OTTAWA — The Senate is wrapping up a reputation-shredding parliamentary session on yet another controversial note —with Conservatives using their majority to overrule their own Speaker and force a final vote on a widely denounced anti-union bill.
The machinations Friday left even some senators acknowledging that the upper chamber seems to have a death wish.
“Every time we break our own rules in order to achieve the wishes of the government of the day, every time we rubber-stamp a bad bill … it feeds directly into the hands of people who criticize the Senate and say that we don’t need a Senate,” said James Cowan, the Liberal Senate leader.
“If we start changing the rules because we can’t win within the rules, then we have chaos, and that’s not good.”
Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator who led a Senate rebellion against the bill two years ago, said Friday’s “deeply disappointing” move undermines the argument that a second parliamentary chamber is necessary to provide sober second thought to legislation.
“That defence — that on occasion the Senate will stand up and do the right thing by opposing something which is clearly impractical, not workable, unconstitutional and negative in terms of its impact on important things like the role of collective bargaining in a free and open, competitive economy — that defence is now gone,” Segal said in an interview.
“So, whatever the defences were for the continuing existence of the institution and its relevance … those who voted against the Speaker have just cut a huge hole in that flag.”
The Senate has been under siege for the better part of three years, engulfed by an expenses scandal that has resulted in criminal charges against three senators and police investigations into as many as 31 more, including Pamela Wallin and 30 others cited in an explosive audit of expense reports released earlier this month.
The upper chamber has also been rocked by revelations that several senators are facing embarrassing allegations of sexual impropriety.
That the session is coming to an end amid yet more controversy is, at least, consistent.
The latest furor revolves around Bill C-377, a private member’s bill sponsored by Conservative backbencher Russ Hiebert and strongly backed by the Prime Minister’s Office. The bill would require labour unions to publicly disclose details of their spending, including salaries and how much they spend on political activities.
Its detractors include police associations, the privacy commissioner, the Canadian Bar Association and seven provinces who consider it an unconstitutional intrusion into their jurisdiction.
Liberal senators had been filibustering the bill in hopes of outlasting Parliament, but the Conservatives moved Friday to shut down debate and force a vote.
Speaker Leo Housakos — appointed just last month by Harper to be the chamber’s referee — ruled the move out of order. “This would be inconsistent with the basic principles of our rules and practices,” he said.
Seconds later, government Senate leader Claude Carignan appealed to the Senate as a whole to overrule the Speaker’s decision. Carignan won by a vote of 32-17.
Housakos and Sen. Diane Bellemare, who’s been waging a lonely battle against C-377 in the Conservative caucus, were the only Tories to vote in favour of the ruling. Five others abstained: Raynell Andreychuk, deputy Speaker Nicole Eaton, John Wallace, Linda Frum and Vern White.
As a result, the bill will be put to a final vote early next week.
Carignan disputed suggestions that the government side was throwing the procedural rule book out the window.
“This type of motion exists since a long time and it’s not something very exceptional,” he argued. Cowan himself led a successful challenge by Liberals, then in the majority, of a Speaker’s ruling in 2009, Carignan noted.
Cowan said his challenge was on a point of personal privilege, not a case of upending decades-old procedural rules.
Segal said he doesn’t see how Housakos can continue as Speaker when the government Senate leader has demonstrated such a lack of confidence in him. Carignan denied it was a show of non-confidence and Housakos himself seemed to shrug it off.
“I wish they would’ve supported the ruling but it’s their choice,” the Speaker said outside the chamber. “We live in a democracy.”
Segal predicted that the bill will eventually be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. But in the meantime, he said it could do real political damage to the Conservatives in this fall’s election.
By his estimate, he said, passage of the bill puts the Conservatives at risk of losing 54 ridings in which labour unions wield “huge” influence.
“Why somebody would decide that kind of suicidal, ideologically narrow excess is in the national or the party’s interests or the prime minister’s interests is completely beyond me,” he said.