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Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament

Motion to Amend the Rules of the Senate--Motion in Amendment--Debate Continued

May 2, 2024


Hon. Raymonde Saint-Germain [ + ]

Colleagues, yesterday I began these comments with my analysis of Motion No. 165. I started by saying I agreed with Senator Quinn that the government currently takes far too long to answer questions and that something needs to be done.

I pointed out that at this very moment, we have 97 written questions on the Order Paper that remain unanswered, some of which have been pending for several months, or in some cases for a year or more.

That being said, when it comes to written questions, Government Motion No. 165, which is before us, represents a major step forward, because it establishes a 60-day deadline for the government to provide an answer, something not previously specified in our Rules. It requires the government to explain and publish its reasons for not responding on time. It also provides for a special process to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament in the event of a failure to respond within the specified period. This committee, I would point out, is mandated to examine any question of privilege referred to it by the Senate, and we know that questions of privilege can sometimes lead to significant sanctions.

Therefore, colleagues, not only does the government motion propose a tight deadline of 60 calendar days, but it also stipulates that the government must explain itself and incur a sanction if the deadline is not met. The sanction in question is quite serious: a referral to the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament for consideration and report, which is similar to what would happen in the case of a breach of privilege — a process that would be more robust and clearer than the one in the House of Commons.

As Senator Batters and I noted yesterday, Senator Quinn’s amendment would also withdraw the obligation for the government to explain the reasons for failure to comply with the 60 days or, in the case of his amendment, the 45-day time limit. This would make the proposition, in my opinion, far less efficient and the government far less accountable.

I acknowledge that the House of Commons has a 45-day delay for response. However, we must understand that our reality in the Senate is far different. In the House, the Prime Minister, the ministers and the parliamentary secretaries can answer questions on the floor. They have access to resources from all their respective teams. In the Senate, this is the sole responsibility of the Government Representative Office, and we must take this into consideration and be flexible. In this light, I believe that the 60-day delay is realistic and fair.

Furthermore, I believe that the amendment motion underestimates a key aspect. It doesn’t take into consideration the nature and complexity of questions often asked to the government by senators. On this aspect, let me point out some of those complex questions I’m referring to. They’re all relevant questions; don’t get me wrong.

I refer first to a six-part question by Senator Plett, asked on November 23, 2021, “Regarding classified or protected documents . . .” that required thoughtful consideration and inquiry from our security and intelligence services. We know how delicate those questions can be. This question, if you want to have more details, was Question No. 38 that was on our Order Paper last Tuesday, April 30. As you know, every Tuesday all written questions are published in our Order Paper and Notice Paper.

The second question is from June 21, 2023. It was a question in 30 parts from Senator Moodie, “Regarding the Calls to Action on combatting racism and advancing equity and inclusion within the Public Service . . . .” It’s Question No. 236.

The third example — I could have chosen many — was a series of questions from Senator Downe on fiscal measures for British nationals or medical coverage for members of the Canadian Armed Forces. They are all relevant questions that would require sound answers, research and analysis. Those are the types of multi-faceted questions that demand thoughtful consideration and can’t be answered in a rush.

Given this context, from my standpoint, Motion No. 165 is reasonable and realistic. It brings great progress from our current situation, and it is not worth spoiling for such an ill-advised amendment.

I made some calculations. With Motion No. 165, there is an opportunity to simultaneously have 404 written questions for the government to consider. I subtracted questions coming from the Speaker of the Senate and the members of the Government Representative Office, or GRO. This would explain the number of 101 once all senators are appointed.

In conclusion, at last, after more than eight years of efforts to adopt the regulations, this house is presented with a reasonable and realistic motion. Here, we have a short-sighted amendment, an amendment with its nose glued to the tree rather than its eyes open onto the forest.

Colleagues, let’s not be short-sighted. Let’s see the bigger picture and move forward with the motion as presented by rejecting this amendment.

Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Senator Batters, do you have a question?

Hon. Denise Batters [ + ]

I do.

Senator Saint-Germain [ + ]

I will not accept questions, because I believe this amendment is a distraction from our discussions on the main motion. I believe my speech is comprehensive, and I won’t accept any questions.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette [ + ]

Honourable senators, I will be brief. I only have a few handwritten notes.

