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Business of the Senate

April 5, 2022

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)

Your Honour, I would like to stand on a point of order.

On Thursday of last week, when I wasn’t in the chamber, the leader of the government asked Senator Housakos a question after Senator Housakos’s very good speech given in the Senate regarding hybrid sittings — and, indeed, good arguments were made by many of my colleagues — that we needed to get back to this place and do our job here the way we were intended to.

Of course, this moment is the first opportunity I have had to stand on this. I want to say at the outset, Your Honour and colleagues, that I’m not seeking any recourse; I simply want to put some things on the record as a point of order. I do that now. There is no recourse required from you, Your Honour, on this issue, as far as I’m concerned.

Senator Gold asked Senator Housakos a question, and this is from Hansard:

Our Rules, which are well established, do give both the government and the opposition a veto over whether a committee request to sit, notwithstanding that the Senate may be adjourned for over a week — they can approve or disapprove. Honourable senators will know that those requests have often been disapproved.

Senator Gold goes on to say:

I’m asking whether you would agree, in light of the legitimate concerns you’ve raised about the importance of the work we do, especially in committees, and representing the opposition as the leader — at least today — that those requests should in fact be acceded to such that committees could do the work with greater time and resources.

The words “. . . that those requests should in fact be acceded to . . .” imply that you just simply approve whatever request is made.

I wasn’t here to defend myself, Your Honour. When comments like “have often been disapproved” are made, I would take that not as an accusation, but at least as an assertion that I had rather flippantly not given approval to committees that wanted to sit on Mondays after the Senate had been away for more than a week.

I had a clerk of committees do some research for me and help me with this, and I would like to put on the record that there were a total of 13 requests made for 24 different committee meetings. I approved 18 of the 24 meetings. I’m not sure what “often been disapproved” means.

For the week of January 31 to February 4 of this year, there were five committees that had originally requested to meet. I withdrew approval for three of them because they were meeting on future business only. As I explained to the clerk, I did so in light of decisions made to extend the adjournment of the Senate to limit the number of staff on site because of the convoy in downtown Ottawa. I said that, because of what we were told were dangerous circumstances for people to come to work, the Conservatives would be withdrawing approval for committee meetings that did not have any business before them. For committees with no business before them, we withdrew approval for them to sit.

The two committees that did meet with our approval had witnesses invited, so it was important that they meet.

For the week of March 21, 2021 — a year ago — I, again, did not give approval for a meeting of the Legal Committee during a break week, which was a meeting on Bill C-3, because not all the steering members had been consulted.

Your Honour and colleagues, we have seen motions brought forward here that would give committees the opportunity to meet without consultation between the government leader and the Leader of the Opposition, and that is when we would have a runaway train.

There are reasons we have had rules in this place for 150 years — rules that have actually accommodated us quite well. There is a specific reason why it has been decided that the government leader and the Leader of the Opposition decide whether committees should meet at certain times. Generally, they gather all the facts and do not just simply, 30 seconds, or a minute and 30 seconds after a request is made — as we have seen on some occasions — reply with an email that reads, “I agree.” Rather, we think this through and see whether there may be problems.

Without question, colleagues, it is a problem with translation and setting up hybrid meetings. It is easy to have meetings when we are all here and meet in person. Yes, translation is needed, but we don’t need all the resources required for hybrid meetings. There are a limited number of committees that can meet at one time. That has to be considered.

The government casting aspersions on the opposition does not help with camaraderie. It does not help us to get along, negotiate and facilitate each other’s requests, and work in the spirit of unity. Too often, I believe, one side is being accused of not listening. Senator Housakos, who was in no position to know what meetings I had approved, had not approved and why they weren’t approved, gets asked in my absence, and a suggestion is made in my absence that these requests have often been disapproved.

I take issue with that. I take issue with the fact that the government is trying to put the opposition into a defence position. That’s not the way this chamber has worked in the past. The government needs to defend what they are doing.

Even though we are called the opposition, I believe that I and leaders of the opposition before me have tried to work in a collaborative way, and we would like to continue to do that. I quite frankly think that Senator Gold has the same desires and has done the same things. But when a senator is not here to defend himself or herself, to have a question like that put forward and to have a comment like that made when it is an absolutely untrue statement, I find troubling.

But I have put it on the record, Your Honour, and I would just as soon simply let it stand for the record, that we move on and that we, including myself, all try to do better in the future. Thank you.

Hon. Tony Dean [ + ]

Honourable senators, on the same point of order, if I could briefly respond for the record and for context, because context is always important.

The context last week — and I was sitting here listening to the discussion — was one in which Senator Housakos spent a considerable period of time, Your Honour, insinuating that hybrid sittings and those who are supportive of them were in some way deleterious to the effective operations of the Senate.

I think a number of us sat here listening to that discourse and were rather offended by it. I know I certainly was. Some of the senator’s remarks signified to the public that senators were in some way shirking their responsibilities to Canadians. It’s not a stretch to say that. I’m not reaching to say that. I’m not digging deep to say that. That was the nature of the comments made — that somehow those who support hybrid sittings were not living up to their responsibilities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This chamber and people on all sides of it, in the context of hybrid sittings, have given of their best, have processed government bills, processed government business and processed private members’ business; have made important statements; have been productive in every sense of the word; have lived up to their constitutional responsibilities. Suggestions to the contrary were, frankly, deeply offensive to many of us in this room. Actually, that’s one of the reasons that I’m grateful for the opportunity to comment on that right now.

Senator Housakos was certainly not speaking in the spirit of unity and commonality that Senator Plett exhorts us to do today. If that had been the case, perhaps those remarks would have been more evenly balanced. It was negative, it was critical and it was far from collaborative.

Your Honour, thank you for the time to say this. There was very little mention made of the health concerns associated with the reasons for hybrid sittings, for the devastation across this country and to people across this country, the devastation to relatives of some people in this chamber, the devastation to one particular person in this chamber who is no longer with us. That’s the backdrop to hybrid sittings.

That is a low blow. Shame on you.

Senator Dean [ + ]

I stand by my word. Please do not interrupt me, Senator Plett.

Senator Colin Deacon pointed out to us that there were other reasons to confront the possibilities and virtues of hybrid sittings, which related to the benefits of the use of digitization and digital technology for productivity that could contribute to the savings of costs as we do our work in this place, that could contribute to those who worry about their health as they travel from the coasts and to those who may, over time, be concerned about the environmental impact of long-term travel.

Hon. Leo Housakos [ + ]

Your Honour, point of order.

Senator Dean [ + ]

I could say more, but that is where I will end. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Honourable senators, Senator Plett has raised what he deemed a point of order, and obviously rule 2-5(1) permits the Speaker to hear any interventions senators wish to make with respect to a point of order, but he also said it’s not something he’s raising for any recourse, so that takes it out of the realm of a point of order. I would consider it more of a point of information.

Senator Dean has spoken on what he considered at the time a point of order, and I believe Senator Housakos right now wishes to raise a point of order.

Senator Housakos [ + ]

Your Honour, just to follow up on your comments, Senator Dean did not get up on a point of order. He got up on debate on an issue that’s not right now on the Order Paper. He would be more than welcome to debate the issue of the hybrid motion, but I think colleagues have to understand when there is a debate on a point of order, they’re obligated to speak to the point of order, not to deviate and go on to debate. Other than that, I will accept the comments of Senator Dean, but with all due respect, of course, I disagree. Thank you, Your Honour.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Thank you for your comments, Senator Housakos, but, as well, I do not consider your comments a point of order but rather a point of information.

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