Hugh Segal is the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, senior adviser at Aird and Berlis LLP and a former Conservative senator.
While rarely top of mind, the prospects, choices and opportunities now available to Canada's Senate, in view of the new minority reality in the House of Commons, are unprecedented.
Yes, we have had minority governments before. But we have never had one concurrent with a Senate whose largest group of senators are neither Liberal nor Conservative – the parties that have historically formed governments over Canadian history.
This unique mix provides a fresh set of cautions and opportunities for the largely independent upper chamber. Recent division that created a second Canadian Senate Group, independent from the Independent Senate Group majority, reflects how some senators have chosen to reflect this new context of both constraint and opportunity.
On the cautionary side (and unlike in a majority-government context), no legislation in this Parliament can reach the Senate for consideration unless it has the approval of at least two parties in the House of Commons.
This means that negotiations with respect to amendments proposed by the Senate and sent back to the House are no longer just between the Senate and the government. To its credit, the present government has accepted more reasoned amendments from the independent Senate than any other in the last 50 years.
But the minority composition of the newly elected House of Commons will make that process something quite different from the past four years. Among other things, this may require more multi-party consultation on important legislation across both houses of parliament before it is passed in either place. “Stick in the spoke” opposition by the Senate Conservative minority to everything emanating from the House of Commons may not be as viable as it has been in the past. But this contextual caution should not be allowed to obscure an area of compelling opportunity.
Many of the challenges underlined by the recent electoral decision of Canadian voters are not so much about right and left – or east and west – although some pundits and provincial politicians may prefer that kind of facile labelling.
Most are about the minutiae of formula and design at the centre of programs that define how Canada works, such as equalization, immigration policy, Indigenous reconciliation and reparation, defence procurement, foreign aid, poverty abatement, federal/provincial fiscal arrangements, pharmacare and inter-provincial trade flows, etc.
While senators should never be deciding the chosen path on any of these issues, they can contribute a textured and highly informed expert view as to how governments in Canada might proceed on these matters. Many of these central questions have federal/provincial aspects that are important.
At the time of Confederation, the Senate was created to ensure, among other things, that the regions of Canada had fair representation, whatever the imbalances produced from time to time by our elections.
The newly independent Senate is by no means a panacea for all the gripping challenges facing a post-election minority federal parliament. But it can be one part of a coherent, measured and engaged way forward on some of the concerns at the centre of those challenges now faced by Canada and Canadians.
For any of the perceived weaknesses of our Senate, two of its greatest strengths are its capability for detailed consideration of complex issues and ability to facilitate broad public discussion of challenging problems through Senate inquiries and committees. Senate hearings can and have been held in Ottawa or across the country.
In the past, tough topics around health care, mental-health challenges, legalization of cannabis, rural and urban poverty, constitutional reform, official-languages policy and the structure of foreign aid have been thoroughly, openly and constructively addressed by Senate committees.
Some of this work might well be done by House of Commons committees or even Royal Commissions. But the former are often too partisan to make much progress and the latter are time-consuming and cost substantial amounts of money – far more than Senate hearings and reports.
Every region of Canada is represented in the Senate, and its demographic and skills mix is representative of Canada as a whole. The Senate can be, and has in the past been, the chamber where difficult discussions are held, where in-depth studies take place. This is why its reports and advice are frequently given serious consideration by the government of the day.
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