New security package positive, but storm clouds on horizon between House and Senate

0 Comments 26 July 2017

However, there were storm clouds gathering on the Liberal horizon last week, in relation to the showdown between the House of Commons and the Senate on who actually controls public spending powers.


First published on Monday, June 26, 2017 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—The great thing about the first two years of a new government is that people are willing to cut the team a lot of slack.

The challenging thing about the last two years of the same mandate is that patience has worn thin and people want results.

The months leading up to the midpoint are crucial in sketching out a direction that can stand the test of time, and the next election.

The Liberal rollout last week of a new security package sets the stage for a positive midterm review.

The massive, 139-page legislative package, championed by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, was widely praised as striking a balance between the individual right to privacy and collective right to security.

C-59 was also seen as curbing the overarching unchecked powers that C-51 had awarded to police and spy agencies including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment.

Conservative critics attacked the new bill for tying the hands of police, and New Democrats said the proposed changes did not go far enough.

Legal experts on both sides of the security/freedom spectrum were cautiously positive. In particular, they praised the tone of ministers in support of the proposals.

Former Public Safety minister Steven Blaney was all bombast in defence of the police and security right to avoid scrutiny in pursuit of terrorists. Goodale, an old hand at the political balance game, was more circumspect in his position. He emphasized the right of citizens to be free from intrusive police powers, while affording police the law enforcement tools to keep the country safe.

By all accounts, the legislation will clean up serious anomalies in existing no-fly zone listing disclosures while continuing some secretive powers awarded in the previous legislation.

The creation of a super review agency to oversee all security measures infringing on citizen rights was widely lauded as an effective way to harness police powers.

As a backdrop for a midterm agenda, the legislation on safety and security is a potential start.

However, there were storm clouds gathering on the Liberal horizon last week, in relation to the showdown between the House of Commons and the Senate on who actually controls public spending powers.

Early in his mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to building a new relationship of trust with the Senate. His persective and subsequent appointment reforms, were sorely needed to re-establish public support for the Red Chamber. The previous government, pursuing a deliberate strategy to discredit the Senate and pave the way for Triple E constitutional reform, had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

At the beginning of the Liberal mandate, most Canadians believed the Senate was a profligate, out-dated institution which sorely needed to be abolished.

By liberating Senators from the discipline of party lines, the prime minister promised a whole new way of governing.

That is welcome when Senate positions generally align with those of the government. But when a budget measure is reversed by an unelected body, there are serious constitutional implications which cannot be ignored or easily brushed aside.

At the end of the day, with all its warts, even party-based Senate committee work has, in some instances, evolved into intelligent challenge to conventional thinking on controversial issues.

In this term, senatorial improvements to end-of-life legislation ended up setting the stage for a better bill which was subsequently passed by the House of Commons. In that instance, the system worked effectively and provided a better outcome for all Canadians.

In the mid-course budget impasse, a group of unelected Senators is usurping the role of the House of Commons in the passage of spending measures.

By abolishing the escalator clause in liquor taxes, the Senate is amending tax law in a way that neither the constitution nor the prime minister envisioned.

The country has had escalator clauses on gas taxes for years, and such a measure currently kicks in every time any traveller fills up at the pump.

The choice of booze appears to be a curious commodity for which the Senate has decided to take a principle-based stand. But it did before the House rejected the amendments and the Senate in the end passed the bill.

But some Senators, including diehard Liberal Joe Day from New Brunswick, argue that amending a House money bill has been a longstanding practice. Liberals tried it unsuccessfully in the last century, attempting to block passage of the hated goods and services tax.

At that time, the Progressive Conservative government adopted the same response as todays’ Liberals. They both believe the right to tax belongs to government.

Mid-stream waters are proving to be rather murky.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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