First, I need to add some context to what we are discussing today. The first order of business of the day, from my perspective, is to thank Honourable Senator Woo and Honourable Senator Tannas for the continuous efforts they’ve made to modernize our Rules of the Senate.

My hat is off to you, gentlemen.

Senator Ringuette [ + ]

The second order of business, in my perspective, is to thank Senator Bellemare as Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament for her adequate and accurate speech that she delivered to us this week on the issue.

It is true, honourable colleagues — I’m a member of the Rules Committee — that the Rules Committee has done a pre-study of these issues. As a matter of fact, all leaders appeared before the Rules Committee to talk about these proposed changes that we call the “Woo-Tannas Motion.” They were all invited.

Senator Plett was there. I remember him saying — and I was very happy about this — that he agreed with a one-hour dinner break. That was progress.

I also remember asking him at the Rules Committee if he, as an experienced parliamentarian, agreed that regulation always follows legislation. His answer was, “Yes, of course.” You can look at the minutes of the meeting.

Colleagues, the regulations that I was talking about and that are relevant to our discussion today we passed unanimously in 2022. That was two years ago. We tried at the Rules Committee to bring forth the coordinating regulations that follow legislation, but we were unsuccessful.

Maybe there is a God because, at the end of the day, if we had managed to vote on these regulations at the Rules Committee and table a report in this chamber, how long would we have had to wait for the current discussion that we’re having to occur?

Look at the Order Paper today. Look at the list of committee reports that have been tabled for quite a while and are still there. Can you imagine the majority of us — 80% of us — trying to move to a vote on regulation changes by our Rules Committee? Honestly, it would have been mission impossible.

On that, I have to say thank you to Senator Gold.

Thank you, Senator Gold, for having the courage to put Motion No. 165 before us so that we can have a holistic discussion.

Moving to the issue at hand, which is the amendment by Senator Quinn, I believe that the amendment that Senator Quinn is proposing is somewhat misinformed in regard to how it works in the other place, where each and every written question is reviewed by a group of people — including the Clerk of the House of Commons — as to whether it meets a certain set of criteria to be put on the Order Paper. The other place has had a vetting system in place for decades with criteria for Question Period and what questions are to be answered that are in a written format.

Senator Quinn is assuming that all questions are somewhat kosher, and that is not the case. I’m happy that Senator Saint-Germain has provided some examples.

I agree with the proposal in the main motion that questions should be answered within 60 days, and for those that are not, if there is a problem, that it be referred to the Rules Committee. That will allow the Rules Committee, after a period of time — of course, there is the disciplinary measure in it — to establish a vetting process to make sure that there is a frame within which written questions can be put on the Order Paper. If not, have a discussion with the senator to see how it can meet these criteria, as is what’s happening in the other place.

Because of what I have just said and as the government is imposing on itself new restrictions in regard to adopting a 60-day time frame to answer the questions, I believe that it will also allow us at the Rules Committee to ascertain data in regard to the number of days that the answers have been provided. That will provide us, in the medium term, the ability to develop in the Senate our own vetting process. That is needed. That is needed in order to have adequate answers in a decent time frame.

It was also mentioned this week that we are members of Parliament. Yes, we are, but we operate in a different context and in a different time frame. They operate on a time frame of four years maximum. We do not have any restriction on our time here. I would say that the average of a senator present in this institution would be between 12 and 15 years. That is a guesstimate on my part.

The members of Parliament in the other place risk losing their jobs every four years. That is not our situation.

The members of Parliament in the other place sit for five days a week. We sit for three.

The members of Parliament in the other place sit in committees at the same time that their chamber is sitting. That is certainly not the case for us.

Members of Parliament represent a very limited constituency. They are 338, while we are, at most, 105.

The members of Parliament in the other place have hybrid sittings. That is certainly not the case for us.

Last, but not least, the members of Parliament in the other place embrace change. We are extremely reluctant to it. We are, in the words of today’s generation, definitely laggards.

The Senate is, in general, always pushing back on any kind of change. It took ten years of discussion for this place to have televised proceedings. The other place had it 60 years before us.

Our Rules of the Senate only changed in 1968 in regard to recognizing an opposition and having Question Period. The other place had Question Period and an organized opposition in the early 1900s.

