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Government House Leader Chagger says she ‘misremembered’ her presence in Senate the night of key budget vote

By Rachel Aiello      

Her office chalks it up to a busy run-up to the House's adjournment, but Conservative Senators say there’s more to it.

'I need you to know that I did not watch the vote. There was a royal assent ceremony that took place that day, so I had been over for the royal assent ceremony,' Ms. Chagger told The Hill Times on June 22, despite the vote and the royal assent ceremony happening on two different days. Her office says the minister misspoke, blending the days together. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s office says the minister “misremembered” the details of her comings and goings in the Senate, while explaining her presence in the entrance of the Senate Chamber ahead of a key vote on amendments to the government’s budget bill last Tuesday night.

Conservative Senators have criticized Ms. Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) for coming to the Senate and speaking with Independent and Liberal Senators just before the crucial vote on whether to delete clauses in the budget implementation bill on Tuesday, June 20.

When asked by The Hill Times last week why she felt it was appropriate to be in the Senate to watch the proceedings on Bill C-44, Ms. Chagger said she had been there for a royal assent ceremony, but that ceremony happened the night before the vote. The royal assent ceremony was on Monday evening, June 19, while the vote happened on Tuesday.

Her office now says she misremembered the sequence of events, incorrectly blending two days into one while explaining her presence on the other side. While Ms. Chagger did attend the ceremony Monday, her office now says she was in the Senate Chamber on the Tuesday before the vote to have routine conversations with Senators while on her way back from a meeting nearby.

“The minister attended a royal assent ceremony in the Senate on Monday. On Tuesday, she was on the Senate side for a meeting at the same time as the bells were ringing in the Senate for a vote, and she spoke to Senators on her way back to her office. The minister has never attended a vote in the Senate Chamber,” Ms. Chagger’s office clarified this week, alluding to the fact that Ms. Chagger left the Senate while the vote was taking place. The Hill Times published the Q&A interview with Ms. Chagger online on June 26.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, left, pictured June 19 in the Senate Chamber for the royal assent ceremony. Canadian Press photograph by Fred Chartrand

Her office chalked the omission in the interview to the hectic schedule of the last few days in Parliament before the summer break, and said Ms. Chagger had no motive for being in the Senate other than to have conversations with Senators as part of her role as government House leader.

“The minister, after a very busy and productive end to the spring sitting, misremembered the days in her interview,” said Ms. Chagger’s office in an emailed statement to The Hill Times.

In an end-of-session interview in her Centre Block office last Thursday, June 22, Ms. Chagger was asked about being in the Senate to watch the proceedings on Bill C-44, the government’s budget 2017 implementation bill, and the appropriateness of doing so given previous comments about the separation between the two chambers, to which she replied in full:

“I need you to know that I did not watch the vote. There was a royal assent ceremony that took place that day, so I had been over for the royal assent ceremony.

“Some of our colleagues on the other side had seen me at that time. We had limited time, plus there was a reception taking place, they had to return to the Senate, because of the shortened reception that they were having. Some of our colleagues on that side had asked me to come by for conversations, which I committed to doing, and that’s why I was on that side. But I did not stay for the vote.

“I was having conversations and, as I ran into some Senators, I did partake in my normal conversations. I have the utmost respect for the Senate and the work that they do, but the reasons that I was there are on the Senate side are very different than are being reported.

“I was asked to have conversations with fellow Parliamentarians. As I’ve said, my door will always be open, I will always have those conversations, whether that means you come to me, or I come to you. That is how I believe this place functions better,” said Ms. Chagger on June 22.

On Monday, June 19, there was a 7 p.m. royal assent ceremony for several bills, including government legislation Bill C-4, repealing Conservative union laws; Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act; Bill C-7, regarding RCMP labour relations; Bill C-16, the trans rights bill; and Bill C-18, An Act to amend the Rouge National Urban Park Act. Bill C-44 did come up in the Senate that evening but it wasn’t until much later. It was then that Senators voted, unsuccessfully, to tell the Senate Finance Committee to divide the budget bill into two separate pieces, pulling out the controversial infrastructure bank portion.

