Nuclear technology in Canada
3 min

Tales from the Other Place

I headed up to the Other Place – as they call the Upper Chamber in the Commons – for their last sitting day before the summer. Surely the Silly Season must visit the Senate too, and they would be all the more punchy for it, right?

Or perhaps not. The day opened with Senators’ Statements, the first two of which praised departing Senators Corbin and Bacon, whose terms will expire over the summer (as will Senator Eyton, but he wasn’t in the Chamber to be lauded). It was a genteel affair, and unlike the Commons, these statements are granted as much as three minutes rather than a single minute. It does change the tone and pace of things.

Senate Question Period began some nearly twenty-five minutes into the day, and leading off for the day was Senator Fraser asking about the MAPLE reactors. Because Senators don’t operate on the same 35-second clock that the MPs do, Fraser was able to offer a substantial preamble leading up to the question itself, which was about how, given that MAPLE-1 did in fact, produce isotopes during testing that simply weren’t removed from the reactor, and given that the engineers working on the project have now testified that the reactors were four months away from being in licensable conditioning, why the government’s responses to date were “at best a half-truth”?

Now, in the Senate, it’s the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator LeBreton, who answers all for the government. And she is also not bound by a 35-second clock, during which she replied at length about how the Minister and the Prime Minister responded to recommendations by AECL?

But why did they take AECL at its word? Why didn’t they verify with the engineers on the project?

And here’s where Senator LeBreton started to obfuscate, and her way of answering was to name the people appointed to the new panel who will examine the issue.

And what are the Honourable Senators supposed to tell people about the isotope crisis, including a friend of Fraser’s who was just diagnosed with cancer the previous Friday?

They can be told that the government and the ministers in charge are working on it, from securing isotopes from foreign sources, to approving alternatives.

In all, that question and two supplementals took approximately eight minutes. That’s unheard of in the Commons. But it was also a calmer, more rational and almost partisanship-free debate. Now, that’s not to say that it was entirely genteel. LeBreton took a few swipes during her answers, most of them directed to certain journalists whom she named and in one case, accused of not being fair. (As fair as Duffy was?)

One other unique feature about Senate Question Period is the fact that if LeBreton doesn’t have the answer to a question, she takes it as notice, and will return to the Senate some time later with written answers for it. Now, not observing on a regular basis I can’t tell if those responses are substantive or just a regurgitation of talking points of the day, but it’s something that is lacking from the Commons debates, though they do have the capacity to ask written questions of Ministers and receive written responses (which are reputed to be more substantive, if one waits for them).

In total, there were just seven questions (plus supplementals) asked of the government, one of those a suck-up question from their own ranks, all within about a half-hour. And it was basically the way that everyone says that Question Period should work in the Commons. All it takes is an appointed chamber not concerned about electioneering to deliver it.

Sartorially speaking, Senator LeBreton was very well turned out in her striped beige jacket and brown skirt (though Monday’s zebra-print jacket was quite daring), and Senator Andreychuk again wore a perfectly-tailored suit and skirt complete with a draped scarf (though perhaps orange is not her best colour). Senator Bacon has the most fascinating white-framed glasses, which I can’t decide if I love or loathe. Senator Nancy Ruth was decked out in head-to-toe lime green linen, including matching accessories, but she is a bit of a style maverick. That said, Senator Eaton’s pink suit and skirt did not work well with her faux copper hair (though she looked to be wearing a fierce pair of heels), and the style citation would have to go out to Senator Cochrane for her rather garish floral top and skirt, which gave me the image of someone who hands out leaflets telling you why you should accept Jesus into your life. (After all, Jesus is Magic).

Elsewhere, the Toronto Star continues their “Sham-ocracy” series, and yesterday’s entry examined the role of the media, and Susan Delacourt managed to use a recent soccer game between MPs and the Press Gallery where nobody played their positions in favour of chasing the ball at the same time, as the most eloquent metaphor for the media’s role in our declining democracy. It was pretty amazing.