I listened with great interest recently to a question of privilege put forward by my colleague Senator Donald Plett and the rebuttal by Senator Frances Lankin. This question of privilege was in response to a letter written by Senator Lankin to the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer, in which she implored Mr. Scheer to direct his caucus colleagues in the Senate to abandon debate on a certain bill to force it to come to a vote.
I intentionally choose not to name the bill because it is irrelevant. What is relevant is that someone would call upon a member from the other chamber at all, to interfere in the proceedings in this chamber, the Senate. The fact that it was done by a Trudeau appointed “independent” Senator serves to highlight the hypocrisy of the supposed reform taking place in the Senate under the current Prime Minister.
The Trudeau Senate is the very opposite of what the Liberals have convinced Canadians it is. What this Prime Minister is doing is actually seizing complete control of the chamber by ensuring his appointees serve as both government and as opposition. There is nothing independent, or Westminster, about it.
Which brings me to the bigger point. While there is much I could say about the hypocrisy being exhibited by those who are usually quick to criticize the political affiliation of their Conservative colleagues, there is much more to this particular question of privilege. This goes deeper even than most questions of privilege we’ve heard through the years. This goes to the core of our parliamentary system and how the forefathers of this Confederation put together our system of democratic parliamentary government.
There’s a reason our forefathers embraced the Westminster parliamentary system, there’s a reason they created the hybrid system based fundamentally on the bicameral system back in Westminster, and there’s a reason why that system has served this country so well for 150 years.
The whole notion of independence in our parliamentary system is sacred. When anybody challenges or seeks to interfere with the independence of any parliamentarian, in either chamber, they call into question our very parliamentary system.
So when someone decides to send a letter to someone in the other place, let alone the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, in order to encourage, cajole or in any way interfere with the independence of the members of his caucus on the Senate side, it is unacceptable. It has been unacceptable for 150 years, and it should not become acceptable today.
Those of us who studied under great professors of political science in this country, like J. R. Mallory, understand the meaning of the word “independence” in the Westminster system. It means every member who is elected and every senator who is appointed and doesn’t sit in cabinet is independent; regardless of what caucus they sit under, what political affiliation they have or if none at all, the moment they are sitting in this place or the other place and they are not in cabinet, they are independent.
The only person in the upper chamber who doesn’t have independence is the government leader in the Senate. That’s not my interpretation. That is written in our Constitution. Regardless what title he chooses to self-identify, when Senator Peter Harder was summoned to the Senate and given the notice to serve as the government leader, to act as a bridge between the other place and this place, he became dependent of the executive. He attends cabinet. He was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council. He’s accountable for making sure the government’s legislation gets through this chamber. As members of the opposition, we recognize that and we respect that.
It’s also time for everyone to show fundamental respect for our rules, not just in the Senate but throughout parliament. Our rules have been around for a very long time. The moment they are not respected, we fall into utter chaos. They were not written on a whim, nor should they be rewritten on a whim. Our rules were written specifically to protect the minority, with safeguards to ensure they aren’t summarily dismissed by a petulant, impatient majority just because they don’t suit one’s purpose at any given time.
I understand that can be frustrating. I have shared in that frustration. Even now, I am the co-sponsor of a motion on the scroll with Senator Pana Merchant, who is no longer here. It has been months, yet there it sits, adjourned, with nobody speaking to it.
And while it’s easy for some of my colleagues to say “Fix it” there’s nothing to fix. It’s within the rules and I respect the rules. I couldn’t fathom writing a letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to in any way direct or persuade his Senate appointees to bring that motion to a vote. That’s not how our parliamentary system works, nor should it ever be.
The House of Commons was designed to deal with the pressure of daily politics, the Senate was not. This place is supposed to be a place of sober second thought. We owe it to ourselves and to Canadians to separate ourselves as much as possible from the goings-on on that side.
With that said, I am compelled to respond to something my colleague said regarding Andrew Scheer because the record has to be clear about his comments regarding an independent Senate and partisan appointments. I assure you, Mr. Scheer takes no issue with the independence of Senators, regardless their political affiliation. What he does have difficulty with is the charade of independence that has been going on in this place for the past 18 months.
During that time, we’ve seen the reorientation of the words “independence” and “independent parliamentarians” within our Westminster parliament. Let me be very clear, no matter how much the Prime Minister or anyone else tries to redefine it or how much some of my colleagues on the other side of the chamber try to claim it as theirs and theirs alone, the word independence it is not open to interpretation, it is not malleable and it is not anyone else’s to take from another.
Every member of this chamber, with the exception of the government leader, is independent, regardless their political affiliation or lack thereof. Any attempt to diminish that independence, just as any attempt to diminish the role of the opposition, is an absolute affront to our democracy.
Leo Housakos is a senator representing the division of Wellington in Quebec. He previously served as Senate Speaker and is chair of the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration.