Lost in the debate over Senate reform, and missed by so many doctrinaire unicameralists, is the Senate's function as a legislative body. "Sober second thought" is not just a slogan - it is a real, ongoing contribution to public discourse and public policy in Canada, demonstrated on Sunday during Senate deliberations over Bill C-6, the government's back-to-work legislation for Canada Post and its union.
The bill's elements got actual clause-by-clause scrutiny, in a process that Senators often use to improve legislation. Liberals reminded Conservative senators of their opposition to similar back-to-work legislation at Canada Post in 1997. The Senators questioned the key players from the government, company and union in a dialogue that produced genuinely valuable information.
For instance, Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan asked whether the government was pushing Canada Post toward imposing defined contribution pensions on new employees (No, said Labour Minister Lisa Raitt). Liberal Roméo Dallaire reminded Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra of the need for reconciliation with employees after normal operations resumed. Conservative Hugh Segal highlighted the growing importance of Purolator to Canada Post's bottom line.
Many of these points were possible because of the institutional knowledge present in the chamber. This reinforces the need for Senators, once they are elected, to be allowed to seek re-election.
The House featured more heat than light. That's understandable - the legislation was controversial, and Conservative and NDP MPs have less leeway and more ideological distance between them - but good arguments suffered. The government failed to justify its use of a public sector benchmark for the wage rate it deemed (even though the employees in question work for a Crown corporation, not the government itself). The NDP failed to justify its filibuster, or connect its understandable defence of unionism with the public's desire for ongoing mail delivery.
The Senate debate didn't appear to change anyone's mind, and ultimately, Bill C-6 passed - exactly as the federal government intended, and as our constitution, which rightly makes it difficult for the Senate to hold up legislation, requires.
But the issues got a more complete airing. It is hard to predict the dynamics of an elected upper house, but as long as its constitutional role is preserved, its ongoing contribution to public discourse should be welcomed.