OTTAWA – A group of senators looking at the future of the upper chamber has laid out 21 recommendations for a modernized Senate. Many of the recommendations have been talked about for months, others for years, as the Senate lurches into a new, less partisan reality. Here are some highlights from the report.
Lights! Camera! Action?
The House of Commons has cameras. Ditto for Commons and Senate committees. Not so for the Senate chamber, which only started broadcasting audio during the height of the Senate spending scandal three years ago. The report calls for cameras to be installed in the Government Conference Centre, which will house the Senate during the decade the Centre Block is under construction starting in 2018. The recommendation itself is nothing new: It has been discussed for years with little agreement among senators to make it happen.
The lack of a government leader in the Senate, or a minister of the Crown, has changed how senators approach question period. Without a member of the government to question regularly, cabinet ministers have answered questions in a format less rigid and scripted than in the House of Commons. The committee is recommending this guest spot for question period be expanded to include officers of Parliament, like the auditor general. The committee is also recommending question period happen twice a week, rather than three days a week — one day for a cabinet minister, the other for questioning of the government representative in the Senate or committee chairs.
Splitsville: population omnibus bills
The Senate has a habit of sending different parts of large budget bills for study at different committees. The committee is recommending this process go one step further and allow the Senate to split up omnibus bills where governments add in proposed legislation that may have nothing to do with budgets, for example.
For more than a decade, senators have debated whether to elect their Speaker, who is currently appointed by the prime minister (unlike in the House of Commons, where the position is filled via secret ballot). The Senate debated such a proposal in 2003, but the bill never made it past second reading. The committee is recommending the Senate come up with a process to nominate up to five senators whose names the prime minister could consider for Speaker. The deputy speaker would be elected by secret ballot, and would come from a different caucus, group or party than the Speaker.
Sober Second Thought
The role the Senate plays in Parliament has been summed up as the chamber of sober second thought, where the heat of the political pit of the House of Commons is tempered by the institutional knowledge of the upper chamber. The committee recommends that this be explicit so that members of the Senate actually understand what their duties are: review legislation “with particular respect to Canada’s national interests, aboriginal peoples, regions, minorities, and under-represented segments of Canada’s population” and study and recommend policy relevant to Canadians.
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