Canada’s Trudeau dodges budget bullet, but Senate battles loom

By Andrea Hopkins
| OTTAWA, June 22

Canada’s Liberal government
avoided a battle over its budget bill on Thursday as the Senate
backed down over proposed changes, but standoffs with the
unelected upper house may become the new normal.

Senators agreed to pass the budget without amendments,
despite disputes over several parts of the legislation, after
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his finance minister said the
government would not accept changes.

While the Senate has had periods when it took a more
activist approach, it has been decades since the body forced a
showdown with the House of Commons, whose elected members
include Trudeau, his cabinet ministers and opposition leaders.

The Senate became a major irritant to Trudeau in the past
few weeks, offering amendments to high-profile bills on assisted
dying, terrorism, the budget and other issues, at a time when he
hoped to head into the parliament’s summer recess on a high note
to counter a refreshed Conservative opposition.

“What you’ve seen in the last year is sort of a natural
evolution. The Senate is playing more of an activist role,” said
Senator Andre Pratte, an independent who pushed for changes to
the budget bill.

Trudeau himself may be partly responsible for the Senate’s
sudden independence. In 2014, while in opposition, Trudeau
expelled all 32 Liberal senators from the party’s caucus amid a
Senate expenses scandal in a bid to curb partisanship. They
remained members of the Senate but are no longer subject to
party discipline.

Since taking office in 2015, Trudeau has appointed a range
of non-partisan community leaders to the upper house, giving him
less leverage to pressure them to support his agenda.

“More senators are now independent of political parties, so
we feel freer to suggest amendments than in the past,” said
Pratte, who was appointed by Trudeau in 2015.

Few senators are prominent public figures, except a few
former hockey players and journalists or those made infamous
through scandals.

While the new independents have been largely loyal to
Trudeau, his old Liberal colleagues are less predictable.

“There is a strong sense in which the Senate Liberals are
holding onto a bit of a grievance from … (when) Trudeau kicked
them out of caucus,” said Emmett Macfarlane, a University of
Waterloo political scientist who advised Trudeau on the Senate

But he said the prime minister need not fear the Senate
given its lack of public support. Nearly a third of Canadians
believe the Senate should be abolished, according to an April
Angus Reid poll, but attempts to do so have proven
constitutionally difficult.

“It is the Senate that needs to tread a little carefully
here,” Macfarlane said. “If it becomes obstructionist, it does
that at its own peril, because it doesn’t have the political
capital to spend on a big fight with the House of Commons.”

The prime minister’s office declined to say whether it
expected more battles when parliament resumes in the fall.
Spokeswoman Andree-Lyne Halle said the office hoped to “continue
to work productively with the Senate” to pass legislation.

But Campbell Sharman, a political science professor at the
University of British Columbia, said he hopes the genie is out
of the bottle and the Senate independence will continue.

“We are in this kind of transitory interesting phase,”
Sharman said. “Of course the government hates it – they always
hate strong upper houses.”
(Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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