Bureaucrats are scouring their rule books and poring through historical references to determine the fallout after the government signalled it will eliminate the Senate’s only seat at the federal cabinet table.
Stripping the Senate of its cabinet presence would mean that the other senators would not have a government representative in their chamber whom they could question directly about federal matters. And it could stifle an increasing predilection on the part of the Conservatives to introduce legislation in the Senate.
The leader of the government in the Senate has, with rare exceptions, also been a cabinet minister – a tradition dating back to Confederation. This merger of duties has given a voice to the government inside the Red Chamber.
But when Marjory LeBreton resigned from the post this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated that her eventual replacement would not be a minister. That distancing of the government from the Senate follows an expense scandal involving four senators, including three of Mr. Harper’s Conservative appointees, and the launch of investigations by the RCMP.
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, whose party favours abolishing the institution, said shutting the Senate out of cabinet would be would be just one more nail in its coffin. “If a government that has appointed more senators than any government in history doesn’t want to be involved in it, then who is left to defend the Senate other than some senators,” he asked.
Government legislation usually originates in the House of Commons, where it is introduced by a cabinet minister.
But during the most recent sitting of Parliament, the Conservatives introduced 17 bills in the Senate, which allowed the government to move forward with its legislative agenda on two fronts at the same time.
“At the end of this session, it seemed like every bill we were dealing with came from the Senate,” Mr. Cullen said. “I have never seen anything like that in terms of that much government legislation moving that way.”
Those bills touched on a broad range of subjects, including matrimonial rights on reserves, terrorism, cluster munitions, food safety, tobacco control and the expansion of Canada’s national parks. Ms. LeBreton, as the only cabinet minister in the Senate, made all the introductions.
Constitutional experts said this week that the government likely could designate another Conservative senator to take over that duty. Perhaps, they said, it will fall to the new leader of the government in the Senate. But the rules are unclear.
And stick-handling through the Senate’s Question Period, in which Ms. LeBreton has fielded every question for the past seven years, could be even more problematic.
During late 1950s and early 1960s, when John Diefenbaker was prime minister, the leader of the government in the Senate was not a cabinet minister. The opposition senators of the day cried foul, complaining repeatedly that there was no one to answer for the government. Mr. Diefenbaker eventually appointed another senator to be part of his cabinet.
Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal House Leader, said he did not think it would make much difference to the Senate’s Question Period if the new government leader is not a cabinet minister. “Senator LeBreton rarely answered the question anyway,” he quipped.
He said it must be embarrassing for Conservative senators to be told that “of the people that Mr. Harper has stuffed into the Senate, that in the orgy of patronage he has indulged in, there’s not one person he can actually imagine having a conversation with at a cabinet table.”