He said: Honourable senators, you will recall that in the last two sessions the Senate adopted a provision that specified that if a senator becomes a member of a different party or group from the time they were first appointed to a committee, their committee seat will be returned to the original party or group that nominated them.
For the current session, the Selection Committee was given an order of reference to make recommendation to the Senate on the duration of committee membership. This report is the result of discussions and consultations that occurred on this subject between the leaders and facilitators and was the subject of much discussion by the committee. The committee’s report is now before all senators for further discussion and debate, and I look forward to your questions and comments.
Honourable senators, I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am joining you from the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people.
As a member of the Selection Committee, I rise today to offer some commentary on where we are now in the Senate as it pertains to committees. We adopted the first report of Selection which provides the list of senators nominated to serve on committees. The Senate, by adopting the report, has appointed senators to the committees.
The next step is in dispute. My comments here may be repetitive from the committee’s second report, but I feel it is important to reiterate the arguments for all here in the Senate.
Generally speaking, the practice that “senators appointed to the standing committees and the standing joint committees shall serve for the duration of the session” has existed since Confederation. This is indeed rule 12-2(3), “Term of appointment of members of committees.”
We have followed this rule up until previous sessional orders that were adopted during the first and second sessions of the Forty-third Parliament. These orders introduced the same provisions we are considering in this second report — provisions that:
. . . . preserve the number of committee seats agreed to for each recognized party or recognized parliamentary group, after members were named, even if a senator’s affiliation changed for any reason.
I, and many other senators, have said before: a senator is a senator is a senator. Once a senator has a committee seat, it is their seat. If they decide to change groups, they should be able to keep their seat. This is how our rules work, and this is what we should follow.
However, this report allows us to subvert this rule again. If it is the will of the Senate to continue to do this, why are we not studying these changes in the Rules Committee? Isn’t that the job of the Rules Committee?
The second report of Selection states that:
If a senator ceases to be a member of a particular recognized party or recognized parliamentary group for any reason, he or she simultaneously ceases to be a member of any committee of which he or she is then a member, with the resulting vacancy to be filled by the leader or facilitator of the party or group to which the senator had belonged . . .
I do not agree with these changes which is why, honourable senators, the second report contains a dissenting opinion, and I will review that in short here now.
Whether a senator changes their group affiliation, or a non-affiliated senator joins a group, the Rule ensures the independence of each senator to conduct their committee work, entrusted to them by the Senate itself.
The population of committees is based on negotiations amongst the groups and respects proportionality, but the Senate is the ultimate arbiter of committee seats.
The recent sessional orders have infringed on the independence of individual senators by setting aside rule 12-2(3). Placing the authority over committee seats directly with the leadership of parliamentary groups and political parties, as this report does, is a continuation of that misguided practice.
It continues to be my view, and that of others, that the allocation of committee seats to parliamentary groups and political parties is a step backward in Senate modernization, and removing committee portability entrenches the authority of group and party leadership. That doesn’t sound like reform or independence to me.
For some historical context on the existence of our rule, it should be noted, honourable senators, that other Westminster parliaments have similar rules and practices. The United Kingdom’s House of Lords complies with its Standing Order 63, established in 1975, which states:
The orders of appointment of the following committees, and any of their sub-committees, shall remain in force and effect, notwithstanding the prorogation of Parliament, until such time as the House or committee makes further orders of appointment in the next succeeding session.
In the Australian Senate, members of standing committees are appointed at the beginning of each Parliament. Membership may only be changed by motion which discharges the former member and appoints a new one.
In the other place, Standing Order 114(1) also ensures that members appointed to a standing committee remain members throughout the Parliament. So then why is the Senate of Canada becoming a stand-alone body that is subverting similar rules?
Some of my honourable colleagues continue to argue that this is a proportionality problem. If we do the math, as was done with the negotiations, senators are recommended to the committees based on proportionality. If a senator leaves a group and joins another, does not that group’s proportionality of the total go up? That’s the math. Therefore, the move, with the senator keeping the seat, ultimately continues to respect the principle of proportionality.
