Australian Senate
4 min

Senate deliberations and actual oversight

In the wake of the filibuster in the Commons, the prospect of the Senate being recalled to sit on a Sunday seemed somewhat less surreal – despite the fact that the upper chamber rarely sits more than three days out of any given week. And yet, with a sense of urgency to pass that back-to-work legislation, recalled it was. By 11am, we were inside the chamber, waiting for the inevitable.

Things began as they usually do in Senate proceedings, with senators’ statements. We heard about the International Indian Film Festival in Toronto, the continued plight of Hank Tepper – the New Brunswick farmer languishing in a jail in Beirut – and a somewhat unhinged climate-change-denial screed from Senator Nancy Greene Raine. With a few cursory motions, question period was dispensed of, and the Senate moved on to Bill C-6, which it had just received from the House of Commons.

After Senator MacDonald gave his cursory government-talking-points introduction, the Liberal Senate leader, James Cowan, began his lengthy condemnation of the bill. He referred to comments that Stephen Harper had written in a newspaper during the 1997 postal strike, when back-to-work legislation was introduced. At the time, Harper said that back-to-work legislation treated only the symptom and not the cause of the dispute, which, in his opinion, was the double monopoly of the postal service and the union and that he wanted to break both. It should be of little surprise that Harper would now have a contemptuous attitude toward this legislation, stemming from his neo-conservative ideology.

And then came a rather amazing speech from Senator Lowell Murray, one of only two remaining Progressive Conservatives, on what might very well have been his last day sitting in the Senate (given that he is due to retire right around the time the Senate is recalled in September). Murray said that he was disturbed by the kind of rhetoric the Conservatives are spewing in the Commons, such as talking about “union bosses,” debating in a manner more suited for “union halls” and using a tenor not heard since the Winnipeg general strike. Murray felt that perhaps it is in the DNA of the government that “they are not satisfied with a win, but must destroy their adversaries. They are not satisfied with adversaries, but must portray them as enemies.” He finished by saying that the legislation, such as it is, would not only end the strike, but would also vindictively rub the workers’ noses in it.

A few other interventions followed from Jean-Claude Rivest, Consiglio Di Nino, Terry Mercer, Bert Brown and Pierrette Ringuette, who was a manager at Canada Post from 1997 to 2002. Recalling last year’s budget implementation bill, she spoke of the mere 20 words that took away Canada Post’s exclusive franchise, saying that this lockout and bill were the legacies of them.

The bill moved into the committee of the whole and ministers Raitt and Fletcher were summoned to the chamber to be grilled by the senators. With this act alone, the Senate went beyond the kind of oversight that should have happened in the Commons. The senators grilled the ministers on the language of the bill, particularly Senator George Baker, who took umbrage with the use of “must” instead of “shall,” which contravenes a particular Supreme Court decision and is a gaping hole that would expose Canada Post to massive fines.

There were a few other notable exchanges. Senator Murray recalled the days when Canada Post went from being a government department to a Crown corporation. He said that it made the imposition of wages from a public service union agreement onto postal workers problematic – if we are going to treat them like public servants, then why not return it to its status as a department? Senator Percy Downe wondered if Canada Post’s management would be subject to the same wage restraints as the workers, seeing as the corporation is supposedly in a fragile state. Senator Ringuette hammered away at Raitt’s characterization of labour relations at Canada Post and questioned what the section of the bill that cites “comparable postal industries” really referred to.

The Senate heard from Canada Post's CEO, Deepak Chopra, and its chief operating officer, who both assured senators that they had no consultations on the bill. They also said that they eventually went to the lockout because their complex transportation network was so disrupted by the rolling strikes that it became impossible to manage and that they hadn’t bothered to get a legal opinion on the constitutionality of the bill before them. (Chopra also spoke about the “healing journey” that they would need to take with employees post-return, which made him sound a bit like his famous namesake.) Senators also heard from Denis Lemelin, the head of the Canadian Postal Workers Union, and his top researcher that CUPW had similarly not bothered to get a legal opinion on the constitutionality of the bill and, during a discussion about the distribution of social service cheques, that they didn't have anything more than a subjective list of what was deemed an essential service. They were also asked about employee morale in a post-legislation world.

In the end, the Liberals offered up the same amendments that they did in the Commons, along with two from Senator Baker, which would have fixed those rather glaring issues with the wording of the bill. All were defeated, and the bill eventually passed on a vote of 53 to 26.

And what did we learn from this exercise? Chiefly, the Senate is still a vital part of our parliamentary process. It accomplished more in some six hours in terms of substantive debate and critical examination of the technical merits of the bill than was done in 58 hours of filibuster in the Commons. There, we were treated to some eleventy different speeches on the history of the labour movement – to the point that Elizabeth May spoke out against idealizing the unions too much, saying that “no union is perfect and all corporations are not evil.” By hearing from the witnesses involved, senators got tales from each side and were able to put ministers on the spot in a fairly substantial way. This far outstripped the oversight that the Commons was supposed to provide but didn’t.

Did the amendments pass? No, but the weaknesses of the bill were exposed and given a full airing on the record, which was more than could be said for the Commons. Indeed, Senator Baker, in moving his amendments, admonished the Commons for letting these flaws pass unchallenged, proving that not every bill that the Commons passes is perfect and demonstrating the need for the Senate. And those were words that could not be argued.
Bookmark and Share