as we all know — and, by the way, Senator Plett has previously filed a point of order on me for allegedly divulging material from a private leaders’ meeting. I’m not going to make the same mistake again. I’ve learned my lesson. Thank you very much. I have not gone into any details, and certainly I’m not going to respond to that very specific question about the details of what we may or may not have discussed.
Senator Woo, would you take a last question? I’m glad you referred to the Supreme Court decision because the Supreme Court decision, when it talks about independence, makes it clear that the big difference of why we’re so independent compared to the House is we’re not liable to elections as members of the House are. That’s where we get our independence from.
Having said that, the Supreme Court of Canada in that same decision made it abundantly clear that no fundamental changes to the role of the upper chamber could be made strictly by a motion or an act of Parliament but would require reform of the Parliament of Canada Act or a reform of the Constitution. Would you agree that that’s the case in that Supreme Court decision?