Sen. Plett speaks to Bill S-4, and explains how this legislation came about.
May 26, 2021 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:
Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill S-4, amending the Parliament of Canada Act. I want to outline the reasons why I do support this bill. I would also like to correct some of the statements made by previous speakers.
Bill S-4 is based on two principles defended by the Conservative caucus. For me, Bill S-4 is very interesting because the Trudeau government finally recognizes two major principles for which we, the Conservative Senate caucus, have been fighting since 2016.
First, Bill S-4 preserves the role of both government and opposition. Those colleagues who were here when the first Trudeau appointees made their way into this chamber will remember that some of them thought it would be good if the Senate did not have a government and an opposition. That would make us less partisan, they said, and more independent; as if having a debate with two contrarian points of view is a bad thing in a democracy.
Let me quote the sponsor of Bill S-4, my good friend and cousin, Senator Peter Harder, when he appeared as a witness in front of the Special Committee on Senate Modernization on September 28, 2016. He said:
In my view, in a more independent, complementary and less partisan Senate, there will no longer be an organized and disciplined government caucus, and, correspondingly, there should no longer be an organized official opposition caucus.
Colleagues, it is no accident that the Fathers of Confederation chose the Westminster model on which to base Parliament. This system is built on the premise that the government drafts legislation based on its mandate given by voters in an election, and the opposition’s job is to oppose this same legislation.
The Fathers of Confederation chose the Westminster model because they thought it was democratic, effective and the best way to represent the interests of the populace. This, colleagues, remains true even today.
The Fathers of Confederation deliberately chose to structure the Senate with a government side and an opposition side. With the Royal Proclamation of 1867, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald appointed 25 Liberal senators who formed a caucus, with Luc Letellier de Saint-Just, a ferociously partisan Liberal, as Leader of the Opposition.
The Fathers of Confederation could just as well have structured the Senate differently by appointing only senators who were unaffiliated with a political party and by having neither a government side nor an opposition side. They could have chosen a non-partisan model, but it is not what they did.
They did not want an advisory committee or a debating club; they wanted a legislative chamber where debates take place — where democratic partisan views are expressed. They understood that organizing a parliament into two opposing sides was the best way to ensure that democratic values were and are protected.
In our caucus, we have always believed that there must be an organized opposition to facilitate the organization of debates in the Senate. This approach gives those who oppose the government the democratic means to make their case and makes the Senate more effective by enabling it to play its role fully.
The importance of the opposition in the Senate of Canada, like any other parliamentary chamber, cannot be overstated. The opposition represents the parts of society who did not vote for the current government and who oppose the government’s general policy orientation. Opposition ensures that these groups will be heard in debate. This is especially important when a government can push through its bills in the House by implementing closure, which will effectively shut down debate, thus silencing opposition voices.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, the role of the Senate is to be a counterweight to the powers of the PMO. How could this be done without an organized opposition? The official opposition makes it possible to channel opposition to the government so that it’s not expressed in the streets, but through Parliament, in a civilized manner. The existence of a loyal opposition draws a distinction between the legitimate desire for change in government and a revolutionary desire for regime change.
Also, how can the Senate play its role as the “grand inquest of the nation,” as stated by the Supreme Court and quoted by Justice Binnie in his report on Senate finances, if the opposition — those who are by definition most interested in making the government more accountable — does not have the rights and privileges allowing them to ask the tough questions? How can the Senate adequately represent the minorities and those who are powerless to speak for themselves if the government can silence them because it is the only one with resources and tools?
Therefore, it was a relief for many of us to see that the Trudeau government chose not to change the role of the opposition in the Senate. I think Bill S-4, by keeping the powers and the status of the opposition intact, is an acknowledgement that our arguments in defending the opposition were, and are, valid. This should close the debate on this issue, hopefully, for many years.
Second, I am happy to see that the government has recognized that changes to the functioning of the Senate should be done by consensus. That is also something that we have been defending for a long time.
Bill S-4 was only tabled after consultation with all the leaders of the various groups and caucuses. Since Bill S-4 represents a consensus among the various leaders of the Senate, it stands as a testament to the importance of treading carefully when making changes to our Rules.
