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Government aims to pass nearly a dozen bills in Senate as summer break looms

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The Senate Liberal caucus leader says he won't skip any steps to pass legislation if it's not crucial.

Senator Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, is tasked with trying to win votes and move along debate on government legislation in the Upper Chamber. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The government expects to pass all its bills currently in the Senate before the summer break, according to its representative there, in what would be a marked acceleration to a legislative process that has passed just 22 bills since the Liberals came to power.

Government representative Sen. Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.) and his deputies will have their work cut out for them; Sen. Harder has previously called out the opposition Conservative Senate caucus for slowing the debate on legislation in the Upper Chamber, though the pace seems to have picked up lately. The Senate Liberal caucus won’t be a rubber stamp either, and Leader Joseph Day (Saint John-Kennebecasis, N.B.) told The Hill Times he’s no fan of fast-tracking through the usual stages of Senate scrutiny.

As of May 16 there were eight government bills in the Senate, including the government’s budget implementation bill, C-44, which is in a pre-study stage in committee. Sen. Harder, who sits as an Independent, told The Hill Times on May 11 that he expected that all eight would be passed before the Senate rose for the summer. He also said he expected the Senate would receive and deal with three bills that are currently back in the House for consideration of Senate amendments, meaning there could be 11 laws passed over the next several weeks.

The Senate is scheduled to rise on the last day of June, though it can sit later if Senators agree to do so.

Sen. Harder has publicly floated the idea of using time allocation in the Senate to short-circuit what he deemed to be opposition stall tactics in the Upper Chamber, including in a policy paper released by his office at the end of March.

The government in the Senate has not invoked time allocation since the Liberals took power in 2015. Doing so would not be as easy as it once was, however, now that the Senate has splintered into four factions—three government representatives, the 35-member Independent Senators Group, the 18-member Senate Liberal Caucus, and the 39-member Conservative Caucus—with only the Conservatives being whipped. Those numbers may soon change, though, with Conservative Senator Stephen Greene’s announcement on May 16 that he intends to now sit as an Independent Reform Senator, after having a disagreement with his caucus leadership over a dinner he was invited to attend with the prime minister.

Unlike in previous Parliaments when time allocation was used, Sen. Harder’s team would have to win over a majority of Senators, instead of just their own caucus, to the idea of cutting short debate on a bill.

“It’s really for the Senate as a whole to decide [whether to use time allocation]. I can propose, but I can’t dispose,” said Sen. Harder, who said decisions about proposing time allocation would be made “in the face of the circumstances of a particular bill.”

The government may be able to achieve its goal without limiting debate. Sen. Harder noted that the pace of debate has picked up in the Senate in recent weeks, and Bill C-30, implementing the Canada-European Union trade deal, was passed last week.

If rumours of a possible summer prorogation are true, the government in the Senate has added incentive to clear as much from its agenda as possible before the break. The rules of the Senate dictate that bills in the Senate at the time of a prorogation can be reintroduced in the Chamber with a simple motion in the next Parliament, but only at first reading, clawing back any progress beyond that point.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) was set to meet on the evening of May 16 with Senators who have sponsored government bills in the Senate. They will likely be needed to do some heavy lifting in the next few weeks to get all the bills passed that are now sitting on the Senate’s to-do list.

‘I never sacrifice process’

Progress on the budget implementation bill, C-44, may show the degree to which Senators share the government’s desire to move legislation through before the summer break. C-44 is, for obvious reasons, a top priority for the government.

“You would expect that the government would not allow the Senate to adjourn before it had dealt with the budget implementation act,” said Sen. Harder.

It is also, technically, furthest back in the legislative process, having yet to progress out of pre-study at the Senate Finance Committee.

The pre-study is intended to give Senators a better sense of what’s in the 308-page document. The bill will still have to move through multiple stages of scrutiny over the next few weeks. Sen. Day, the Senate Liberal caucus leader, thinks it may need a long look.

Sen. Day said it was “unnecessary” to include in the budget bill sections covering changes to the parliamentary budget officer’s job and introducing the federal infrastructure bank, instead of making them stand-alone pieces of legislation.

The PBO provisions in particular—including a new requirement that Parliament sign off on the office’s work plan—“will take some major debate,” said Sen. Day. The Liberals have, however, left the door open to changes to the PBO part of the budget bill to ensure its independence.

When asked about managing the legislative agenda over the next month and a half, the Senate Liberal leader, whose caucus is independent from the governing Liberals and Liberal MPs, said he wasn’t prepared to agree to skip through stages of scrutiny unless it was absolutely necessary.

“I never sacrifice process. I don’t like doing that. I don’t like having second or third reading ‘deemed’ to have been, something we didn’t do. I don’t like those things that go on in the House of Commons,” said Sen. Day. “I like for us to do our job; if we have to sit longer to do it, I’m quite prepared to recommend that.”

“We have to be convinced that the legislation is critical in order for us to put that extra, expedited effort in. Otherwise, we’ll deal with it when we come back in the fall.”

The Senate Liberal caucus, while not whipped, often votes together.

Beyond the budget bill, the legislation currently before the Senate covers changes to the Indian Act, smoking laws, and the establishment of committee of Parliamentarians focused on national security.

The Senate is also currently considering Bill C-16, the transgender rights bill, at committee stage. C-16 has been at the centre of controversy in the past, with Sen. Harder and his deputy, Sen. Grant Mitchell (Alberta)—the bill’s sponsor in the Senate—both having accused the opposition Conservatives of stalling debate over the bill in previous months.

Conservative Senator Don Plett (Landmark, Man.)—who vehemently denies he has slowed debate—and a few others have spoken against the bill for a several reasons, including the fact that it would bar discrimination based on gender expression, without defining what that meant. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) has defended the legislation, arguing other grounds of discrimination, such as religion, aren’t defined in legislation either.

Sen. Mitchell has said the government was prepared to move time allocation to get C-16 passed before the summer break, but did not expect that he would have to do so.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Government legislation in the Senate

Pre-study: C-44

Second reading: C-22

Committee: S-3, C-16, C-18, C-31

Third reading: S-5

Consideration of House amendments: C-37

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