Senate shows its mettle

For their final act in their season of shame, the trained Conservative seals in the Senate finally found a ball they would not bounce off their nose.

For their final act in their season of shame, the trained Conservative seals in the Senate finally found a ball they would not bounce off their nose.

By slicing and dicing a sloppy, mean-spirited government anti-union bill on a steamy summer afternoon, the Red Chamber was starring in a “revenge of the Senate” saga, one that has repercussions for the three parties in the House of Commons and their respective positions on the future of the Senate.

As the curtain fell, we were given an intriguing twist that gave rise to any number of political narratives.

The disgraced Senate was showing its mettle.

Conservatives in the Senate were delivering a message to their colleagues in the Commons.

It was payback time for the “Rathgeber nerds.”

It was another poke in the eye to Stephen Harper from his appointees, it was a bump in the road for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s Senate abolition campaign but a boost for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s oft-derided contention that the institution can function properly with quality appointments.

Some of these lines, but not all, have merit.

The man behind the amendments to Bill C-377, the Paul Martin-appointed former Progressive Conservative, Hugh Segal, has his own take on this twist.

“Sometimes the ultimate position of partisan loyalty is to protect your prime minister from bad legislation that would have had terrible ramifications for him and his government,” Segal says.

In Segal’s view, there was no overriding message behind this apparent act of defiance other than a bad piece of legislation being properly gutted because it was poorly drafted and poorly conceived.

In its original form, the bill — a private initiative from British Columbia MP Russ Hiebert that had government support — would have forced all unions to disclose all payments over $5,000 to outside groups or individuals.

It would have also forced public disclosure of the names and salaries of all union officials and employees earning more than $100,000.

Segal’s amendments, backed by 16 Conservatives, most of them recent Harper appointees, exempted unions with fewer than 50,000 members, raised the payment threshold to $150,000 and the salary disclosure level to $444,661.

Another six Conservatives offered support by abstaining.

Liberals in the Senate had opposed the Hiebert bill and declared victory, taking credit for pushing the Conservative mavericks.

“In the core of my being I believe Liberals are the devil’s spawn,” Segal says. “I have spent 50 years fighting against them.

“You make changes to a badly drafted bill and you become a bunch of mavericks?

“That sets the bar pretty low for mavericks. I don’t believe this was a partisan event.”

Indeed, senators had heard concerns from privacy commissioners and constitutional experts and heard testimony indicating the bill’s wide net could violate the privacy of mutual-fund holders and those who receive insurance or medical benefits.

“Notwithstanding the fact that, at its base, this bill is not constitutional, it is absolutely unworthy of legislation from the Parliament of Canada,” said Liberal Sen. Pierrette Ringuette.

The $444,661 salary threshold is the same threshold for disclosure of public servant salaries adopted by Conservatives on a Commons committee that neutered MP Brent Rathgeber’s private member’s transparency bill, his final indignity before he bolted caucus.

What is fair for public servants, according to the Commons, should be fair for union officials, Segal says.

Outside the Senate, the muscle-flexing provided a sobering interruption to the NDP’s summer Roll Up the Red Carpet tour.

The party had to deal with the fact that unelected, unaccountable Conservative senators put the brakes on a piece of legislation it could not stop in the House. (Mulcair had always said the bill would be defeated in the courts.)

And it had to deal with a statement from the Broadbent Institute, the left-leaning Ottawa think-tank, which congratulated Segal and the Senate for standing up for the rights of millions of Canadian workers and showing its “underused capability to provide sober second thought. … (This) is good news for Canada’s democracy and economy.”

No one voted on the basis of removing any of the tarnish from the spending scandal, Segal said, and it would be “unduly optimistic” to think this would change the public perception of the Senate.

But this was only round one.

Whether Harper prorogues Parliament or not, some form of this bill is headed back to Segal and the seals and the PM has made it clear that next time he expects them to dance.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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