The Liberal government’s inept handling of Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, has left the legislation riddled with contradictions and unexamined amendments.
The good news is that we can expect the Senate to fix it – reform of the body being one of Justin Trudeau’s finest achievements as Prime Minister.
Senators are promising a thorough review of the legislation this fall that will include the sort of consultations the bill should have received when it was before the House of Commons. With goodwill – though there is little of that between Liberals and Conservatives, these days – an improved version of the bill should receive royal assent by year’s end.
C-11 aims to require streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify to contribute funds in support of Canadian content, and gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission new powers to regulate them.
While there are many concerns about the bill, the most cogent comes from services such as YouTube, which worry that the CRTC would use its new powers to regulate user-generated content.
The CRTC insists it has no interest in policing videos of puppies playing in the snow. Yet no one has been able to come up with wording that would allow the commission to regulate online content without interfering in individual, non-professional contributions.
The Conservatives have fought the bill – and its predecessor in the past Parliament, C-10 – every step of the way. The government, in response, has brought down heavy legislative hammers, such as imposing closure on committee hearings and forcing through many dozens of amendments that no one had the opportunity to scrutinize in advance.
The House is likely to approve the bill on third reading next week. Enter the Senate, which will have the task of examining the legislation, including the many amendments, to see how it might be improved.
In 2014, when the Liberals were the third party in the House, Mr. Trudeau expelled his party’s senators from caucus. As Prime Minister, he has appointed only independent senators, based on merit rather than on loyalty to the government.
Critics say the new system is hypocritical, unwieldy and undemocratic. Parliament, they say, works best when there are defined governing and opposition caucuses in both houses. Mr. Trudeau’s appointees may not sit as Liberals, but they generally share his progressive worldview. And Senate busybodies spend too much time tinkering with legislation and sending it back to the House, delaying the government’s agenda.
Fair points. But those critics forget the disgrace in which the Senate was held before Mr. Trudeau enacted his reforms. The bad habit of appointing Liberal and Conservative loyalists had led to endless scandals, generally involving lazy senators or senators abusing public funds.
The Red Chamber also had a tendency to rubber-stamp legislation. In the old days, a Liberal-dominated Senate would probably have passed C-11 with little scrutiny. But senators plan to give this bill a good, hard look.
“My objective is passage this fall,” said Senator Dennis Dawson, a former Liberal senator – he now sits with the Progressive Senate Group – who is sponsoring the bill. But there will be “many weeks of hearings,” he promised, with witnesses brought before the Senate who were not give an opportunity to testify before the House committee.
Marc Gold, the government’s representative in the Senate, said by e-mail: “My hope is that the Senate will be able to cut through some of the political rhetoric and take a less partisan public-policy lens to the legislation.”
The Senate, in other words, will do its job. Most likely, an amended bill will be sent back to the House for consideration. The House will or will not accept those amendments and return the bill to the Senate, which should then ratify the bill.
The Conservatives have vowed to scrap the Liberals’ Senate reforms when they return to office. That would be a mistake. The better approach would see a Conservative prime minister appointing independent senators of small-c conservative disposition, balancing the progressive appointments of Mr. Trudeau.
The new Senate, despite its flaws, is working better than the old one. Conservatives should join with Liberals to entrench those reforms. Parliament is better because of them.
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