Liberal Senator Joan Fraser has been chair of the Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee throughout this raft of justice bills that the Conservative government has been trying to push. While interviewing her for my new piece on the hidden costs of those justice bills, there was a lot that couldn't make it into the article, but I thought I would nevertheless share here.
Q: Now that the balance is going to be shifted in the Senate, what do you think is going to happen with that, now that the Conservatives will have the plurality?
A: I’m not a Conservative strategist, but I don’t know. I don’t know what the rules are about reinstatement in the House of Commons of a bill that has just been sent back by the Senate with amendments. It would take a House of Commons procedural person to tell you that, but the Conservatives didn’t like our amendments, so they would presumably not want to reinstate the bill with those amendments in it. I don’t know how rapidly they’ll move. In past iterations of various crime bills, they have talked a lot more than they have acted about getting rapid action on these bills. If I were a complete cynic, I might suggest that they find some political advantage in being able to complain about Parliament not moving as rapidly as they would like. I’ve actually asked for somebody to pull together for me, and when it’s done you can certainly have it – a list of the crime bills that have come to the Senate, and what has happened to them. We in fact have not amended or obstructed in any way the vast majority of crime bills. We haven’t obstructed any of them. We hadn’t amended very many of them at all, and we hadn’t gutted any of them. Those that we have amended, and I can say that with real confidence because I’ve been on the legal committee all the way through, we have been very careful to ensure that all of the amendments that were made in the committee were within the scope of the bill and were not contrary to the stated purpose of the bill – that’s Parliamentarily sound procedure. It’s just an urban myth that we’ve gutted anything or obstructed anything.
Q: Do you know if you’ll remain chair of the committee in the new balance of things?
A: I don’t know. Clearly the Conservatives now, having 51 Senators, will be reclaiming a number of committee chairs, and indeed seats on committees, because those tend to reflect in each session the composition of the Chamber. Normally there is a negotiation – a fairly protracted negotiation sometimes – between the government and opposition leadership in the Senate. I would not be at all surprised if Legal were one of the chairs that the Conservatives wanted very much to take because of the stated importance to them of what they view as their anti-crime legislation. But I have no idea whether those negotiations are occurring, or when they will occur, or how they’ll play out.
Q: Would you be sad to give up the chair?
A: You know, it is an enormous privilege – huge privilege – to chair any Senate committee, but that committee in particular. It has very high calibre membership, and fascinating material that it has to deal with – absolutely fascinating. And material that affects, bills that affect, and studies that affect – but in particular bills that affect thousands of people in fundamental ways. So it is a huge privilege to chair that committee. On the other hand, if you’re chair, your freedom within committee to put questions and whatnot during the actual committee meetings is circumscribed – you’re the chair. There are advantages and disadvantages to everything. But I have to say that there are few greater privileges in this country than to chair that committee.
Incidentally, this video on YouTube shows Senator Fraser schooling Nicholson on the Senate, after he tried to bully them a couple of years ago. She certainly takes no nonsense.