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Senate must make some hard decisions on Bill C-69

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Conservative and Independent Senators struck a deal earlier this month to break an impasse at the Senate Environment Committee over the most controversial bill before Parliament, Bill C-69 on overhauling the environmental assessment process.

The federal Conservatives, including in the Senate, are staunchly opposed to the omnibus bill as delivered to the Senate, arguing it will make it too difficult to build oil pipelines, along with a string of other criticisms. Both Conservative and Independent Senators on the Senate Environment Committee had issues with the bill, and believed it needed to be amended.

The Conservatives hold six of the seats on the Senate Environment Committee, the same number as the Independent Senators Group. The two remaining seats belong to Liberal Senator Jane Cordy and non-affiliated Senator David Richards, the latter of whom has typically voted along with the Conservatives. Senators on the committee saw the prospect of tie votes defeating any and all amendments proposed by either camp on the committee. They struck a deal to iron out any overlapping or conflicting amendments, then to allow all of the remaining amendments from both sides to pass through into the committee’s report without facing a recorded vote.  

That compromise may have saved the Senators and the government plenty of grief, moving along to third reading a bill that otherwise may have become stuck in a political trench war in the Senate. Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo, a member of the Environment Committee and the leader of the Independents, said he believed most Independent Senators favoured allowing Bill C-69 to pass third reading as amended, extensively, by the committee, to let the House of Commons and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna sort out which of the roughly 200 Senate amendments to accept or reject.

That pragmatic solution may please some Senators, and perhaps even the government. If the Senate passes the bill as amended by the committee quickly at third reading, it will go back to the House sooner than if it were stuck in a protracted battle in the Senate, and the risk of the bill dying in the Senate would be that much smaller.

Pragmatic or not, that compromise doesn’t reflect well on the Senate. If the Upper Chamber really has a purpose as a body of sober second thought, it should demonstrate that the power to debate and vote on amendments to legislation matters. It should not get into the habit of allowing Senators to carve up government legislation unchecked and unscrutinized, just because doing so is easier than fighting over what the right amendments are.

Bill C-69 is a massive bill that has been broadly criticized, and is need of amendments—probably many amendments, including many of the ones proposed by members of the Senate Environment Committee. But if the Senate is to be taken seriously, it must make a serious effort to return the best possible version of a bill to the House of Commons, instead of relying on the government to clean up its mess.

Senators should take a hard look at the Environment Committee’s report, and whether all of the proposed amendments will make the bill better. The Senate’s final review of Bill C-69 doesn’t have to be a political exercise: Independent and Conservative Senators both identified amendments that will make the bill better, to the satisfaction of voters of all political inclinations. They should leave it there, and cut out the rest.  

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