Do you see the time frame I am putting forth here? It is no wonder that Canadians are somewhat distant from our institution. We create that with how we operate, how we communicate. They are very uninformed about who we are and what we do.

Colleagues, I realize that the majority of senators in this place are relatively new. Internalizing the processes that we have and being able to compare them with the process that is happening in the other place, it requires a lot of time. I am fortunate that I am able to understand and compare both and try to relate that understanding and information to you. However, it is time that we become more holistic and pragmatic in our approaches.

One needs to understand the unintended consequences of such an amendment. Therefore, I will not be supporting this amendment.

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)

Thank you so much, Senator Ringuette, for letting us know whether or not you are going to support that. I really was listening, and I was very unsure if you were going to support this amendment or not until the very end. Now, at least, we are sure of that. We appreciate your directness there.

I also have a few words to say on the amendment, and, like the previous speech, I will sidetrack to speaking about other things in the amendment because that is what we just heard. Thirteen out of the 15 minutes that we just heard was giving us a history lesson as opposed to speaking to the amendment.

Colleagues, I am happy to rise on debate on Senator Quinn’s amendment. I will also preface, as Senator Ringuette did, that I will be brief.

I support the amendment. As I said on Tuesday, I don’t see why the government should have more time to answer questions than the questions of the members of the House of Commons.

I say “members of the House of Commons” as compared to “MPs” because I agree with Senator Quinn. We are all MPs. We are all members of Parliament. I don’t really see how letting the government not answer our questions by simply tabling a document saying they cannot answer the question is any good.

I want to take this opportunity as well, colleagues, if I could, to correct just a few things that were said on Tuesday and Wednesday.

First, I said a few times in my speech on Tuesday that Pierre Poilievre had opened up a 20-point lead over the Liberals. Three polls released this week from Abacus, Nanos and Léger show that this lead is now, in fact, 21 points.

So I stand corrected. I apologize.

In fact, I will note that the Trudeau Liberals have lost ground since Senator Gold tabled Motion No. 165. Clearly, Canadians are not as enthusiastic as some senators think that they are about this Trudeau Senate.

In fact, since this new Senate has been in place, there were two general elections: in 2019 and 2021. In both of those, Conservative leaders — Mr. Scheer and Mr. O’Toole — promised to reverse the course of those changes, and they both received more votes than Justin Trudeau did. Pierre Poilievre, who has the same policy, is now leading by 21 points. Let me take all of those arguments about Canadians supporting the changes to the Senate with a grain of salt.

Second, Senator Downe asked me on Tuesday if I would be open to negotiations with the government on the changes, and I said, “Yes, I would be.” I want to report to this chamber that I have been open ever since, but there has been no offer made to have those negotiations — none. That door has been firmly closed. We are not negotiating this. We are pushing this through.

Third, Senator Saint-Germain said the reason for the longer delay in the government answering Senate questions was the ability to create an enormous number of questions with the help of artificial intelligence, or AI. I want to reassure Senator Saint‑Germain of the following: Number one: My office is churning out a large number of questions, and we use human intelligence. You don’t need AI. Number two: In Motion No. 165, senators are limited to three questions. Whatever AI may help you with, it won’t do a lot. Number three: Members of the House who have access to the same tools as senators have to wait 45 days instead of 60 like Senator Gold wants us to wait.

Fourth, there has been mention of the House of Lords as a model for these changes. Let me correct the record on two things about that: The crossbenchers will never have a majority in the Lords. That would be against the law. No one disputes the fact that the Lords can belong to parties represented in the House of Commons. In 2017, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House of Lords recommended that the appointments to the Lords would be linked to the general election results.

Fifth, Senator Dalphond mentioned the changes made to the Rules in 1991 as proof that the use by the government of a motion to unilaterally push changes to the Rules — as Motion No. 165 — is not precedent-setting. It is true that the changes were adopted by a vote of 40 to 30. But the vote was on a report by the Rules Committee, not on a motion from the government. We have no issue with the Rules Committee.

On June 18, 1991, senators voted on the report of the committee. The Liberals voted against. Yes, the senators appointed under section 26 of the British North America Act, 1867 — also known as the “GST senators” — participated in that vote. They had been members of the Senate for nine months before that vote. Senator Dalphond’s amazement that these senators voted on a Rules Committee report in 1991 is surprising. I hope he is not saying that our colleagues who joined the Senate in the last nine months — or maybe even in the last month and a half or two months — should not now vote on Motion No. 165, because that is what I heard.

