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Senate Modernization - Speech on the Sixth Report of Special Committee on Senate Modernization


Senate Modernization

Sixth Report of Special Committee—Debate Adjourned

The Senate proceeded to consideration of the sixth report (interim) of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization, entitled: Senate Modernization: Moving Forward (Speakership), presented in the Senate on October 5, 2016.

Hon. Scott Tannas moved the adoption of the report.

He said: Honourable senators, I'm here to talk about the recommendations within the Special Senate Committee on Senate Modernization's report regarding the Speakership.

There are three recommendations. First:

That the Senate direct the Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament to develop a process within the Rules of the Senate by which senators may express their preference for a Speaker by nominating up to five senators as nominees for consideration by the Prime Minister to recommend to the Governor General for appointment; and

That this process takes place at the beginning of each Parliament.

The second recommendation is:

That the Senate directs the Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament to recommend changes to the Rules of the Senate to permit the Speaker pro tempore to be elected by senators by secret ballot.

The third recommendation is:

That the Speaker pro tempore be selected from a caucus or group that differs from that of the Speaker.

Those are the three recommendations that the committee came up with.

With respect to the selection of the Speaker, our committee heard testimony on this issue, and virtually everyone is unanimous that it would make sense for us, at the very least, to have a hand in selecting the Speaker of the Senate.

Many studies that were focused on Senate modernization have pointed to this idea. For example, in 2015 the working sessions led by Senators Massicotte and Greene included this question in their survey of all senators. There was a very large group of senators who participated in that survey, and they were unanimous in their agreement that the Speaker should be elected.

Senator Joyal held a symposium in January 2015 at the University of Ottawa, among the scholars at that symposium, of which they came up with 12 proposals for Senate reform. One was to allow the Senate to elect its own Speaker, and ideally by secret ballot. The scholars in that symposium believed that this proposed change could be implemented by agreement with the Prime Minister.

Even our former senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal have written in their recent public policy forum report that they recommend the Speaker of the Senate be chosen by senators themselves by secret ballot, as members of Parliament in the House of Commons do. Of course, our colleague Senator Mercer has a bill on the Order Paper that would do that.

In our committee we discussed the mechanics of getting to where we so obviously want to be. I have to say there were competing views about whether Parliament can change the method of the selection of the Speaker constitutionally.

Senator Mercer and former Senators Kirby and Segal say it would not be difficult to take the approach of amending the Constitution to achieve changing the selection of the Speaker.

On the other hand, a former Speaker, Senator Housakos, stated in this chamber his belief there's a strong possibility a lawyer in the country will challenge a change in the Supreme Court by saying it is unconstitutional.

I think I'm safe to say that Senator Joyal holds the title of "leading constitutional expert" in our Senate at present, and Senator Joyal clearly does not believe that Parliament has the power to amend the Constitution to change the selection of the Speaker in the Senate.


So, we saw that there was no clear path. If it were clear, then I think our committee would have simply recommended that we pass Senator Mercer's bill and get on with things. But with no clear consensus on the matter, we chose to take a bit of a different step. At this point in time we think it makes more sense to not engage in a detailed discussion of constitutional considerations and competing viewpoints on this issue. Frankly, there is no point in starting a constitutional fight when we are not sure we can win.

This is why the committee is proposing an approach that would not involve a constitutional amendment. We are, instead, borrowing somewhat from the methodology the Prime Minister initiated around the appointment of independent senators, whereby we would select up to five senators as nominees the Prime Minister can choose from to recommend to the Governor General for appointment. This does not suggest we believe the Prime Minister should give up his right of who he believes should be on the list. He may select from off the list.

The step that we're proposing is, perhaps, more appropriate than simply outright electing a Speaker because of the added symbolic importance that we learned about in committee about the Speaker of the Senate, and the symbolic importance more than the Speaker of the House of Commons. For instance, the Senate Speaker has an important diplomatic role as the fourth person in the Canadian order of precedence. We were regaled by Senator Cools on the significance of that and the difference between the Speaker in the House of Commons, who is a representative of all members of the House of Commons, and the Speaker in the Senate, who is not that. The Speaker in the Senate is, as Senator Cools said, the mouth of the Crown. There is a difference. So, a number of us were persuaded that there's enough of a difference that the idea should be that we have a little bit of a different view and approach as to how we make this modernization change.

Our approach is one of the ways, possibly more symbolic than others, in which we can show that we are exercising our independence. It reinforces what the Supreme Court of Canada expressed as one of the fundamental characteristics of the Senate.

Point number two is on the Speaker pro tempore. Our recommendation that the Speaker pro tempore be selected from a caucus or group that differs from that of the Speaker is a way in which we can absolutely assert our independence as senators. The Speaker pro tempore has an important role and can potentially take on more important duties, particularly if that person has been elected by all of us here in the chamber.

These more democratic approaches to the selection of the Speaker and the Speaker pro tempore make this an important set of recommendations. Right now, the report says that the Speaker pro tempore is selected as follows:

The position of Speaker pro tempore . . . is not provided for in the Constitution of Canada, nor is it created by statute. Instead the Senate selects the deputy speaker in accordance with the Rules. The Rules provide that the Committee of Selection shall prepare a report to the Senate within the first five sitting days of each session on its nomination of the Speaker pro tempore.

I've been here for three and a half years, and we've seen a number of Speakers pro tempore, all who have been exceptional, including our current one, but I don't have a first hot clue how that job got assigned.

I think it would be better if it was transparent and clear and all those who wanted the job and were capable of the job stepped forward and were elected by senators.

Recommendations 5 and 6 around the selection of the Speaker pro tempore would change the exclusivity of the selection of the Speaker. This is an area where we senators would be taking this on ourselves, and the Deputy Speaker would then have the significant influence that would come from the fact that they were elected by senators.

We talked also about the idea — it seemed to make sense to all of us — that the Speaker pro tempore be from a different party or group than the Speaker. I think everybody agrees with that, as well.

This concludes my comments, colleagues, on the sixth report of the Modernization Committee, and I'm happy to take any questions.

You can read the Debates in the Chamber on this topic using the following link: