Government Leader in the Senate, Peter Harder, has made some comments regarding the Conservative Senate Caucus that I would like to address.
Senator Harder blames Conservative senators for “delaying” the Trudeau government’s legislation.
It is a curious accusation.
The Conservatives are only 33 in a 105-person Senate with 12 vacancies. It is clear that a small minority in a vote-based system cannot be blamed for controlling anything.
Yet, Senator Harder asserts that the Conservatives, and only the Conservatives control the pace and success of bills.
Good governments get legislation passed. The Harper government was still able to swiftly pass legislation, even with a Liberal majority in the Senate.
Senator Harder insists that the Senate has become more “independent” since the Liberals were elected.
This is also curious as the facts don’t support the contention.
Trudeau-appointed and other “Independent” senators have voted with the government over 95% of the time.
In contrast, Conservative senators have voted 25% in favour of the government’s legislation.
Conservative senators have also presented the most amendments to improve legislation.
I wonder which caucus is freer to vote with conscience and due consideration.
Senator Harder equates partisanship with a “wrecking ball” aimed at the Senate, asserting that partisan affiliations render the chamber less effective.
This is also false.
Senator Harder is the ultimate partisan senator. Before being appointed, he led Trudeau’s transition team. Since being appointed, Senator Harder has happily done the government’s bidding.
Senator Harder would love nothing more than for the Senate to become, to put it colloquially, the Trudeau government’s “rubber stamp.” He has stated numerous times that if something is a campaign commitment, then the Senate must support it.
He has commandeered the charge—on the direction of the Prime Minister—against an Official Opposition in the Senate.
To remind, the Westminster model of governance is predicated on the principle that there be a Government who proposes, and an Opposition who opposes—in both upper and lower houses of parliament.
The overwhelming majority of parliaments across the globe adhere to this very basic structure of debate. It is how we find balance.
The presence of an opposition is the foundation of our system. It is not referred to as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for nothing.
It seems the system Prime Minister Trudeau and Senator Harder would prefer is one lacking any institutional mechanisms or resources to hold the government accountable—better known as a single-party state.
Senator Harder mentioned last week that Senate independence is the “government’s initiative.”
Senator Elaine McCoy is right to categorize this as a logical inconsistency—given this is the same Peter Harder who decried Prime Minister Harper’s “ownership” of the Senate.
Sorry Senator Harder, but it is not Justin Trudeau’s responsibility, or within his authority, to change how the Senate functions.
There is a reason that the legislative branch must remain independent of the executive branch.
If Senator Harder truly embraces Senate independence, he would have condemned this government’s constant interference in Senate processes.
Senator Harder should stop conveniently blaming partisanship and the Official Opposition for all of the government’s problems.
It is not the role of the Official Opposition to obey government demands.
The Conservative Official Opposition is doing its job by holding the executive accountable, and applying the necessary scrutiny to government bills.
It is no fault of Senate partisanship, or the Official Opposition, that the government is unable to draft and pass quality legislation at a reasonable pace.
Further, Senator Harder should accept that partisanship is an inherent tenet of the Westminster model. In fact, partisanship powers the model itself.
The Senate of Canada has functioned well for over 150 years.
Debates are, and have always been, vigorous. That vigour is enabled by the structure of debate around a Government and an Opposition, whose roles are fulfilled by independent-minded senators.
Stripping the Official Opposition of its capacity to check executive power would be an affront to democracy.
Senator Leo Housakos put it best by saying, “when you weaken the foundations of a parliamentary system, that's when tyranny starts taking over and the Executive spreads itself out.”
I would like to thank Senator Harder for letting us know what the Senate is capable of.
After 150 years of clearly rudderless operation, we are so pleased a member of Trudeau’s transition team has set us on the right, independent (government-mandated) course.
David Wells is a senator who represents Newfoundland and Labrador. He is chair of the Conservative Senate Caucus.
This article appeared in the April 19, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.