There has been no shortage of outrageous headlines coming out of the Senate during the past few weeks, as Sen. Lynn Beyak 'Ben Carson-ed' her way through residential school history and Sen. Don Meredith’s then-lawyer defended the senator’s sexual relations with a teenage girl – by citing the practice of child marriage. Both senators Beyak and Meredith have been asked to step down. Neither have indicated they will do so.
We can dig through the musty annals of Senate proceedings to find other examples of offensive and tendentious (but condoned) behaviour. Sen. Anne Cools (who has done media interviews defending Don Meredith) has become a revered figure in the men’s rights movement and holds bizarre views, including that “behind every abusing husband is an abusing mother” and that feminism is a “personality disorder” that seeks to “dominate and terrorize.” In 2013, Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais, in a fit against his local MP, sent her a verbally-abusive email, copying every MP and their office staff. During a Senate committee study on refugees, Sen. Asha Seth insinuated that Roma refugees were predisposed to be welfare bums. Et cetera.
One might portray the Senate as an echo chamber in which, at times, misogyny, racism, and lack of impulse control are given free reign. But there is a more substantive democratic argument to be made against the legitimacy of the upper chamber.
The real tragedy of the Senate – the one that will linger after the controversial headlines fade away – is that individuals with no mandate, and who will never have to face an electorate, adjudicate on the laws of our nation. As such, it has been a place where unaccountable individuals have played politics, changing and stalling the laws passed by the House of Commons.
Senate stalling repeal of anti-union legislation
Prime Minister Trudeau’s Senate reform agenda based on a so-called “independent, merit-based” system of appointment has in fact emboldened senators to meddle in bills adopted by the House of Commons – leading Senators to actively defeat or rewrite legislation as a matter of course. And, illustrating democratic overreach, the Senate has come to have a direct impact on the government’s drafting of budgets. This is troubling not because our federal budget process is acceptably transparent – it isn’t – but because the nation has now been subject to the political whims and leanings of a few individuals who operate in the shadows of an unelected Senate.
Case in point: Bill C-4, one of the very first pieces of legislation tabled by Justin Trudeau’s government in January of last year. The legislation would roll back the anti-union legislation adopted by the previous government and, having reached the very last step before becoming law, has been read at third reading in the Senate five times without being called to a vote. That is some monumental puck-ragging.
And this stalling is having a demonstrable effect on people’s lives. As the Minister of Labour pointed out in her testimony to a Senate committee, the measures brought in under the previous Conservative government risk causing tension between workers and management and heighten the likelihood that middle-class wages will stagnate. In Canadian workplaces, unionization drives have been postponed so that the voting process will not have to take place under the unfair rules introduced by the Conservative government. But the longer it takes to pass this legislation, the greater chance that union cards signed months ago will go stale. Do senators realize this, or are they just being obtuse? It’s unclear.
The bill is scheduled back on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, March 28. However, because the timing coincides with ongoing Senate ethics hearings regarding Sen.Meredith, passage of the bill is unlikely to be a high priority.
MPs in government should challenge the Senate on the basis that they stymie the mandate on which they were democratically elected to power. MPs in opposition should challenge it for the arbitrary hurdle it represents after the painstaking task of getting cross-partisan support for a private member’s bill in the House of Commons. It’s hard to know, these days, which way the wind will blow in the Senate - and that’s a bad thing for democracy.