Sunday, July 12, 2009

Conservatives Use Dirty Tricks To Silence the Senate

Since coming to office in 2006, Stephen Harper has silenced the media, silenced the civil service and silenced his caucus; but now he has also found a way to silence the senate, by ensuring that bills he doesn't like will never see the light of day.

From his little black book of dirty tricks to make sure that Parliament doesn't work, he is now also making sure that the Senate doesn't work, giving him free reign to run the country in the way he sees fit.

Unfortunately, his ideas do not resonate with the majority of Canadians, so we are now being 'dictated' to, by a man who has only managed to gain the support of about 35% of the country.

This is a democracy?

Tory procedural ploy 'hijacks' Senate bills
Conservatives sponsor legislation they oppose
July 06, 2009
Joan Bryden

OTTAWA – When Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson introduced a private member's bill this spring, it was instantly denounced by the governing Conservatives as an "unCanadian" and anti-democratic assault on free speech.

So he was taken aback to discover a few weeks later that a Conservative MP had volunteered to sponsor his bill once it makes its way to the House of Commons.

Dawson's bill is one of 28 private members' bills proposed by Liberal or independent senators that Tory MPs hastened to sponsor last month – a novel procedural tactic that, despite government denials, Liberals suspect is designed to stop the bills dead in their tracks.

"They've found a way to hijack the process," fumed Dawson.

"Now I know that even if I get (my bill) through the Senate ... it will be hijacked in the other place by somebody who represents a party that's already opposed to it."

Normally, the author of a Senate private member's bill arranges to have a sympathetic MP sponsor it once it clears the upper house and arrives in the Commons. The sponsor informs the clerk's office that he or she will take responsibility for shepherding the bill through the Commons.

But last month, Tory MPs began rushing to the clerk's office to sponsor bills almost the moment they were introduced in the upper house, whether or not they actually supported the bills and without waiting to see if they'd actually ever make it to the Commons.

Jay Hill, the Conservative government's House leader, denies the government is trying to pre-empt Senate bills. Rather, he says the move is aimed at controlling the volume of senators' private members' bills so that they don't unduly eat into the limited time available for MPs' private members' business.

"I can tell you there's no intention to start a war with the Senate," Hill said in an interview.

"The intent is to ensure that we have a fair system and by that I mean fair for both houses."

Still, Hill acknowledged there are "a range of ways" the government can kill a senator's bill it doesn't like. He didn't rule out using them on bills such as Dawson's, which is aimed at ending pre-election partisan advertising binges.

Hill noted that a bill automatically dies if its sponsor fails to show up twice for debate on it.

"It was not my intention when we started this strategy to use this process to make sure bills don't see the light of day," he said. "Certainly within the rules that could be the outcome. But we're going to review them on a case-by-case basis."

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale said the latest ploy is "an effort to muzzle a house of Parliament," and part of the government's continuing "vendetta" against the Senate. He said it's particularly hypocritical given the Tories' denunciations of the unelected chamber as an affront to democracy.

"What they're basically saying is these topics (in the senators' bills) will not be debated. So it is very clearly the stifling of free speech."

Tory procedural ploy could muzzle Senate

Three of the 28 bills sponsored by Tory MPs were initiated by Lowell Murray, who sits in the Senate as a Progressive Conservative (not to be confused with the current Conservative government, that is neither progressive nor conservative).

He said he suspects all three of his bills are sufficiently controversial – particularly one calling for repeal of the Conservative's vaunted fixed-election-date legislation – that his uninvited Tory sponsors won't be keen to advance them through the Commons.

"It's a corruption of the system, that's what it is," said Murray.

"And it's stupid along with everything else because if the Senate dug in its heels, it would be very difficult for the government to get its business done."

But Hill said the government resorted to the tactic only after opposition parties rejected proposals to make the private-members' business process fairer for MPs. (And yet he claimed they weren't doing it all)

MPs' names are drawn in a lottery for precedence in presenting private-members' bills or motions. Typically, there are 15 top bills or motions before the Commons at any point, with another 15 ready to go.

Whenever a private-members' bill arrives from the Senate, it is accorded priority in the queue immediately following the initial 30 – pushing back all the MPs in the tail-end of the lengthy line-up.

Hill said the process is unfair to MPs, many of whom never get a chance to introduce private-members' business. He wants to end the priority precedence given to Senate bills but opposition parties won't go along with him.

Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House leader, said MPs' private-members' bills are accorded the same priority when they arrive in the Senate. He predicted the Tory ploy to give lesser priority to – or simply kill off – senators' bills in the Commons will lead to tit-for-tat treatment of MPs' bills in the Senate.

Since both houses of Parliament must approve all bills before they can be enacted, the tactic could put an end to private-members' business altogether.

"You would, in effect, kill private-members' business, period."

Goodale said the latest ploy is part of the government's continuing "vendetta" against the Senate. And he said it's particularly hypocritical given the Tories' denunciations of the unelected chamber as an affront to democracy.

"What they're basically saying is these topics (in the senators' bills) will not be debated. So it is very clearly the stifling of free speech. It's an effort to muzzle a house of Parliament."

Goodale said Liberals may launch a procedural challenge to the Tory tactic when Parliament resumes in the fall.

Stifling debate in Ottawa
Toronto Star
July 07, 2009

In opposition, the federal Conservatives used to fret about the "democratic deficit" in Ottawa. "A new Conservative government will be committed to significant democratic reform of our parliamentary and electoral institutions," vowed their 2006 election platform.

Little did we know that by "reform" the Conservatives meant stifling any debate on initiatives that run counter to their views or interests.

Thus, we have witnessed a series of anti-democratic manoeuvres by the Conservatives, such as: an effort to steer all committee investigations into the ditch (lest they embarrass the government); a declaration that all votes on government bills would be considered confidence votes (the direct opposite of what they said they would do); and an attempt to cancel public financing of political parties (which would have hurt the opposition much more than themselves).

Now, thanks to The Canadian Press, we learn that the Conservatives are attempting to silence debate on private members' bills emanating from the Senate by bending the parliamentary rules. Here's how:

A private member's bill from the Senate must have an MP as a sponsor in order to be considered in the House of Commons. But there is no requirement that the senator has to approve of the sponsor. Taking advantage of this loophole, Conservative MPs are stepping forward to sponsor Senate bills even when they don't agree with them. Then the Conservative sponsors see to it that these bills never come forward for debate in the Commons.

Some 28 private members' bills from the Senate have been targeted in this way. They include bills to impose spending limits on pre-election advertising by the parties, require the government to promote and protect aboriginal languages, and loosen up restrictions on the delivery of generic drugs to Africa to fight AIDS.

With their oh-so-clever tactics, the Conservatives have now ensured these bills will not even be debated, let alone approved.

That the Conservatives feel they must stoop to such tactics says much about their bunker mentality in Ottawa today.

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