OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is challenging the assertion of senators that they have the right to amend or defeat any government bill — including the budget.
It has summarily and swiftly rejected Senate amendments to its budget implementation bill, sending a message back to the upper house that the changes “infringe upon the rights and privileges” of the elected House of Commons, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contends has sole authority and legitimacy to decide budgetary matters.
The message was sent, without debate and with unanimous approval of the Commons, less than three hours after the Senate gave final approval Wednesday to an amended version of the budget bill, deleting provisions that would impose a so-called escalator tax on booze.
Senators must now decide whether to insist upon their amendments or defer to the will of the elected chamber. In a sign of apparent confidence that senators will back down, government House leader Bardish Chagger served notice that the Commons would break for the summer at the end of Wednesday’s sitting.
However, opposition to the budget runs deep in the Senate.
While the Senate’s final approval of the amended bill was done by a simple voice vote Wednesday, senators voted 46-32 late Tuesday to accept the recommendation of the Senate’s finance committee to delete the escalator tax. All 34 Conservative senators in the chamber, three independents and nine independent Liberal senators voted in favour of the committee report.
During final debate Wednesday, Sen. Joe Day, leader of the Liberal Senate caucus, reminded his colleagues that “it’s a long, long established right” of senators to amend or defeat government legislation.
“We all know that it’s always controversial if and when we choose to exercise that power. Government may like and value Senate amendments in theory but they rarely are so appreciative when amendments are actually proposed and passed to their bills,” Day said.
”We in the Senate have a job to do and we mustn’t shy away from doing it.”
Serge Joyal, another independent Liberal senator, railed against the pressure the government has been putting on senators to pass the budget bill intact.
“I keep hearing in this chamber that, you know, we should yield to the other place (the Commons). You know, we’re not elected,” said Joyal.
“Well, I’m sorry. The structure of the Parliament of Canada is one elected (chamber), one appointed. That’s bicameral at its best.”
A number of senators variously referred to the escalator tax as “a tax grab,” a tax hike ”in perpetuity” and “taxation without representation.” They worried that it would devastate small breweries and wineries and that it sets a dangerous precedent, allowing the government to hike taxes annually without having to get parliamentary approval each year.
But the final debate made clear that’s not senators’ only objection to the budget.
Day and Joyal both detailed their opposition to a provision that would allow the government to borrow money without first getting the approval of Parliament.
Conservative Senate leader Larry Smith also objected to the governance structure for the new infrastructure bank, which gives cabinet the final approval over projects to be financed.
A motion to separate out the infrastructure bank provisions into a separate bill for further study was defeated in the Senate on Monday.
Although Conservative MPs made no objection to the message sent to the Senate, they repeatedly pressed Trudeau earlier Wednesday to accept the senators’ amendments.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a former Speaker of the Commons, said he shares senators’ concerns that the escalator tax will devastate small breweries and wineries and render them less competitive with foreign competitors.
Still, he blamed Trudeau’s “Liberal senators” for the impasse with the Senate, referring to the senators Trudeau kicked out of the Liberal caucus three years ago, as well as the independent senators he’s appointed since becoming prime minister.
“Whatever is decided in the Senate, it’s being decided by Liberal senators,” Scheer said. “The Liberals have a majority in the Senate so it’s up to the prime minister to talk to his Liberal friends in the Senate and, and just see what they’ll do.”
Scheer ignored the central role Conservative senators — who make up the single largest group in the Senate, continue to sit in the national Tory caucus and generally vote as a block — played in amending the budget.