Think about that, honourable colleagues.
Lastly, the dissenting opinion concludes:
. . . if the goal is a Senate made up of more independent senators, it is contrary to that goal to remove the right of individual senators to be appointed to committees for the duration of the session, regardless of affiliation. By removing that right and placing committee seats solely in the hands of facilitators, leaders, whips and liaisons, we would be undermining individual independence and limiting the freedom of affiliation of us all.
I challenge all senators to take control of their own destiny and vote against this report. This is your chance, perhaps your only chance, to exercise your independence. Thank you, honourable senators.
Honourable senators, I would like to repeat one of the comments that Senator Mercer made in his speech, and that is that section 12-2(3) of the Rules allows for a more independent Senate. Remember that, because that’s what we’re trying to take away with this report.
Honourable senators, if you have not done so yet, I strongly encourage you to read Senator Mercer’s dissenting opinion included in the report of the Selection Committee. This report lays out the long-standing history of committee portability as a principle of independence since the very beginning of the Senate.
Colleagues, I would like to express how disappointed I am that this issue has come up again, flying in the face of our progress in making the Senate more independent and more equitable. Many of you will know that the last time the notion of portability was brought forward, members of the Progressive Senate Group spoke against that sessional motion. I did at that time as well.
Our colleague Senator Bellemare attempted to amend it. Her amendment proposed a compromise that would have helped to reinforce the equality of all senators, regardless of their affiliation, by only requiring a senator who changes affiliation to vacate a committee chair or deputy chair position, thus maintaining the negotiated committee chair balances.
Honourable senators, the Senate is made up of individuals who have come to this place from across the country to serve Canadians. We do not serve our respective groups. We work within our groups, but we do not serve our respective groups. If anything, honourable senators, groups should serve their members and be a platform for each of us to excel, supported by other like-minded senators.
Senator Bellemare’s amendment at the time was a reasonable compromise, and I am disappointed that we find ourselves here yet again in 2021.
Colleagues, at the Selection Committee meeting last week, we heard a number of arguments against the portability of committee seats, none of which I considered persuasive. Proportionality was the justification that was brought up most often. Let me ask you a question. If a senator were to leave a group and join another, would that not mean the group left behind would be entitled to fewer committee seats than before? And wouldn’t it also mean that the group with increasing membership would be entitled to more committee seats? I would argue that portability is, at the very least, more consistent with the principle of true proportionality, even if the numbers are not as precise as a complete overhaul of all committee allocations.
Like everyone here, I believe proportionality should be taken into account when populating the committees at the beginning of a session. Ultimately, proportionality is only valid on the day the committees are populated. We all know the composition of the Senate can change at any time, just as we all know senators retire and new senators are appointed throughout each parliamentary session. Currently, there are 13 vacancies and four more senators who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 before we rise in June. Proportionality holds true when committees are populated, but the balance can quickly change.
The reality of how the composition of this place can change during a session was never more evident than the Forty-second Parliament, which was one continuous four-year session. No one knows what the future will bring.
Even Senator Woo has acknowledged the ever-changing nature of the Senate. In an appearance before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization on April 25, 2018, Senator Woo was asked about the issue of proportionality and the membership of the Standing Senate Committee on Ethics and Conflict of Interest for Senators. He said:
All I’m trying to say here is that if we were to cement the current proportions into that committee in the rules, that would almost certainly be out of skew within a short period of time when the composition of the Senate as a whole changes.
As he said, proportionality quickly becomes out of date. But we do not routinely readjust the committee memberships to reflect those changes, nor do we change or circumvent the Senate Rules to accommodate them.
Another argument brought forward against committee seat portability has been that it is somehow contradictory to the Westminster system. However, as Senator Mercer detailed in his dissenting opinion within this report, the suggestion that committee seats belong to groups is, in fact, a break with practice in other Westminster-style legislatures.
