The current session of Canada’s 42nd Parliament has been a nasty one. Members on both sides have invested more effort arguing over scandals, real or imagined, than they have debating measures that would benefit the people who sent them to Ottawa.
It is only going to get worse in the four weeks that remain before Parliament Hill shuts down for the summer. A mountain of legislation – some major, some minor, some as long as two years in the queue – is still waiting for approval by the Commons or the Senate.
Tempers, already stretched, will fray as the Liberals move to extend sitting hours and shorten debates in an effort to augment the record they will take to the electorate on Oct. 21. The Conservatives have no interest in embellishing the Liberals’ record. They will obstruct. They will try to block the government, while using every opportunity to burn controversies like SNC-Lavalin into voters’ memories before they go to the polls.
It may not be democracy at its finest, but the mad scramble is a familiar ritual. It happens in the waning days of every session prior to a general election, except for snap elections that are either called by a government seeking to seize a timing advantage or forced on it by defeat in Parliament.
Sensible people would turn off the news and spend the next four weeks hiding in the basement or garden with that pile of books they have been intending to read since forever. When they emerge at the end of June, they will find the election has entered its equally predictable penultimate phase, the barbecue campaign.
The stalk-up to an election doesn’t have to be like this. The session doesn’t have to end with too many bills waiting to be moved through a too-small legislative pipeline with not enough time to deal with them adequately. Rushed laws tend to be defective laws.
Poor agenda planning and scheduling by the Liberal government is part of the problem. There is no reason why every bill cannot be introduced with firm time limits for debate and with dates fixed for completion of each stage – second reading, committee stage and third reading. And there is no reason why the Commons cannot be scheduled to do what its members dislike most – sit in the evening – whenever it deals with bills that do require extra time, such as the two dealing with pipelines and west coast tanker traffic that are in the current backlog.
Another part of the problem is the Conservatives’ refusal to cooperate. As they see it, their function, especially on the eve of an election, is to make the Liberals look as bad as they can by opposing every measure the government presents, regardless of its merits.
The modest Senate reform introduced by the Trudeau government is a third part of the problem. Every senator appointed by Justin Trudeau sits an independent, and independent senators are now a majority in the upper house. They are free to debate and vote as they will, to take bills apart, chew over their contents and propose changes they feel necessary.
They are like a school of loose fish, each free to swim their own way. They have no caucus whip.
Senate Conservatives, meanwhile, sit as an opposition caucus. They can be – and are – whipped to oppose government measures coming from the Commons and to contest amendments introduced by independent senators.
Overall, the Senate is better for the reform. It is able to act the way an unelected upper house should – as a chamber of sober second thought. It finds flaws in bills, corrects them and makes legislation better.
But the improvements come at a cost. The Senate takes more time to process measures. It makes changes that have to go back to the Commons for acceptance or rejection. That takes more time. And time is the one thing the Liberals have too little of as they scramble to clear the decks for the election.