The committee report was adopted after one week of debate. The Liberals had plenty of ammunition to do a long filibuster; they did not. They could have presented amendments; they did not. They had 52 members in their caucus. Only one spoke on the motion, and then more than 40% of their members did not vote. That shows that there was not unanimity; there was consensus — strange.

The Standing Committee on Standing Rules and Orders — as it was then known — had 28 hours of meetings on the changes to the Rules. There was no strong discussion, but a lot of work on the language of the new Rules. That is exactly what we have been saying. Why not let the Rules Committee do its job like they did in 1991? This is something Senator Dalphond should certainly support.

Finally, I want to be clear on one thing: The argument that having a so-called non-partisan Senate is somehow a return to the original Senate is false. Let me repeat that: It is false.

You can present the Trudeau Senate as a new Senate, a modern Senate, a 21st century Senate — I don’t agree. But at least there is an argument there. To present Motion No. 165 and the other changes made to the Senate by Justin Trudeau as somehow going back to 1867 is a complete lie, and it has to stop.

You will never find a period in Canadian history where the Senate was not a partisan chamber. This supposedly golden age where gentlemen were quietly attending to the nation’s business while smoking cigars and sipping whisky without any link to the raucous debates going on in the House never existed. It is a fabrication.

Resolution 14 of the Quebec Conference, 1864 stated clearly that appointments to the Senate should be made “. . . so that all political parties may as nearly as possible be fairly represented.”

That bears repeating: “. . . so that all political parties may as nearly as possible be fairly represented.”

In essence, the refusal by Justin Trudeau to appoint partisan senators goes directly against what the Senate was supposed to be, according to its founding fathers. Let me quote James Bowden in an article entitled, “The Founders’ Senate — and Ours: Canada’s Upper House was (and is) supposed to be partisan,” published in 2019:

As the minutes of the Quebec Conference, the Quebec Resolutions, and the London Resolutions demonstrate, the framers took the partisanship of their provincial Legislative Councils and the Senate of Canada for granted; indeed, they considered partisanship integral to the functioning of upper chambers — that was never up for debate at all. They all accepted the principle and merely haggled over the most efficient means of securing the partisan character of the Senate of Canada from the moment that it first met.

Of Quebec’s first 24 senators, 16 were Conservatives or Liberal-Conservatives, and 8 were Liberals. Ontario sent 14 Conservatives or Liberal-Conservatives and 10 Liberals to the Senate. This reflected the will of the electorates of Canada East and Canada West. In addition, the first 12 senators for New Brunswick maintained partisan balance between 6 Liberals and 6 Conservatives. Of the first 12 senators for Nova Scotia, however, 8 were Conservatives and 4 were Liberals.

As Canada’s second prime minister Alexander Mackenzie said:

The Senate must necessarily be composed of gentlemen holding the political views of one or the other of the two great parties into which political society is divided. . . .

Let me repeat: The argument that having a so-called non‑partisan Senate is somehow a return to the original Senate is false.

I need to go off track here for a second. When someone like Senator Ringuette — for whom I have a lot of respect as a good parliamentarian and a good Liberal senator for so many years — stands in this chamber and all of a sudden says that we should be a non-partisan chamber, when she is probably — aside from myself — the most partisan senator in this chamber, I cannot understand how that can be.

Well, I guess “non-partisanship” means “let’s not be Conservative.”

Senator Cuzner, at least, is sitting where he is sitting — though not often talking; I’m a little disappointed about that. Nevertheless, he will catch his second wind at some point. But I know he is a Liberal through and through, and he is proud of it. He is not giving up on that. He is a Liberal. He knows that.

But you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot say that what Justin Trudeau is doing is a revolution, that this is novel and he is such a visionary — and then claim that those very same changes are us going back to 1867. It is one or the other. You cannot be revolutionary and reactionary at the same time.

I have a fair bit more to say on this amendment. I am supporting it, but I need to collect my thoughts on this. I will adjourn the debate for the balance of my time. Thank you, colleagues.

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