Canada’s House of Commons protects members’ ownership of their committee seats in its Standing Orders. The House of Lords in the United Kingdom, which is the model for the Senate of Canada, and the Australian Senate also appoint committee members for at least the duration of a parliamentary session. Indeed, in the case of the House of Lords, committee seats are, in practice, effectively permanent.
Some have suggested that our old way of doing things is a product of the bicameral system when we only had two parties, the government and the opposition. I would point out that the House of Lords manages to uphold committee portability within its reality of six groups with 25 or more members. The Australian Senate has three groups of nine or more members and does the same. We all know that our own House of Commons accommodates four recognized political parties.
Another argument brought up during the Committee of Selection meeting was to whom do senators “owe their committee seats.” The answer, colleagues, is simple: The Senate. We owe our committee seats to the Senate of Canada.
Everyone who was present on Thursday voted to adopt without amendment the Committee of Selection’s first report to populate committees. Without that vote, our committees would not be currently undertaking their organizational meetings or preparing to study upcoming legislation. Whether by voice or standing vote, whether we engage in debate or not, each and every one of us, honourable senators, plays a role in determining how this place deals with every item that comes before us.
When we debated the sessional motion in the fall of 2020, I was surprised by Senator Woo’s implication that we could ignore the Senate’s role in considering and adopting the Selection Committee’s report because:
. . . the Senate as a whole played zero role in brokering the allocation of seats or in coming up with the precise configuration of committee memberships. . . .
That statement belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the way this place conducts business. Using this logic, one could also argue that the Senate as a whole doesn’t play a role in amendments to legislation made by committees or in adopting a comprehensive report that a committee presents. However, we all know that this is not our approach in the Senate. We debate all of these things. Each and every senator has the right to vote on each and every item that is called. Each and every senator from all sides in the Senate, from every seat in the Senate that’s occupied, considers their choice when making it. Each of us chooses to allow leave on motions, chooses to call the question, chooses how to vote, all of it with an understanding of the item before us, to the best of our abilities.
We are not rubber stamps. No outcome is ever guaranteed. If that were the case, we would not be debating the report from the Selection Committee here today.
To suggest for one moment that what we do here, particularly the process of voting, does not matter to the outcome should be offensive to all of us because we each take our responsibilities seriously, and because, in the end, it is the Senate that appoints senators to serve on committees, not leaders or groups. The groups are simply administrative tools, a way of managing the complexities of populating almost 20 committees with 105 senators. The two ideas, of negotiations and of the Senate’s final vote, can and should easily coexist.
And, honourable senators, they do.
Colleagues, if we are to continue on the road to modernizing the Senate, and if we adhere to the ideal that all senators are independent and equal, we should do so with a view to the future. We are trying to make this place less partisan and to make room for people outside of the government and opposition sides. Some of our current rules, like rule 12-2(3), are already in place specifically to protect the rights of individual senators. Despite the suggestion at committee and in this chamber today, just because a rule is old does not mean that it conflicts with true reform.
Indeed, if you would like to read the fourth report of the Special Committee on the Rules of the Senate, tabled in November 1968 — a long time ago — and led to the principle of committee seats being for the duration of a Parliament — yes, not a session but a Parliament — being formalized for the first time in our rules, I encourage you to do so. That report speaks at length about the independence of senators, including criticism of the appointments process at the time. It includes a suggestion that no senators outside of government and official leadership positions participate in their respective national caucuses.
Honourable senators, I have been asking myself about the motivation behind this motion. Is it really only about proportionality? I’m not convinced it is, by the arguments presented. Or is it solely about preventing senators from being more independent? I truly believe that passing this motion is an erosion of our independence as individual senators. This flies in the face of everything that many of us have been trying to achieve as we move away from the centralized power structure of the partisan political party influences of the past. This motion is a step backwards toward those old ideals of leaderships maintaining control over their members through the threat of losing committee seats if a member makes a personal decision to leave a group that is no longer the best fit for them.
This is not a principle that I can or will support. I do not believe that groups own committee seats; individual senators do.
