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Second Thoughts about Sober Second Thought: The Meaning of the Senate Rejection of Bill C-311

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Honoured guests, members of the Canadian Study of Parliament Group, fellow panelists. 

Thank you for organizing this panel and the seminar that preceded it.  I am honoured to participate in a discussion of Canada’s Upper Chamber.

I am sorry that Jack Layton did not have the courtesy to stay and participate in a meaningful debate on a very important Parliamentary institution.

Instead he showed his disdain for all of us by treating this serious panel discussion as a cheap pre-writ campaign stop.   Regardless …

The Senate stands as a majestic symbol of Canada’s parliamentary traditions and passionate adherence to the democratic process in our great country.

With its rules of procedure and its observance of parliamentary convention, it cannot be denied that the Canadian Senate has successfully fulfilled the role of checks and balances for Canada’s parliamentary system originally envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation.

Since its inception, the Senate has been the subject of vigorous debate.  For almost a century and a half, events have sparked examination of the role of the Senate in Canada’s parliamentary governance.

I am reminded of Abbé E.J. Siéyes, the 18th century French politician whose insight is timeless:  "If the upper house agrees with the lower it is superfluous, if it disagrees, it ought to be abolished”

Ladies and gentlemen, the topic of our discussion today is both interesting and complex.

Interesting because the debate reminds us of the significance of the Senate and the responsibility that every Senator accepts upon appointment to the Upper Chamber.

Complex because the very essence of that great responsibility pits the necessity to balance partisan belief against what is best for the country.  Every Senator must decide whether a bill is good legislation or if it is misguided and not in the public interest.

Bill C-311 was such a bill.

There has been much written about Bill C-311 and its defeat on Second Reading.  Permit me to take a moment to review the legislative path of the bill in the Senate.

Bill C-311 was referred to the Senate on May 6, 2010, at which time it passed First Reading.  The sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Senator Mitchell, did not speak to Bill C-311 until June 1, 2010.

Most of June and part of July were taken up with debate on the Jobs and Economic Growth Act, the Refugee Reform Act, the Canada-Columbia Free Trade Act, to name only a few, followed by summer recess through to September 28th when the Senate resumed sitting. 27 bill were debated since the spring of 2010.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, while it might be convenient for Senator Mitchell to complain that the Bill was in the Senate for 193 calendar days, in actual fact, the Bill was on the Order Paper for 33 Senate sitting days – not at all unusual given our busy legislative agenda.

Senator Mitchell knows very well that traditionally the Senate has always placed greater emphasis on government business because it recognizes that the government of the day has the right to advance the agenda laid out in the Throne Speech.  Senator Mitchel also knows that private members’ bills have always progressed very slowly through the Senate.

The debate on Second Reading of C-311 was progressing and I can assure you that several of my colleagues were preparing to speak to the legislation, amongst whom was Senator Richard Neufeld.

But on November 16, 2010, it was Senator Mitchell’s reckless decision to force a vote that brought the debate to a halt.

His very own impatient and undemocratic actions prevented the government side from voicing our views on the contents of the bill. It is Senator Mitchell that killed the debate – and I suggest to you that he knew exactly what he was doing

Ladies and Gentlemen, Senator Mitchell has been a Senator for six years, representing a party that has held a majority in the Senate 65 of the last 70 years.  They are masters of process – this was nothing more than a deliberate attempt to grandstand and humiliate the government.

Our government always made it clear that we were opposed to the provisions of Bill C-311, primarily because it would kill jobs and hurt our fragile economic recovery.

The bill would have forced an unrealistic standard that was impossible to meet.

The previous Liberal government had admitted that they did not act on Kyoto when given the chance.  Legislating a standard above Kyoto would have brought our economy to its knees.

So, when faced with the decision, we did what we said we would do – we defeated the legislation.  We were left with little choice once the Liberals forced an early vote.

And we are not alone in our assessment of the coalition inspired and supported Bill C-311.

In its November 18, 2010 commentary, the Financial Post thanked the Senate for fulfilling its role under the Canadian Constitution: “This week, the Canadian Senate, a chamber famously known for its sober second thought, dismissed Bill C-311.  In doing so, the Senate saved the country from economic harm while better representing the will of the People. Bill C-311 offered nothing but empty rhetoric …”

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce proclaimed that the Climate Change Accountability Act was a threat to Canada’s economic competitiveness:  “We cannot simply tweak our way to success.  And we cannot deal with climate change by eliminating consumption.  That is simply not practical.  It would cripple the economy, make it impossible to pay for the changes that are needed and destroy public support for strong environmental policies.”

The Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that there is an urgent need for action on climate change but cautioned that an effective plan should instead include massive investments and a sustainable energy strategy to develop new technologies of the future.

And that is exactly what this government is doing – moving responsibly on the environment.

The defeat of Bill C-311 must not be interpreted as a signal that the environment is not important to this government.

On the contrary, the Government of Canada supports an approach to climate change that achieves real environmental and economic benefits for all Canadians.

The North American economy is integrated to the point where it makes absolutely no sense to proceed unilaterally without aligning a range of principles, policies, regulations and standards across the two borders.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not address a regrettable consequence of the events of November 16, 2010 – the blatant exploitation of this event by Jack Layton. I caution everyone to discount his use of what happened to advance his own personal political agenda.

I am surprised by Mr. Layton’s obvious lack of respect towards the Constitutional mandate of Parliament.

It is a distressing day for Canada when the leader of an opposition party maligns his own institutions.  Someone needs to warn the maple leaf!  It might be next.

Instead of presenting a responsible piece of legislation his party put forward a bill with irresponsible targets and without any measures of achieving them other than by shutting down job-creating sectors of the economy.

In my view, Mr. Layton and his coalition partners the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, attempted to use the legislative process to embarrass the government.

Mr. Layton had a chance to begin the process of Senate reform very recently, yet he chose not to.

It is no secret that one of this government’s priorities is Senate reform.  We have before the Senate and the House of Commons legislation that proposes to do just that.  Sadly our biggest opponent is the coalition opposition.

Most recently on Thursday November 18, 2010, our government sought the unanimous consent of the House of Commons to quickly approve C-10, a bill that would impose eight-year term limits on future senators.

But the opposition coalition immediately banded together as they have done today and objected to the government’s request.  

Since arriving in Ottawa, I have been a strong advocate of our Canadian identity and have a deep respect for the institutions, symbols and traditions that make up this great country of ours. I assure you that we do not intend to use the Senate in a way that strays from those traditions.

Sober second thought is not just a cliché, and not only applicable to the Senate Chamber. Sober second thought should be a daily practice of every Parliamentarian.

Thank you. Merci.