OTTAWA — Conservative senators are being accused of deliberately stalling Liberal government legislation to keep it in the public eye for political benefit.
That's particularly true of Bill C-69, new rules for environmental assessments of energy projects, which has drawn the wrath of Alberta, Saskatchewan and other provincial governments that fear it will scare off investment in projects like pipelines by setting up too many regulatory hurdles.
"This is a bill that could generate a lot of political attention and it is in the interests of some senators to use the bill as political hay," Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, leader of the Independent Senators' Group, said in an interview.
The argument over getting bills through the Senate broke into the open in the red chamber Thursday, just hours before MPs and senators ended their last sitting in Parliament's iconic Centre Block for at least 10 years. Both chambers were slated to resume work on Jan. 28, housed in temporary new quarters while Centre Block undergoes a massive restoration.
But senators agreed Thursday to delay until Feb. 19 the move into their new home in Ottawa's old railway station, giving workers time to fix a ceiling gap that was causing "disruptive noise levels" so bad that they would affect the Senate's operations, including plans to provide for the first time live broadcasts of Senate proceedings. Senate staff didn't detect the design problem until they started running practice sessions to prepare for senators' arrival.
While the full Senate won't sit until Feb. 19, senators unanimously approved a motion that Senate committees should resume work on Jan. 28, as originally planned. But Woo said Conservative senators seem intent on ensuring that committee work is also put off for three more weeks.
Senate committees can't begin studying bills until their three-member steering committees recommend a schedule for hearings and propose a witness list. But Independent senators complain that Conservative steering committee members are suddenly saying they're too busy to meet, making it impossible to set the agendas for the committees.
Accusations 'total hogwash': Tory leader in senate
Woo claims their objective is twofold: to drag out controversy over contentious bills and to enable Conservative senators to claim the bills that eventually pass are flawed because there wasn't enough time to thoroughly examine them.
"To the extent that any given government bill can be used as a partisan talking point, it is in the interests of the Opposition to drag out the conversation for as long as possible — not only to have messaging around the bill but to also give the impression that there wasn't enough time to properly review the bill," he said.
Sen. Larry Smith, the Conservative leader in the upper house, dismissed that accusation.
"We don't give commands that people can't go to meetings. That's total hogwash. That is what I call partisanship," Smith said in an interview.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated at last week's first ministers meeting that he's counting on the Senate to propose some amendments to Bill C-69, which had been stalled at second reading in the upper house thanks to procedural manoeuvres by Tory senators. Senators voted Wednesday to send the bill to their energy and environment committee for detailed examination.
On Thursday, the committee's chair, Independent Sen. Rosa Galvez, complained in the chamber that she's been unable to get the Conservative member of the steering committee to show up for a meeting. In the past, she said steering committees have met by phone or email, but Conservatives are now insisting on meeting in person.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett retorted that all three members of a steering committee must be present for it to meet and accused Galvez of not wanting to follow rules she doesn't like. He also accused her of proposing a one-sided witness list. He acknowledged that Conservatives are opposed to the bill but insisted they want to hear from both sides of the debate.
Galvez in turn said she found Plett's tone "extremely aggressive."
Independent Sen. Paula Simons, a recently appointed Alberta senator, said she's been hearing from hundreds of Albertans who are "begging" for the committee to begin its examination of the bill as soon as possible. She noted that all three members of the steering committee were in the chamber as she spoke.
Some senators just don't understand the rules: Smith
"Would it not be possible for the sake of the thousands of Albertans who are terribly concerned about C-69 for you to find some way for the steering committee to meet so that we could serve the people of Alberta and Canada and get to this bill?"
Smith said later the problem is that some inexperienced, Independent senators don't understand the rules of the Senate.
"What we want to make sure is that chairs of committees make sure that they assemble their steering committees before taking action or gathering data or information without the input of the steering committee. It's more of an organizational issue."
Asked if he anticipates that Senate committees will get back to work on Jan. 28, Smith said: "That's up to each of the chairs to be able to mobilize their people."
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