As Senator Dalphond and I stated in a recent article in The Hill Times, “A more independent Senate should uphold the historical independence of committee members and its committees.”
Honourable senators, for these reasons, I cannot support this report. Thank you.
Senator Cordy, you mentioned rule 12-2(3). I would like you to explain how this rule applies to the Senate the way it is today, as opposed to the way the Senate was when only two parties were represented in the Senate.
Except as otherwise provided, once the report is adopted by the Senate, Senators appointed to the standing committees and the standing joint committees shall serve for the duration of the session.
Senator Moncion, this rule was followed when there were just two political parties in the Senate. It has only been very recently that people have suggested that this would not follow, that there would be an exception notwithstanding this rule, and that senators would lose their seats on a committee once they left the group.
This rule has not been changed at all; it hasn’t been looked at. I go back to the original question about when there were only two groups in the Senate, and now we have more than two. I understand the rule is in place, but how can we maintain the way we are doing things now, considering the Senate has changed but the rules have not?
Absolutely, the Senate has changed, and that’s a positive thing. Thank you for bringing that forward. But, as I said in my speech, just because a rule is old doesn’t mean that it is not applicable. This rule is probably worded differently in other areas, but we know that there are senators who have left their groups before what I will call this “notwithstanding” or this motion was brought forward so that people would lose their committee seats when they changed groups. We know — and I don’t want to mention names — that there are senators sitting here in this chamber, whether virtually or in person, who have changed from one group to another and did not lose their committee seats at that time. That was the way it was prior to the past few years, and this was the case prior to bringing in the “notwithstanding” change for a sessional order, that people who switch groups would lose their seats.
Senator Cordy, you mentioned rule 12-2(3) and the other rules above that; Senator Dalphond and Senator Mercer obviously did as well. But nobody has mentioned rule 12-5, which basically says that the leaders, on a signature, can remove any member of any committee and appoint somebody else.
So what we’re really talking about is, up until one minute before the person resigns, the leader could remove their seat. It is only in the moment after they have resigned that they can keep their seat or that the leader can’t take it back. The group can’t take it back.
That has always been there. Is that not right? That’s been there for the same amount of time as all of the other rules that you quoted and the traditions and so on. Are we really just talking about the moment that a senator decides to leave a group? In doing so, some senators, when they left their group, gave the leader notice, knowing what that meant, and then left. Others gave no notice and left their leader to read about it in a Speaker’s notice and, as a result, they were able to keep their seats.
But rule 12-5, can you tell me how this all plays in and where the tradition of that has been in your time here in the Senate with respect to discipline, with respect to other areas where a leader might, without the consent of the senator, change their position?
You’re absolutely right. It’s interesting, because I looked at that section and I think it’s something that we should be looking at very closely and examining. I would certainly be open to exploring a need to change this rule. Sometimes what happens, Senator Tannas, is people are taken off a committee for no other reason than they’re tied up with two committees meeting at the same time, which sometimes happens in December and in June. Then the Senate is not sitting; they come back and they discover that they’re still on it.
I think we ran into that, where people were replaced, and then Parliament had been prorogued. They were called back to sit, the person who had taken the place of the original member was still on the committee, and the practice with prorogation was that you couldn’t switch. It had to be the people who sat at the last meeting while Parliament was in session.
So you’ve raised a really good point. I have my notes from when I was looking over rule 12-5, and the comment I jotted down was that I would certainly be open to exploring a change to this rule. I think the Rules Committee should be looking at it because research shows that there are ways to facilitate needed replacements and require the consent of senators.
I haven’t looked at what they do in London in the House of Lords. I haven’t looked at what they do in Australia. I was simply looking at the rule that we have, but I hope that you would be open to it. I certainly would be open to having the Rules Committee examine rule 12-5. Thank you for raising that.
Esteemed colleagues, this is the second time I am rising to speak about the duration of membership on committees, now known as “portability of committee seats.” This is an issue that I’m passionate about, so please excuse me if that passion sometimes comes through.
