Deadlock averted, crisis avoided. Parliament closed up shop this week and headed off on a long summer break. But before parliamentarians got out of town, the House of Commons and the Senate engaged in a heated standoff – a predictable byproduct of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's conjuring up of a newly independent, newly empowered Senate.
The events of the last few days may mark the beginning of an improvement in Canadian government, in which a reformed Senate can play a positive role. Or they may be the first signs of a cancer pregnant with malignancy.
On Wednesday and Thursday, after the Senate declined to pass the government's budget as written, the two houses exchanged the Hansard equivalent of frenemy Snaps.
The Liberal majority in the Commons voted "that a Message be sent to the Senate to acquaint their Honours that the House has disagreed with the amendments made by the Senate to Bill C-44," a.k.a. the budget, "because these amendments infringe upon rights and privileges of the House."
Triggered by the government's language – "Oh, oh! Shame, shame!" is how Hansard reports their reaction – senators put off reconsideration of the budget until Thursday, the day after the Commons went on holiday.
That could have left the government without a budget until the fall. Or it could have meant deadlock, with one house voting yea and another nay. In the end, however, having registered their concerns about the omnibus fiscal plan, the senators passed it on Thursday, and everyone went off to barbecue season.
But as they climbed down, the senators fired a warning: "The Senate confirms its privileges, immunities and powers as provided under the Constitution to amend legislation, whatever its nature or source, and that a message be sent to the House of Commons to acquaint that House accordingly."
Translation: Commons, you're not the boss of us. And next time, we might not back down.
Who's right in all of this? Who's wrong? Who can fix it? The answer to all of these questions is: the Senate.
The Senate may be unelected and it may be unrepresentative, but legally and constitutionally, its powers are essentially equivalent to those of the elected and representative house. The Senate doesn't have to blink when it and the Commons disagree, and it doesn't have to yield.
That, unfortunately, is one of the things wrong with Canada's system of government. No other modern democracy has anything like our Senate. It's why all the provinces long ago got rid of their upper houses. And it's why all previous attempts at reform were either about democratizing the Senate, or abolishing it. But both of those step requires a constitutional amendment, and nobody's reopening that Pandora's Box.
The Trudeau reform has left the Senate exactly as is, but with renewed legitimacy, thanks to a new appointment process and the booting of Liberal senators from the caucus. The result is a Senate that, flush with new-found independence, over the past year has repeatedly amended government bills.
Many of the amendments the Senate has brought in have been precisely the sorts of things Canadians should want from a chamber of sober second thought. This week's fight was over two real issues: whether the government can stuff non-budget items, like a new infrastructure bank, into an omnibus budget bill; and whether the government should be able to introduce alcohol taxes that escalate automatically each year, or whether it should have to return annually to Parliament to ask the people's representatives for supply.
Over the past year, the Senate has been more active than ever, but also restrained. It's pushed the Commons to rethink legislation, on everything from the budget to assisted death, while raising concerns about Parliament's increasingly theoretical supremacy over the executive. But the Senate has also yielded when the Commons has rejected its amendments. It's been a good balance.
But it's not a balance that's written into law or Senate procedure. Thursday's Senate message to the Commons – that it can amend all legislation, "whatever its nature or source" – is a stark reminder.
When it comes back after the summer break, the Senate needs to pen another message – to itself. The Senate should draw up explicit rules preventing it from creating a future deadlock. It needs to bind itself, by clearly stating that it can advise, amend and delay the Commons for a period of time, but it can't indefinitely block it. Otherwise, Canada isn't a democracy.
The irony is that it's our elected representatives, the MPs, who need greater powers and independence vis-à-vis an all-controlling Prime Minister's Office. Instead, it's the other house, the one nobody voted for, that's been given an exhilarating jolt of autonomy.