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opinion

Jerry Dias is the national president of Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector trade union.

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We have now reached the point that Canadian senators are even questioning the validity and value of the Senate.

Increasingly the chamber of sober second thought is proving itself to be less and less so – ruled by partisanship, embroiled in scandal. Last week, we saw an incredible scenario play out in the Senate chambers during the debate around Bill C-377, a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert. It's a piece of legislation that claims to be about union transparency but, as is recognized by politicians of all political stripes, it is really an attempt to tie up unions in red tape, diverting resources from unions' efforts to protect workers, promote fair wages and decent working conditions, and foster greater equality.

(To be clear, unions already are transparent. We regularly provide financial reports to our members and make our audited financial statements available.)

To ensure Bill C-377 passes, the Conservative Party has taken dramatic action. Unless you're a keen watcher of Senate business, you may have missed it. Last Friday, Conservative Senator and Senate government deputy leader Yonah Martin put forward a motion to end debate on the private member's bill, something that is not permitted by Senate rules. Debate cannot be time-capped for private member's bills; this is only allowed for government-sponsored bills. The motion was rejected by the Conservative Senate Speaker Leo Housakos – but the Conservative majority appealed the ruling and overruled the Speaker with a majority vote. The Conservative Senators overruled their own Speaker – one of their own, the one tasked with upholding the rules of the chamber.

The Senate is now being used not in the service of rigorous debate and the passionate defence of democracy, but to single out certain groups out of favour with the ruling government. That is the tragedy of it – that systems set up to protect and strengthen democracy are ultimately being used to squelch debate and discussion.

Conservative partisanship in the Senate is nullifying any remaining usefulness of the upper chamber. This sentiment is echoed by long-time Conservative and former senator Hugh Segal, who told The Canadian Press that Conservative partisanship and the overruling of its own Speaker on Bill C-377 "undermines the argument that a second parliamentary chamber is necessary to provide sober second thought to legislation."

"That defence – that on occasion the Senate will stand up and do the right thing by opposing something which is clearly impractical, not workable, unconstitutional and negative in terms of its impact on important things like the role of collective bargaining in a free and open, competitive economy – that defence is now gone," Mr. Segal said in an interview.

"So, whatever the defences were for the continuing existence of the institution and its relevance … those who voted against the Speaker have just cut a huge hole in that flag."

Mr. Segal wasn't in the Senate as this all unfolded. Liberal Senator Larry Campbell was, though, and said: "It's like watching the Roman Empire collapse."

Collapse. If the Senate can't follow its own rules, set up to help support and strengthen our democracy, the question is: Why are we keeping it? What purpose does the Senate continue to have? Surely after the experience of the Conservative majority overruling its own Speaker, few, if any, can argue it remains a bastion of sober second thought. Regretfully, it simply does not.