I decided that this year, I would speak out again against the proposal that was initially made by the Independent Senators Group and that would invalidate the existing rule stating that a senator is appointed to a committee for the duration of the session.
Today,only 36 senators are here under the former duopoly that had existed in the Senate since 1867 and that ended when the new appointment process was implemented in 2016. Fifty-six of you, the majority, were not around under the previous system. There are a lot of new senators here who are not familiar with the challenges of modernizing the Senate. Some have not had the time to wonder why certain rules exist.
Changing the rules is dangerous when the majority thinks that everything from the old system is automatically bad. Some rules, like the one this report would subvert, have existed here since Confederation and exist elsewhere in the world.
Why did the former partisan Senate accept that a senator who switched affiliations would keep their seat for the duration of the session? That does not seem to make sense in a Senate where the party line was predominant. The reason is simpler than it appears. Despite all the faults of the former system, the partisan caucus leaders were nonetheless pragmatic and knew that it was wrong to prohibit the official participation of a senator in a committee simply because they switched affiliations. This prohibition is in fact a direct attack on a senator’s right to independence and to their privilege.
Senators will recall that we pledge allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and not to a political party, caucus or group of independent senators. If a senator believes that they can best carry out their constitutional mandate by switching affiliations, that is their right. The group or caucus to which that senator belonged cannot take away their committee seat, because it is the Senate that assigns seats. The group or the caucus only has an instrumental role to play in this operation.
The group or caucus doesn’t own seats in committee; it helps to allocate them to senators.
Under the Rules of the Senate, the real power to decide the composition of committees rests essentially with the Senate. It is the Senate that allocates committee seats to senators, and it is the Senate that can take those seats away from a senator.
The proposal before us is an affront to the power of the Senate and, if we adopt it, we would once again set a dangerous precedent.
The reality is that this proposal seeks to empower groups or caucuses — one might even say the leaders of groups or caucuses — at the expense of a senator’s independence. However, the group or caucus does not have that power, and that is completely contrary to the spirit of the Senate modernization we have undertaken.
The current rule that ensures portability of committee seats within a session is a rule that enables a senator to fully accomplish their constitutional duty in the Senate and in committees. This rule protects the independence of a senator. If adopted, the sessional proposition before us could lead to a potential breach of privilege.
The fact is that a group cannot keep a committee seat that it does not have. The group helps in the allocation of seats, but at the end of the day, it is the Senate that appoints members in committees, and it is the Senate that can change the composition of committee membership.
Portability of committee seats protects the independence of senators and also helps ensure that tasks are divided equally between all senators, with each senator receiving an equivalent or nearly equivalent workload.
If that rule is circumvented, some senators could see their workload increase because they will have to take on the tasks of senators who may have left their seats, and others will have less work because the groups that may welcome new senators will have to give up their seat to them.
In my experience, to accomplish their role correctly, no senator can really sit long-term on more than two average-sized committees. If a senator decides to change affiliation, they will have to give up their seat on the committee, and it will have to be filled by other members of the group. Some will have to sit on three or four committees, as the case may be, and the group that welcomes a new member will have to give them a spot. Some may end up with just one committee. That is neither fair, effective nor proportional.
The leaders of the Independent Senators Group often say that the principle of proportionality is the most important principle and needs to be protected at all costs, but what does that principle really entail?
Let us discuss the principle of proportionality for a minute. Indeed, this is an important principle, but it is an operational principle that permits us to treat each senator equally. It is a tool to get the job of distribution of seats done.
Portability of committee seats helps to protect proportionality at all times. If a group loses members, its proportion within the Senate will diminish. It is common sense that its proportion of committee seats will diminish accordingly.
A group cannot maintain the importance of the principle of proportionality at the beginning of a session but then choose to disregard it when members decide to leave their group. The principle should always be applied and in both ways.
