It’s going to be the Senate’s big pot show: a week of last-ditch debate over the bill to legalize marijuana, starting next week, with debate hours extended for potential clashes over amendments.
And it might push the limits for the unelected chamber’s willingness to alter legislation.
The Conservatives in the Senate know they can go only so far – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals ran on an election platform that included legalizing marijuana, so there would be a political backlash if the unelected Senate stood in the way.
But they are trying to organize a gauntlet for the bill, attacking the details of how the government plans to implement legalization, and putting forward a long series of amendments in five days of debate.
That likely means a rough ride for the marijuana bill, which the Liberals want passed before the summer, and that will make it harder to get other government bills passed this spring.
There has already been an agreement in the Senate that Red Chamber will vote on passage of the marijuana bill on June 7, a week before Parliament is scheduled to break. But if the bill is amended, it must go back to the Commons, then back to the Senate again. And that might just happen more than once, in a game of parliamentary Ping-Pong.
Though the Senate as a whole relented the third time the Commons sent the bill to the Red Chamber, the Conservatives actually voted to reject it a third time. The Conservatives no longer think the unelected chamber should defer to the elected Commons on amendments to bills.
The Conservatives’ Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, penned a long letter to the journal Policy Options making that case – that senators have a constitutional role and have an untrammelled right to amend legislation.
And he pledged to take the same approach to the bill to legalize marijuana – Bill C-45.
The 32 Conservative senators don’t have the numbers to amend bills on their own. But they only need the votes of a handful of independents or Senate Liberals to side with them.
The 43 independents, most appointed by Mr. Trudeau as part of his pledge to make the Senate less partisan, have shown they’re more than willing to amend government bills. Some of the 11 Liberals, booted from Mr. Trudeau’s caucus in 2014, have, too. A few in each group have now shown they will insist on an amendment a second time.
On the marijuana bill, the Conservatives’ goal is clear. They want a stage to highlight what they say are the flaws in the way cannabis will be legalized. Once passed, they will use it to pin problems that occur on the Liberal government. A good way to highlight those alleged flaws now is to force a debate on amendments.
The Conservatives are proposing special rules for the marijuana debate, to get around the Senate’s meandering procedure and the often-confusing sequence for debating and voting on amendments; they want amendments grouped by theme, and debated and voted on according to a schedule.
Mr. Smith sent a letter Wednesday to Senate Government Representative Peter Harder, asking for such a “structured” debate, and to extend the Senate to Mondays, Fridays, and Wednesday evenings.
Mr. Harder will surely agree to the extra hours – he proposed them first, at a meeting of Senate leaders last week. And independent Senator Tony Dean, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, called for a structured debate on marijuana last November. Clearly, the Conservatives now think it’s a good time to embrace those ideas, to get a tribune to talk about its flaws.
And with Conservatives now arguing that unelected senators are absolutely free to amend government bills, and more than once, the question is how far the Senate as whole will push the bounds that used to hold the unelected chamber back.