The evening of Tuesday, June 20 was when the report stage vote on Bill C-44 occurred. That day the bill had come back from the Senate Finance Committee with the amendments to remove the escalator tax on alcoholic beverages. This change became central to the eleventh-hour legislative ping-pong between the House and Senate in the dying days of the parliamentary sitting. This was where, as first reported by the CBC, and evidenced in tweets from a number of Conservative Senators, Ms. Chagger, as well as Mr. Morneau, and a handful of Liberal MPs were bending the ears of Liberal and Independent Senators headed in to the Chamber to vote. The CBC reported on the night’s vote with a story headlined, “Liberal ministers, MPs were ‘accosting’ Senators to vote against amended budget bill, Senator says.” The vote to keep the amendment in place passed 46-32.

Conservative Senator Denise Batters (Saskatchewan) told The Hill Times she remembered seeing Ms. Chagger speaking with Liberal and Independent Senators outside the bar rail on the floor of the Senate Chamber—where MPs can stand and watch proceedings, a practice more often seen for Throne Speeches, or if MPs have an interest in a specific bill—right up until the vote on Tuesday, as the bells were ringing.

“When I saw that I thought, ‘Wow, clearly the Trudeau government is finding a reason, they’re finding that they need to explain their behaviour here, because they’re embarrassed by their clumsy attempt to intimidate Senators prior to a budget vote,” said Sen. Batters, about Ms. Chagger’s initial comments to The Hill Times. Sen. Batters added that she didn’t see a difference between being there for the actual voting, or just right up until it was underway, because the presence of a minister sends the same message.

“She was looking for a convenient excuse … but got her days mixed up in her attempt to portray it as something that was completely innocent instead of an attempt to remind Liberals and quote-unquote Independent Senators who actually they owe their appointment to,” Sen. Batters said.

Quebec Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos told The Hill Times that he saw Ms. Chagger and Mr. Morneau lobbying Senators on the budget bill right before Tuesday’s vote in the Red Chamber. He said Mr. Morneau was talking to Senators in the Senate foyer outside the Chamber, and Ms. Chagger inside the Chamber.

“In my eight and a half years in the Senate, I have never seen, for the life of me, prior to a vote of any sort, important or unimportant, [any] MP from the government side and ministers at the door trying to control and to influence Senators,” said Sen. Housakos.

Inside the Senate Chamber on June 20, the night when Government House Leader Bardish Chagger and Finance Minister Bill Morneau were there. Photograph courtesy of Conservative Senator David Tkachuk

The same day as Ms. Chagger spoke with The Hill Times and made her initial comments, she appeared on CBC’s Power & Politics. When she was asked about going over to the Senate Tuesday night, Ms. Chagger said it was about curious rookie MPs that were on House duty getting to see what the Senate was about.

“We have many new Members of Parliament that have never been in this place, they don’t know how the House of Commons operates, or the Senate operates, and they are curious … but the intention I can assure you was not to accost or disrupt their work,” Ms. Chagger told Power & Politics.

Members of Parliament were elected 20 months ago and have been sitting down the hall from the Senate since Dec. 4, 2015.

Ms. Chagger’s office refuted there was anything more to her presence there than just part of her regular duties.

“I have always had an open door approach in my work, and my presence at the Senate was a reflection of that. Indeed, I have the utmost regard for the work of the Senate and it is this respect that motivated me to keep the dialogue open last week,” said Ms. Chagger in an email to The Hill Times.

“These types of respectful conversations are normal and desirable in our Parliament. Going forward, I would like to emphasize that Canadians are better served when we maintain dialogue with each other. For that reason, I continue to welcome conversations with all those in the House of Commons and Senate,” Ms. Chagger said. —With files from Abbas Rana

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