The reasons the Independent Senators Group put forward in committee in support of adopting this proposal lack substance. One might actually wonder if the ISG wants to secure an absolute majority in the Senate so it can impose its views? Who knows?
Esteemed colleagues, don’t let yourselves be fooled by unsubstantiated rhetoric. And, don’t forget that, in a less partisan, more independent Senate, the group is at the senator’s service, not the other way around. The group acts as the facilitator for the senators, and when Senators are at the service of the group or caucus they lose their independence.
Moreover, the current Rules protect the caucus or group if a senator’s affiliation changes. Rule 12-2(4)(b) states that, during the session, the Committee of Selection can “propose to the Senate . . . changes in the membership of a committee.”
This rule allows the Committee of Selection to propose to the Senate that a senator be relieved of their duties. It protects any group or caucus that feels wronged by a senator’s change in affiliation. I know from experience that this rule works very well.
I became an independent senator at the beginning of the Forty-second Parliament, when I realized that we had a very real opportunity to modernize the Senate. I wanted to fully participate. When I left the Conservative caucus, I kept my seat on various committees. However, the Conservative caucus wanted to take my seat on the Special Committee on Senate Modernization because it wanted to have its voice and vote heard there instead of mine. You might understand why.
A motion was moved at the Committee of Selection to replace me with former Senator Tkachuk. That proposal was approved by the Senate following debates in which former Senator Pratte strongly defended me.
This example clearly shows that the existing rules enable a group or caucus to act if it feels significantly impacted by the change in affiliation of one of its members while it respects, at the same time, the independence of an individual senator. It is well balanced, but a group must make their case first in front of the Selection Committee and then in the Senate. The rules respect the fact that the Senate is sovereign.
The proposal by the ISG is clearly a step backwards in the modernization of the Senate. I will also add that it is prejudicial to newly appointed senators.
New senators may feel overwhelmed when arriving in the Senate and don’t know exactly what to expect. They receive many invitations to join one group rather than another. There is considerable pressure on new senators to join a dominant group. In fact, it is a matter of numbers. A new senator will most likely receive more invitations from the largest group.
If all new senators become members of the largest group, the Senate will quickly return to a system where an absolute majority dominates. It is the majority rule, and I do not believe in it. The modernization of the Senate seeks to prevent this very situation. The rule that has existed since Confederation will not create chaos.
Senator Woo said in committee:
The senator got the seat at the expense of a colleague. Taking the seat away from the group would be an affront to procedural fairness and an insult to colleagues who played by the group’s rules.
This is false. It is consequential to the method chosen by the ISG to allocate seats.
Let me explain. Having been a senator since September 2012, I have had the chance to experience the process of committee membership selection many times and with different groups.
As explained last Thursday by Senator Woo in committee, the method of selection in the ISG works as follows: First, the group accepts a set of criteria for allocation of committee seats. So far so good. Second, each senator sends their preferences to the leadership. That’s common. Then the leadership allocates committee membership to each senator and negotiates individually when there is a problem. At first glance this sounds great and it sounds normal.
But there is a problem with this method. It lacks transparency. Twice I have experienced a much more transparent process — once with the first generation of the ISG, when late senator Elaine McCoy was the leader, and recently with the PSG. In both cases, preferences of individual senators were known to everyone at one point or another in the process.
The truth is that senators don’t have the same preferences. They don’t all want to be on the same committees. In most cases, senators can get their first and second choice. When demand for committee seats is higher than the supply of seats, transparency, common sense and mutual respect help to resolve exceptional cases that may happen 10% of the time, at most.
If I may suggest, allocating seats with more transparency solves many problems. The argument that a senator is getting a seat at the expense of another colleague disappears; it vanishes.
Senators, I invite you to vote against this second report, which circumvents a wise, equitable, pragmatic and long-standing rule. Rule 12-2(3), I reiterate, is fundamental to preserving a senator’s independence from a caucus or group. Do not let some leaders — or this report — do indirectly what the Rules do not permit us to do directly. I invite you to vote with your conscience. Thank you. Meegwetch.
