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New system of debate would better inform Canadians on the Senate’s work

Senator Harder's proposal for more cohesive and organized debates in the Senate is the subject of an inquiry.

A proposal for more cohesive and organized Senate debates would help Canadians stay better-informed and engaged in the making of their nation’s laws, says the Government Representative in the Senate.

Senator Peter Harder renewed his call for a new system that fosters more back-and-forth, replacing a disjointed practice that makes it difficult for the public to follow how laws are evaluated and reviewed.

Senator Harder’s remarks come as the Senate prepared to resume deliberation on key pieces of legislation, including proposed legislation that sets framework for legalizing, regulating and restricting access to cannabis­, and proposed legislation that would modernize rules and regulations surrounding air and railway transportation.

Senator Harder explained that a new consensus-based business committee could set a timetable for the deliberation of specific pieces of legislation, allowing for continuous periods of debate that Canadians can follow more easily.

Better democracy means finding ways to help Canadians tune in to how they are governed and I think a proposal like this would have that effect.

A timetable would make following debate more user-friendly, bring more Canadians into the process and, at the end of the day, allow them to evaluate how well Senators are doing their jobs.

Currently, debate in the Senate can be disjointed, as speeches on a piece of legislation can be delivered over the course of several weeks—even months. Well-thought out arguments that zero in on particular elements of a bill can deflate as time elapses between speeches.

A business committee could, instead, adopt a tailor-made schedule for a bill’s progress through the Senate at each stage.

“A culture of scheduling could be flexible and—most importantly—designed to safeguard rather than silence, substantive debate. The goal should not be to hasten the passage of a bill but to establish a sound framework for deliberation,” Senator Harder said.

The role of the Business Committee could be to:

  • Guarantee a certain number of hours of debate for a bill on specific days;
  • Decide when an extended sitting will occur;
  • Determine a roster for questions and speeches in the general debate; and/or
  • Agree that a particular bill may progress to later stages faster than usual.

Senator Tony Dean has suggested that such a committee could help program the debate on the Cannabis Act, legislation that he is sponsoring in the Upper Chamber.

Sober Second Thinking inquiry

Senator Pamela Wallin launched an inquiry in the Senate on Senator Harder’s proposal, arguing that it’s time for a new approach to manage the legislative agenda.

“We need to find new ways to manage the Senate’s business that allow for full deliberation and debate and, finally, decision. Yet two things will remain the same—our role as a chamber of sober second thought and our responsibility to examine, debate, amend, pass or even reject the elected government’s legislative agenda,” she said in May 2017.

The Senate’s approach to debating Bill C-14, legislation on medically assisted dying, has been repeatedly lauded as a shining example of intensive and focused debate in a reasonable timeframe.

Senator Dean suggested that a business committee could help “develop an organized process” for debating more legislation, such as Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, and Bill C-46, which creates new and stronger laws against impaired driving.

“If we can organize and bring focus to our deliberations on these bills by creating a process and timetable that is responsive to the interests of Canadians, and particularly younger Canadians, we can achieve the appropriate amount of scrutiny that citizens and stakeholders expect and deserve from us while doing that in a timely way,” Senator Dean said in the Red Chamber in October 2017.

Senator Stephen Greene said a better approach than a business committee may be “super scroll meetings,” an expansion of scroll meetings that take place before each sitting to determine the daily agenda, which could plan the work of the Senate over a “rolling four- to six-week period.” Super scroll meetings could be a guide to Senators, as well as to Canadians who may want to follow the debates, he said.

“Structure would enable senators to plan their own contribution better to the progress of a bill through speaking in the chamber, raising concerns in committee or working with like-minded senators on raising issues with proposed legislation. Structure would also make Senate debate more accessible to the general public,” he said in June 2017

Read the debates on the inquiry here:

New system of debate would better inform Canadians on the Senate’s work