Non-Government Business

Inquiry--Debate Continued

March 10, 2020


Hon. Chantal Petitclerc
[18:27]

Honourable senators, the last Parliament only served to strengthen my conviction that our handling of non-governmental bills should and could be improved. We are here to do our work as lawmakers conscientiously and efficiently, and it is up to all of us to find ways to accomplish that. It is unreasonable for any senator to prevent other senators from voting by using and abusing our ability to move endless amendments and subamendments.

I would like to recognize the work of Senators Sinclair and Dalphond who, in fact, are inviting us to continue the discussion begun in 2014 by our Committee on Rules. This committee proposed a mechanism to end debate and vote on an item of other business. The two criteria were that the item must have been called for consideration 15 times and must have been debated for at least three hours.

Colleagues, I invite you to read over the debates that followed the tabling of that committee’s majority report. These interventions are just as relevant today. For example, in her speech on October 8, 2014, our dear colleague Senator Frum said:

This proposed rule change will oblige us to do our duty rather than allow us to simply ignore or endlessly defer debate on any proposed legislation that we find challenging.

On September 16, 2014, Senator Carignan, the government leader at the time, agreed, stating, and I quote:

In case you have forgotten, we are here to debate bills, not let them languish under desks and die of old age.

I heartily agree with both of my colleagues.

In a ruling on October 30, 2013, Speaker Kinsella noted that doing so was difficult but possible. He said, and I quote:

But even under Other Business, there are ways to seek to curb or limit debate and to come to a decision.

Still according to Speaker Kinsella:

The most obvious is by moving the “previous question,” which forestalls further amendments, but is only available on the main motion.

The last Parliament made the limitations of that provision clear. Using it is complicated, unpredictable and leaves unnecessary scars.

I still remember all of Senator Lankin’s efforts to change the national anthem with Bill S-210.

We have been appointed to make decisions we think are best for Canadians, whether the initiative comes from the government of the day, a senator or a member of Parliament.

In 2013, The Globe and Mail reported that Professor Ned Franks, one of the country’s experts in parliamentary procedure, said in an interview that:

. . . some major Canadian legislation, including the abolition of capital punishment and changes to divorce law, “came in large part through private members’ bills.”

According to the article, he said:

They can be very useful tools for pushing reform that goes against the general opinion, and they have been . . . .

Who remembers that we owe the Non-smokers’ Health Act to NDP MP Lynn McDonald? Her bill was a first worldwide, leading various countries to draft legislation to establish smoke-free workplaces and public places.

Senator Sinclair and his grandson surely would have been kept away from the M&Ms of this world, had we put in place a mechanism to ensure a vote on Bill S-228, which would have banned the advertising of foods and drinks that targets children.

You will recall that the Senate and the House of Commons spent one year studying this legislation sponsored by Senator Nancy Greene Raine. The government supported this bill and backed Health Canada, which in turn conducted broad consultations and published two versions of the guide for the implementation of the bill.

A good number of stakeholders still do not understand why the Senate was not able, in nine months, to vote on two very simple amendments made by the House of Commons or how the Senate came so close to the goal only to abruptly stop everything. Millions of dollars continue to be spent on advertising that entices our children and grandchildren to consume products that are high in sugar, salt and fat.

If the process had been fair, Bill S-228 would already be helping improve children’s health. Some say, “Let the government reintroduce it if they support it.” Fair enough, but the fact that some bills are being reintroduced as government legislation does not undo the loss of time and resources.

The five measures that Senators Sinclair and Dalphond want to introduce address different facets of the same challenge: How to make this chamber even more effective. I read several points of view in the February 12 edition of The Hill Times on how important it is for a consensus to be reached on these changes. However, that will only be possible if we are all guided by the same goal of finding an acceptable compromise.

For example, should the minimum time for debate before putting a bill to a vote be two hours? I think this is a very reasonable time limit. However, should the 2014 proposal that this limit be three hours be deemed more reasonable, it could be appropriate for senators to consider this option.

Honourable senators, the filibuster is one of the traditions of parliamentary debate. It may be fair for a minority to want to delay the legislative process, but, in my opinion, it should not go so far as to completely block the holding of a vote.

Voting on a bill should not be optional. I believe that every bill deserves a vote. Our duty is to seriously consider, study, report and vote on bills. We can vote in favour, against, abstain. We can choose to be away for the vote. We have options, but using the rules to indefinitely block a vote should not be one of them.