Honourable senators, I acknowledge that the Parliament of Canada is situated on the unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin and Anishinabek First Nations, and as an independent senator from Manitoba, I am from Treaty 1 territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
I rise to add my own thoughts on this topic. I do so from the rather unique position I now hold within the Senate; that of sitting as a non-affiliated senator. A very small minority of senators sit as non-affiliated. Some do so by choice, others by virtue of their particular duties — by which I refer to those who serve in the GRO — and there are others who do so as circumstance dictates. Non-affiliation is to look through the window with an acute awareness of the banquet of privileges and comforts afforded to those who are group members.
There are barriers and procedural obstacles to full Senate participation — invisible when you are part of a group. This is a chosen and new experience for me. As most of you have never experienced non-affiliation, perhaps what I can share will add to the present debate.
For example, as a non-affiliated senator, I currently hold zero committee assignments. These are allocated according to group and caucus proportionality. Of the membership lists proposed in the recently tabled SELE first report — which nominates membership to 18 standing and select Senate committees, and which included 193 committee nominations for seats — I am named to not even one. Hopefully, that may change, but clearly I do not have equality with you, colleagues.
Honourable senators, we have a rare opportunity today — an opportunity to decline groupthink and to pay close attention to the proposed further erosion of our individual independence as senators. We can do this without impinging on your group benefits, and by adding to your individuality and agency as a senator.
I’m referring to the rule provision changes proposed in the present report from the Senate Selection Committee that would remove ownership of committee seats from individual senators and give additional whip-like powers to leaders who would control the seats instead.
This is not the first time this rule change has been moved. When I was a member of the Independent Senators Group in the previous Parliament, I recall that this provision was heavily supported by the then leadership of the ISG and of another group. I found this puzzling when I was a member of the ISG. You may recall that I stood with my esteemed colleague Senator Bellemare on the vote on her very reasonable proposal. Yes, I appreciated and understood the lure of committee membership as a reward for being a compliant group member, but I had to ask how such a rule would actually make the Senate more modern, accountable, transparent and independent.
It is those goals that brought me here, and I do not think I am alone in sharing those goals. Shall I just say that, from this side of the chamber, I can see more clearly now, and concern about true independence of senators leads to the inescapable conclusion that senators should not have to sacrifice their committee contributions if they choose to be truly independent and decide they no longer wish to remain in a particular group. Having more groups than, in effect, a duopoly defined by two political parties is a good innovation that we’ve seen grow over the past five years.
A better future for our democracy and for the Senate means that groupings of senators coalesce around shared values about what is best for their province and for our country. With independence, senators choose to align themselves accordingly, and in keeping their independence, senators should be able to choose when it’s time to leave a group, and certainly without the implied threat of forced removal from their committee responsibilities. It should be a warning to us all that some leaders hold the view that independence should not extend to the right of senators to hold a committee seat.
As I understand the concern of those who support the SELE report proposal, senators must serve and please their group or caucus leaders if they hope to keep a committee seat that they obtain through the combination of group and Senate as a whole process.
The logic for this proposed new rule seems to be that every senator who belongs to a group or who has obtained their committee seat by being sheltered or sponsored by a particular group or party must remain obedient and beholden to the leadership of that group in order to hold on to their committee seat. But as we’ve heard repeatedly this evening, that’s not what our Rules say. The truth is that each Senate committee membership is a result of being named to a committee by the Senate, not by group leaders, and that what’s confirmed in their committee seat. Our Rules promise that a senator “shall serve for the duration of the session.” The exception to this is that group leaders can authorize temporary replacements in accordance with our Rules as an exception, and it is important to note that though these changes are technically permanent, there is a strong tradition of reinstating the original member. But consider this: It is a tradition that leaders can ignore if they have notice of a member’s desire to leave the group.
