The government has backed down from a procedural move that would have imposed deadlines on almost a dozen bills in the Senate to ensure they pass before Parliament rises in June.
Earlier this week, the Liberal government’s representative in the Senate moved to set specific timelines for debates and votes on 11 bills to break up what he described as a legislative logjam.
But Thursday afternoon, Sen. Peter Harder withdrew his motion, saying he had reached a “collegial understanding” with the leaders of other parties and groups in the Senate that will see legislation passed in a more timely fashion.
Harder isn’t making the details of the agreement public.
The Liberals are anxious to finalize a number of bills before the Oct. 21 election and time is growing short. Only eight weeks remain on the parliamentary sitting calendar before the summer break. After that, the federal election writ will wipe out any legislation left unfinished.
The list of bills the Trudeau government would like to pass includes Bill C-69, which would impose new rules for environmental assessments of energy projects, as well as C-71, which aims to tighten rules on gun ownership, including expanded background checks.
Harder has accused Conservative senators of using obstructionist tactics to purposely slow down legislation already passed by the House of Commons.
The government does have the ability to put time limits on debate, but usually only applies the measure to a single item.
Conservative senators cried foul over Harder’s attempt to bundle 11 bills into one omnibus motion, which included deadlines for votes on each bill.
Sen. Larry Smith, the Conservative leader in the Senate, called the procedural tactic an anti-democratic “time-allocation on steroids” and vowed to use every parliamentary tool available to stop it until Harder backed down.
Meanwhile, independent senators expressed concerned at the breakdown in negotiations between Harder, Conservative and Liberal senators over the schedule for when bills would be debated in the Senate.
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the point man for the Independent Senators Group, said earlier in the week he was blocked from participating in negotiations because his group is not recognized as an official caucus on par with the other partisan caucuses.
The makeup of the Senate – with the Independent Senators Group now forming a majority in the chamber coupled with the removal of senators from the federal Liberal caucus – has created a new dynamic in Senate that runs up against the rules and traditions of the upper chamber.
Senators have come up with informal ways to address roadblocks that arise, such as the dispute this week. Emmett Macfarlane, a political-science professor at the University of Waterloo has studied the issue in-depth, said the Senate may need to formalize some new ways of doing business.
“What happens when we get to a point where three-quarters of the Senate are independents? Do they continue to sit in this nebulous group and basically be a collection of individuals? Or do we formalize some type of organization around issue-based caucus or regional caucuses?” MacFarlane said.
“That’s something the Senate has not even tried to address as a collective and it might be worth looking at.”
He suggested changes to the rules and practices could be considered after the election, when the legislative agenda is clear and senators would have time to study and debate possible reforms.