More independent Senate comes to haunt government

There’s a new Senate in town. For the first time in 12 years, the Upper Chamber flexed its procedural muscle and sent the Liberal government’s proposed overhaul of this country’s transportation system back to the House of Commons for yet another look.

At issue is ongoing Senate concerns about the transportation needs of the Maritimes when it comes to long-haul interswitching and the legislation’s handling of final offer arbitration for captive shippers.

All of a sudden the mainstream media was enraptured with the procedural wrangling over a bill that, for the most part, had been plodding along unnoticed outside agricultural circles for a year.

The result was a series of articles about what the C-49 debate could mean for other pieces of legislation, notably the two cannabis bills currently making their way through the Senate.

There’s no question the Senate’s decision to send the transportation legislation back to the House of Commons for a second look was historic. That being said, comparing the current Senate to the Senate that occupied the Red Chamber 12 years ago is like comparing apples to oranges.

Back then, the Senate had two parties — with a handful of independents mixed in for good measure.

Liberal senators were part of the Liberal caucus and met weekly with their House of Commons counterparts. Conservative senators did the same. Both parties had leaders in the Senate and a party whip in the Senate, who instilled discipline when needed.

Today’s Senate follows a very different model — one whose design can be directly linked to Prime Minster Justin Trudeau.

It’s been four years since Trudeau, then the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, kicked 32 Liberal senators out of the party’s caucus.

The Senate, he said, would be independent with senators able to practise the role of sober second thought that they had been historically tasked to do. Partisanship in the Senate would diminish.

Four years later, the Senate has embraced its new-found independence. Senators regularly dismiss partisan concerns in favour of regional differences or stakeholder demands.

There are now three groups in the Senate: the Conservatives, who remain in the party’s caucus, the independent senators and the Senate Liberal caucus, which is unaffiliated with the Liberal party.

The signs of a procedural back and forth have been lingering for a while.

While C-49 is the first piece of legislation to be sent back to the House of Commons twice, the Senate last year quibbled over both the 2017 federal budget and in 2016 the government’s proposal on doctor assisted dying.

The problem is that those governing in the House of Commons still haven’t figured out how to handle the Senate’s new-found vigour for independence.

Public and private debate around the new Senate has been heated and divisive — a discussion that reignited following the C-49 move.

Some people are openly concerned about the fact that the Senate, an unelected body, can potential hold a piece of legislation captive, arguing the Commons and the Commons alone should have final say.

The role of the Senate, its relevance as an institution and its role in this country’s legislative process, remain under intense scrutiny — a reality of which more than one senator is acutely aware.

One wrong move and the public’s backing of the institution could be lost for good.

Still, it’s worth noting that, for C-49, the amendments made to the legislation were all inserted by the Senate — having long been rejected by the Liberals in the House of Commons.

It’s impossible to say for certain whether those amendments would have been added to the legislation had the old Senate format been in place, where political manoeuv-ring remained an option.

But that’s here nor there. At the end of the day, grain farmers and farm groups have the Senate to thank for those changes — the Senate, not the Commons.

Bill C-49 is unlikely to be an exception to the rule when it comes to the new Senate’s way of operating. The Senate will flex its procedural muscle again. It’s only a matter of time.

MPs would be wise to get to know some of their Senate colleagues.

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