For a moment, the Senate threatened a summer cliffhanger: Would it refuse to pass the government’s budget bill? And though the threat fizzled as Senate threats often do – with an agreement to break for summer – it underlined the Liberals’ frustrations in Parliament.
The drama ended with the Senate sending an unprecedented message to the House of Commons – proposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s representative in the Senate, Peter Harder – asserting that the Red Chamber has every right to amend the government’s budget bills. That was a response to a blunt message sent up a day earlier from the Commons – put forward by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger – asserting that the Senate has no business touching such bills.
Huh? Here were the Trudeau government’s own representatives in the Commons and Senate sending formal messages contradicting each other on how Parliament works.
It highlighted a problem catching up to the Liberals: they haven’t been good at managing Parliament.
In recent weeks, Mr. Trudeau probably wondered what kind of Senate monster he had created – independent senators he appointed and Liberal senators he expelled from his caucus led a ruckus. They almost split the government’s budget bill, to force separate scrutiny on a centrepiece initiative, the Canada Infrastructure Bank. When that failed, the senators stripped out a tax on booze, sending an amended budget bill back to the Commons.
But the new Senate hasn’t yet turned out to be a danger to democracy. It’s amending more bills, but not insisting on getting its way: When the Commons has undone those Senate amendments, the Senate accepted the will of elected MPs, every time.
But it has been a headache for Mr. Trudeau’s government – as has Parliament as a whole, including the Commons. The Trudeau Liberals have had trouble finding that combination of clever tactics and velvet touch that keeps egos unruffled and government business rolling.
This week’s Senate drama was an oddity: Most senators believe they should eventually defer to the Commons, except in extreme cases – but it almost came to a showdown over a tax on booze.
Mr. Harder proposed Thursday’s motion asserting the Senate’s right to amend budgets as a means to soothe senators who were upset at Ms. Chagger and her colleagues in the Commons. It wasn’t just that MPs had sent senators a message saying budget bills were none of their business – it was that no Liberal minister had responded to the Senate’s amendments with the traditional statement explaining why the government rejected them. That, to many in the Senate, was an insult.
Back in 2015, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals promised a new, collaborative Parliament – but managing the legislature has never seemed like a big priority for his PMO. Failing to take care of the procedural politics of Parliament has consequences and Liberal legislation has generally moved slowly.
The stickier Senate was one reason. Another was a slow start – Mr. Trudeau began his tenure with furious activity at summits and premiers’ meetings, but his government put few bills before the legislature in its first months. One major item, a contentious bill on assisted dying, was forced onto its legislative agenda by the courts.
But they’ve also misstepped. Governments must carefully budget the parliamentary calendar for debates and Opposition days; several Opposition days were still unscheduled as the spring sitting neared its end.
Most telling: Ms. Chagger’s handling of Liberal parliamentary-reform proposals, supposed to make Parliament more collaborative, sparked bitterness. She tried to push through changes to Commons rules in a rush, rather than finessing a consensus. The Opposition launched a series of time-wasting tactics in response.
There have been Opposition delays – the Conservatives have been guilty at times in both the Commons and Senate. Behind the scenes, the Liberals suggest they were too generous at first. Now, they say, since the Opposition won’t accept the changes, they’ll use tougher tactics, resorting to time-allocation motions to shut down debate – a tactic that they called autocratic when it was repeatedly used by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
But if they use it too often, there goes the promise to do things differently. That was Mr. Trudeau’s promise. So was the new Senate. And he made a lot of promises that require passing legislation. If they want to balance all that, the Liberals will have to manage the mundane business of Parliament better.