We have just had a tragic reminder of how fluid Senate membership is in fact — through death, retirements, new appointments. Committee membership does not change for senators in place unless they so choose. A number of us gave up our seats on committees when new senators arrived in order to give them an opportunity. If I understand the argument presented in this report, it suggests that senators are not entitled to committee seats but in effect the seats belong to the group process that assigned that spot. Yes, the established practice is that senators are subject to their group’s negotiations as then played out amongst the leaders of all groups.
Honourable senators, please remember this. In the end, now it is the Senate that appoints senators to serve on committees, not leaders or groups. Why would we want to take that away from our institution in order to increase the control and power of a few group leaders? Why would we want to elevate the power of a few individual senators to such a degree? It is illogical to suggest that there is somehow a violation if a senator decides to leave a group and holds on to their committee seat. The Rules are clear that a seat belongs to a senator.
Senator Tannas raised an interesting point this evening, referencing rule 12-5. A Speaker’s ruling on May 9, 2007, noted that:
. . . independent senators can indicate, in writing, that they agree to accept the authority of either the government or the opposition whip for the purposes of membership changes.
This arrangement is entirely voluntary. If an independent senator does not write such a letter, or withdraws it, the rule respecting changes does not apply.
Similarly, if a senator withdraws from a caucus, rule 12-5 would cease to apply. In the latter case, that senator would retain any then current committee memberships unless removed either through a report of the Committee of Selection or a substantive motion adopted by the Senate. This is at page 1510 in the Journals of the Senate.
To quote Senator Cordy in The Hill Times:
It has been suggested that not agreeing to this change has resulted in the Senate being held hostage. But if this change proceeds, it would be senators themselves who would be held hostage. Their leaders would effectively own committee seats.
Honourable senators, this is a pivotal moment for us in our self-government.
Does this proposed rule give you the Senate you really want? Do you really want to limit your independence in this way? Do you really want to diminish your rights as an individual senator in this way? Have you asked yourself what harm may come to the independence of this home for sober second and often innovative first thought?
Please think ahead; please think carefully about what happens when a power that is held collectively is divvied up and handed to a tiny minority within the collective. If you accept this change to existing practice, you will undoubtedly please your leader and will establish a new way of doing business that will become difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
But I ask you this: Is your leader’s pleased approval of your potential compliance worth the price of diminishing the rights of all senators in the process? Is that truly in the spirit of a more modern and independent Senate? Do you truly believe that group and leadership interests should override individual independence and committee work?
Consider this: The House of Lords has 6 groups with 25 or more members yet still entrusts its members to maintain their committee roles throughout a parliamentary session. The Australian Senate has three groups of nine or more members and does the same. These equivalent parliamentary bodies are not proponents of group control over senators’ independence.
Since 1867, individual senators received their committee seats by motion and decision of the Senate, facilitated by a few leaders, yes, but the decision was made by us as a collective, and so for 154 years individual senators have been entrusted to serve honourably using their own judgment. At the core of that trust is that Senate committees, not Senate groups, have been given the responsibility of studying legislation and issues referred to them. A modern, more transparent, more accountable Senate should uphold this historic independence of individual senators and their best possible contributions to committees.
I want to close by casting to an even more modern and democratic Senate by adopting a point made by Senator Woo, quoted as saying:
Indeed, if Senators were assigned their seats through an all-Senate process rather than by group negotiations, a case can be made that the seats “belong” to individual Senators.
In that scenario, there would be no violation of the seat-assignment process if Senators change groups. But good luck to anyone trying to come up with a Senate-wide system of assigning committee seats by individual member.
In fact, dear colleagues, we already have such a system. We are already using a Senate-wide system whereby individual senators are assigned committee seats and all we have to do is make it clear that we — as senators — integrate the tradition and affirm our independence and dedication to the integrity of this institution, that we reject the introduction of expanding and entrenching unequal power held by a small number of senators who happen to be called “leader.” Thank you, meegwetch.
Your Honour, given the late hour and the heightened passions around this debate, I think it might be wise for me to take the adjournment for the balance of my time. I will be happy to expound the case in favour of the report and rebut many of the points that have been raised tonight.