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Editorial: Senate stalling

Canada's Senate chamber in Ottawa.
Canada's Senate chamber in Ottawa. - Submitted

Maybe, over the Easter long weekend, Canada’s senators took a little time to think about their role in Canadian governance.

If they didn’t, all is not lost — after all, the Senate doesn’t sit again until April 16, so maybe the members, especially members of the Conservative caucus, should take a little time to ponder their next move.

Before rising last week, the Conservative members — all appointed under the past “let’s reward our political buddies” system that was in place before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government — were doing their level best to derail the federal government’s marijuana legalization legislation.

The Conservatives chose a time when a large number of independent senators were on the road doing committee business to call for a recorded vote on second reading of the marijuana bill — if they had been successful, they would have essentially punted the bill back to the House of Commons to start all over again.

Nothing like a little bit of procedural gamesmanship to make the unelected Senate seem unnecessary.

The problem, as Prime Minister Trudeau accurately pointed out, is that the unelected senators were directly interfering with his party carrying through on an election promise — therefore, working against a duly elected government. “It is very clear that this bill responds first to an electoral promise that we made very clearly during the election campaign and for which Canadians voted,” Trudeau said.

It’s not a new concept: in 1867, on only the third sitting day for the Senate, the Hon. Donald MacDonald pointed out, “Our functions may be exercised most usefully, not as registrars of the executive opinion on the one hand, nor servile echoes of fleeting popular feeling on the other, but as the balance-wheel of this government, guiding always, obstructing never and in all things manifesting a superiority to the promptings of an angry partisanship.”

Guiding always, obstructing never.

The new structure of the Senate — where non-partisan senators are chosen through an application process — has a much better chance of making the Senate work the way it was intended to work: as a stopgap to prevent bad legislation, and an opportunity for the review of the pitfalls that have been accidentally included in new laws.

The marijuana legislation still has to wend its way through five different Senate committees, any one of which can — and most likely will — recommend amendments to the bill before it returns to the Senate for the final round of debate and a vote by June 7.

There is no doubt that senators will eventually decide that there is legislation that should not be passed.

But senators should think very carefully about their responsibilities before they ever take that step. And Conservative senators, appointed quite clearly for who they knew, rather than what they knew, should ponder whether they’ve become too big for their unelected britches.

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