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An active, engaged Senate is not a threat to democracy

André Pratte is an independent senator

In a recent column, The Globe's Tony Keller suggested that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has created a "FrankenSenate" that is now alive and dangerous. He asserts that "the newly empowered Senate has repeatedly amended, rejected and sent back all sorts of government legislation." He worries that appointed parliamentarians have begun to thwart the will of the elected representatives of Canadians.

"For the sake of democracy, their desire to take a greater share in the government of the country must be restrained. … Before the genie gets too far out of the bottle, the Senate has to limit itself."

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That is an excellent idea – so much so that the Senate has adopted it … from the moment it was created 150 years ago. The "new Senate" that resulted from the reformed appointment process set up by the Trudeau government has remained faithful to the idea that an appointed Upper Chamber should in all but very exceptional circumstances yield to the will of the elected House of Commons.

Opinion: Infrastructure bank is a chance for the Senate to do what it does best

It is true that over the past year, the Senate has amended a relatively large number of government bills. In many cases, those amendments were accepted by cabinet, which agreed that they made its bill better. In other cases, the amendments were rejected and the bill sent back to the Senate, unchanged, for final approval. What happened then? Did the FrankenSenate insist on its amendments and try to impose its will on the House of Commons? Not at all.

Understanding that in the end, it is the Members of Parliament who are elected to govern, the Senate accepted the government's version of the bill. Not one bill was rejected or blocked. The monster has shown itself to be a gentle giant.

So it will be in the case of bill C-44, the Trudeau government's omnibus budget bill. Some senators are trying to separate from it the part creating the Canada Infrastructure Bank, for further study.

Contrary to what Mr. Keller wrote, this would not mean "not passing the budget." In fact, the rest of the budget measures, 278 of the 290 pages of C-44, would be adopted before the summer recess. As for the Infrastructure Bank, it would be examined for a few additional weeks in the fall, so that we can better understand and possibly amend its sections related to funding, governance, jurisdiction and access to information. Considering that the bank will be a $35-billion institution – and taking into account its complexity and novel design – it seems to us a prudent measure to study it in a stand-alone bill rather than to rush it through as part of an omnibus bill.

Some commentators seem troubled by the fact that the Senate has recently more active, amending more government bills than in the past. Apparently, that activity is a danger to our democracy. This is quite ironic, considering that until recently, Senators were usually criticized for not working enough; now, it seems they are working too much.

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In fact, proposing changes to bills, when warranted, is precisely what Senators are appointed to do. Their main mandate is to study legislation to make sure that it is properly drafted, that it complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that it respects the interests of the country's diverse minorities and different regions. When senators amend bills, they do not impose anything on the House of Commons. They make suggestions and alert public opinion. The House is of course free to accept or reject the Senate's amendments. As I said, when the government has rejected those amendments, the Senate has complied. There never was an impasse. The supremacy of the elected chamber has never been threatened.

I ask those who tremble at the sight of this energized institution: are you nostalgic of the days when the Senate was asleep? It is easy to call the Prime Minister's reform "misguided," but we should at least admit that he has succeeded where no other prime minister had for decades: he brought the Senate to life. As of today, the result has been very positive on at least three levels: high quality appointments; hard and serious work; and better legislation. Who can complain about that?

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