We all have much to gain from making this institution more effective. We must all ensure, as much as possible, that the rules that guide our debates remain superior and effective work tools. If we fail to do so, we will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish the work for which, let’s not forget, we were chosen from among millions of Canadians. Thank you.

[18:35]

Honourable senators, I follow my colleague Senator Petitclerc in speaking in favour of the proposals made by our colleagues Senators Sinclair and Dalphond, who together have launched a very important discussion on potential changes to Senate rules which, as Senator Sinclair has put it, seem to reward obstruction rather than decision making. That’s quite the statement, isn’t it?

The proposed changes, therefore, focus on removing obstacles to Senate voting on non-government initiatives introduced by individual senators or members of the House of Commons, some changes that have been discussed and supported in this place going back a number of years.

The inquiry deals with the sort of obstacles that delayed voting on a gender-neutral national anthem bill for over a year; the delays that killed the Rona Ambrose bill designed to require judicial training on sexual assault; the unnecessary setbacks that ensured UNDRIP would not be passed; and the delays that stretched our debate on a bill to protect whales and dolphins held in captivity for nearly three years; and, indeed, delays and sub-amendment tactics that put an end to Nancy Greene Raine’s Bill S-228, which would have restricted sugary food and drinks. These are delays that left a sour taste in our mouths.

In place of these frequently used delay tactics, Senators Sinclair and Dalphond suggest that reasonable time frames be established for debates and votes on non-government business.

Honourable senators, Canadians would find it strange that the Senate has a right to introduce bills but virtually no guarantee of the ability to vote on them. Canadians and some members of Parliament are likely surprised that a small number of senators can effectively veto any non-government bill passed by the elected house.

Our colleagues also suggested that private members’ bills and Senate bills caught by prorogations might be later reinstated to their previous stage, as is the case in the House of Commons, again a question that deserves serious consideration.

I think it’s clear to all of us that the issues identified here are indicators of the sort of partisan duopoly and centralization of power that we have seen in the House of Commons and the Senate in recent decades. I’m talking here, of course, about the take-turns-in-power duopoly in which, over decades, a compromise was reached whereby one side of the duopoly had the ability to time allocate while the other side, in taking its turn in opposition, had the power to frustrate and delay while alternately criticizing each other for the tactics that the other one just left behind.

Here’s something interesting, though: Against the backdrop of that well-known and well-exercised duopoly, we’ve been moving away from that over the past four years. The interesting point is that over those four years, time allocation has not been used at all to this point in time. One side of the duopoly seems to have evaporated — no time allocation.

On the other hand, we have seen literally truckloads of purposeful delay on a number of pieces of legislation, wasteful delay enabled by the rules that Senators Sinclair and Dalphond wish to review, delays routinely used by the remaining part of the old duopoly. We know these delays are wasteful and that they come at considerable cost to taxpayers. Our embarrassment is only the least of it.

Colleagues, this brings me to the final proposal made by Senator Sinclair and Senator Dalphond. This has to do with the dinner bells rule — I know, it’s a shame — which is likely the most embarrassing and irritating of all, to the point that I will admit that at times I’ve looked across from my seat over here, when it’s clear that the dinner bells are going to ring, and I’ve thought, “You know what? I can’t wait for my turn to do that.” But, of course, I then catch myself. I’m not going to have a turn at doing that because we’re going to hopefully change these rules.

As you well know, without the unanimous consent of the Senate — I’m glad I’m waking people up here a bit — we are required to break for two hours, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., despite the fact that we have only been sitting for four hours or so.

It usually only takes one senator or the whip. There is no point mentioning who that might normally be to force a wasteful two-hour interruption —

[18:41]

— in our short workday of our usual three-day workweek. This has a democratic and fiscal cost to Canadian taxpayers. Perhaps, colleagues, this is why the House of Commons eliminated the dinner break in 1982. Here in the Senate, maybe it’s time to catch up with the early 1980s. I was going to say something about Saturday Night Fever, but that was a bit earlier.

Colleagues, as it stands, Canadians are footing the bill for the overtime work of support staff who are required to stay during our dinner breaks and hour-long bells completely unnecessarily.

I recall in my primary school days there being a dinner bell. Do you remember that one that you held in your hand? But the dinner bell — here’s the difference — actually served a useful purpose. They marked key events in the school day. They connoted getting things done in regularity as opposed to disruption.