This is what we do in the Senate, we debate and argue, but especially when it comes to changes to our Rules or the principles of the Senate, we respect the historical consensual nature of decisions relating to these changes. The role of consensus-driven change is especially important in the current Senate as there are five groups to be consulted.
I stress that when the Conservatives had a majority in the Senate, they made no changes to the Rules without achieving a consensus. The attempts by some senators to unilaterally change the Rules in the last five years were unsettling. It is a message that Minister LeBlanc and Prime Minister Trudeau are sending to these senators: The only way to achieve change in the Senate is through consensus. I hope this message is received and understood.
Honourable colleagues, to summarize, I am happy to support Bill S-4 because, in essence, the government has finally acknowledged two major principles our caucus has been fighting for the last five years. No, Bill S-4 is not a win for us. We do not gain anything. However, we can be happy that, finally, logic has prevailed and that the structure of the Senate, which has served Canadians so well since 1867, is preserved.
However, I wish to take issue with some of the statements made previously on this bill. For example, Bill S-4 does not make the Senate less partisan, more independent, more transparent or more accountable, as Senator Harder stated.
Senator Harder acknowledges that the ISG senators have organized themselves into a like-minded group, as have the other groups. The ISG is a like-minded group in that they share the same small-l liberal ideals, which is just as partisan as a group of Conservative senators who share small-c conservative ideals. This isn’t a bad thing, colleagues.
The ISG loves to tell everyone it is not partisan, but this is simply not true. Over and over again, they have proven this by supporting government legislation. This is hardly surprising given that they were appointed by a Liberal government that shares their liberal views.
It will be interesting to see how non-partisan the senators who were appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau are when they are dealing with Conservative government bills, which many of us hope will be in a few short months. I am sure that as soon as they are freed from their commitment to a retired Prime Minister Trudeau and the doors of national caucuses open up, they will be happy to join some of those national caucuses where they can truly do their job as representatives of their region and Canadian legislators.
This bill does not make the Senate more independent. The Senate has always been independent. Prime Minister Trudeau did not make it any more or less so. The Senate gets its independence from the fact that senators are appointed and not elected and that they keep their appointment until the age of 75.
I need to remind Senator Tannas that he was also appointed and not elected, the same way the rest of us were appointed.
I do not see how this bill makes the Senate more transparent or more accountable. It was under the Harper government that the Senate changed its Rules on senators’ expenses, that the expenses became public, that the Auditor General was invited, that some senators were severely punished and that we put in place a code of ethics. It was Conservative senators who came up with the idea of an Audit and Oversight Committee who allowed debates to be available publicly, first on the internet, then on television, and who made CIBA meetings open to the public. That is what made the Senate more open and transparent, not Bill S-4.
Finally, Bill S-4 codifies the changes to Senate Rules to reflect the ridiculous semantic exercise of renaming leaders, deputy leaders and whips to government representatives, facilitators and liaisons. These new titles are supposed to give the illusion of non-partisanship of the various offices, but realistically speaking, their roles are exactly the same. A deputy facilitator at a scroll meeting fights just as hard to move her colleagues’ bill as our deputy leader does to move our bills. Senator Woo is a facilitator and Senator Cowan was a leader. Each is or was ferociously partisan, ready to defend his caucus and their views — and rightfully so.
Bill S-4 changes nothing that wasn’t already changed by the Senate. Bill S-4 does not represent an evolutionary piece of legislation but merely represents what has already evolved in the Senate and by the Senate. None of this is new; it is merely a reflection of the current reality in the Senate.
As Senator Cordy stated 20 years ago, the Rules Committee recommended the Rules be changed to account for the existence of other parties other than the government and opposition. Subsequent changes to the Rules allowed for another party to be recognized in the Senate. The Senate has taken this a step further by allowing for other groups. Bill S-4 is merely the culmination of that long process.
Honourable senators, I do encourage you to support Bill S-4 and send it to the House. This will allow us, in turn, to turn our attention to more pressing issues that are important to Canadians.
As the leader of our caucus, however, I recognize that some of our senators are uncomfortable with some parts of this bill. That is why, in all likelihood, we will allow this to be adopted on division.