Independent senators may have to curb their enthusiasm for amending government legislation now that they’re operating in a minority Parliament, the government’s new representative in the Senate suggested Friday.
Sen. Marc Gold noted that never before has a minority government had to function alongside a more independent, less partisan Senate.
It’s not yet clear how that will play out.
“This is unprecedented in Canadian history,” Gold, a constitutional law expert and former chair of the Jewish Federations of Canada, said shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his appointment.
As government representative, Gold is now responsible for shepherding government legislation through the upper house, a tricky role in a place that has become increasingly more activist since Trudeau began transforming the so-called chamber of sober second thought.
Since taking office in 2015, Trudeau has dramatically changed the makeup and operation of the upper house, appointing only independents recommended by an arm’s-length advisory body. The Independent Senators Group now has 50 members, the Conservatives have 23 and the Canadian Senators Group 13. There are 12 non-affiliated senators and seven vacancies in the 105-seat chamber.
The Senate passed 88 government bills during Trudeau’s first mandate — 29 of them with amendments proposed by the Senate and accepted by the government.
Gold, who became a senator in 2016 and previously sat with the Independent Senators Group, said he’s proud of the work senators have done to improve legislation in the past. But he said they’ll now have to keep in mind that any bill that lands in the Senate will be the product of compromises worked out in the House of Commons, where the Trudeau government will need the support of at least one major opposition party to pass legislation and survive confidence votes. Any further tinkering by senators could upset that balance.
“I think senators will understand now that the legislation that’s coming to us is the product of compromise and I think that will be reflected in the way in which individual senators and the Senate as a whole responds,” he said.
During Trudeau’s first mandate, senators did not defeat any government legislation and ultimately deferred to the will of the elected House of Commons whenever the government rejected amendments proposed by the Senate.
Gold said that’s a sign of a “growing maturity” among senators, who recognize the constitutional role of the Senate as a “complementary chamber” in which “we’re not elected, we add value but we shouldn’t overreach.”
And as long as they stick to that, he said: “It’ll all work out fine. I’m confident that this Senate will make this Parliament work.”
The Quebec senator replaces Sen. Peter Harder, a former senior bureaucrat who had served as government representative in the Senate since 2016. He stepped down from the position in November, although he remains a senator.
“Senator Gold’s long record of personal and professional achievement, together with his commitment to promoting human rights and Canada’s regional diversity, will help us find common ground in the Senate as we invest in and protect our communities, create good middle-class jobs, and fight climate change,” Trudeau said in a statement.
Gold said he believes strongly in the reforms Trudeau has instituted to transform the Senate into a independent chamber of sober second thought, rather than the partisan echo chamber many believed it to be during decades of purely partisan appointments.
While taking on the role of government representative means he’ll no longer be entirely independent, Gold said he sees the role as also representing the interests of the Senate back to the government.
“So, in that sense, my role as government representative falls into line with my role as an independent senator or the senator that I chose to be when I applied for this gig. So it’s coherent and I’m comfortable that it’s a step in my evolution as a senator and in the evolution of the Senate,” he said.
A briefing note provided to Trudeau shortly after his re-election noted that overall, 24 vacancies are expected to pop up by the end of 2023. That does not include other senators who may step down prior to reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The memo also notes that the Liberal platform promised to amend the Parliament of Canada Act “to reflect the Senate’s new, non-partisan role.” However, the remainder of what officials wrote has been redacted from the document because it is deemed sensitive government advice.
The legislation, which governs the allocation of resources to partisan government and Opposition caucuses in the Senate, does not reflect the changes that have occurred over the past four years. Gold said there’s no question in his mind that the act and the rules and practices of the Senate “have to be brought into line to reflect the reality of an increasingly independent Senate.”