Colleagues, I’m going to ask you to think about what useful purpose the Senate’s dinner bells serve, outside of an effort to connote that one half of a duopoly is still active or time to plan the next effort to delay our work.

Colleagues, like it or not, it is time to move on. We’re trying to make this place a more modern and effective institution where we get business done, rather than delaying it to score political points and where some senators exercise an effective veto power over private members’ bills initiated by elected members of Parliament.

The rule changes that colleagues are suggesting have been on the agenda for years now. The late Senator Nolin’s proposal at the heart of this inquiry occurred in 2014, and we have moved very slowly, even though meaningful reforms have been supported by all groups and caucuses over the years, including the concept of a business committee that I wasn’t going to mention. I was prompted by the comments of an earlier colleague.

Colleagues, Canadians understandably expect an efficient and effective Senate. That’s what they deserve. They are the people paying for all of this, and they are the ultimate stakeholders in the public policy proposals that come before us. It is those Canadians who I’m thinking about when the dinner bells ring — Canadians who are getting on with their lives and work and growing their families, Canadians who assume we’re here working on their behalf and Canadians who don’t get two-hour dinner breaks.

Senator Dalphond and Senator Sinclair are suggesting this rule be changed in order that where there is not unanimity on a two-hour break, the Senate should have an immediate vote on it. That’s reasonable. It’s hardly radical stuff.

Honourable senators, it’s time to tiptoe into modernity and catch up with the lives of regular Canadians. We’re being asked to consider changes that would address wasteful procedural delays. I say to Senator Sinclair and Senator Dalphond that, on this, you can count me in.

For senators who may still oppose these proposals and insist on longer dinner breaks and the predominance of bell-ringing in our proceedings, I would quote the English poet John Donne, who said:

 . . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)
[18:46]

I’m wondering whether Senator Dean would take a question.

[18:46]

Ding-dong, the bells do ring. Over to you, Senator Plett.

Senator Plett
[18:46]

Senator Dean, I’ve managed to have my dinner break, so I feel energized and ready to go for a few more hours.

I have a couple of questions, Senator Dean. First, you said you had been waiting for the chance that you could have your vote added and have that veto on a dinner bell.

I’m wondering, Senator Dean, whether you are aware that whatever number of senators we have now — 98 — any one of them could do that. This is not a function of the opposition.

Senator Lankin
[18:47]

He just said that.

Senator Plett
[18:47]

Thank you, Senator Lankin, for answering the question.

I don’t think you need to. She did.

[18:47]

I readily agree. I admit each one of us in this place has the ability to ring those bells. Many of us — in fact, the large majority of us — choose not to because we understand what that is all about, and we’re not interested in playing silly partisan games. Yes, I was being whimsical and maybe a touch sarcastic. I do understand the rule. I’m not going to exercise it.

Senator Plett
[18:47]

The point I was making is that is not a role of the opposition. It may have been that there were more people on this side of the chamber in the last few years who did that than on the other side of the chamber, but every senator in this chamber has an equal right to do that. That is not a right that has been afforded to the opposition.

So you, Senator Dean, have the right all by yourself to create that dinner bell.

Senator Dean, you talked about all the Canadians who are going without meals from six o’clock to eight o’clock. I would like you to tell me: Who are the normal Canadians working a noon to eight o’clock or a noon to ten o’clock shift who do not get a dinner break? It may not be two hours, and, of course, that could be debated, but do they or do they not get dinner breaks? You seem to indicate that these people work straight through for 10 hours without a dinner break. You said it, Senator Dean.

[18:48]

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify. I’m only too happy to do so.

Senator Plett, I often like to think, as I’m sure you do, about the way people outside of this place see us, how they perceive us and how they watch us do our work. I’m talking about proposed rule changes that are intended to address purposeful, well-thought-out procedural delays that are designed to frustrate our work here. As regular Canadians look into this place, to see the antics and the games that are being played here would shock them. And to see that they would use procedural tactics to delay, slow down the work of this place from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening, I think would perhaps annoy them, disappoint them, upset them and wonder what on earth we were doing.

So yes, I understand that Canadians have a dinner break. They don’t have a two-hour dinner break and they certainly don’t have the kind of two-hour frustrating delays that are currently built into the Rules. Those are the Canadians that I’m talking about, the people who look in here and say, “You know what? I’m paying for this and is that what I’m paying for?” I don’t think so.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker
[18:50]

Senator Dean, your speaking time has expired.