Senate Speaker Leo Housakos and South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP Russ Hiebert

Senate Speaker blindsided by Conservative colleagues over MP’s bill

Housakos's efforts to allow debate on MP Russ Hiebert's Bill C-377 rejected by Senate majority.

Senate Speaker Leo Housakos admitted he was “surprised” Friday as the Conservative majority in the chamber carried a vote to shut down debate on local MP Russ Hiebert’s controversial labour bill, C-377.

Housakos – himself a Conservative senator – told Peace Arch News he wasn’t expecting what he termed a “drastic action” to overrule his ruling and invoke closure on debate, effectively forcing a vote on the bill next week .

The bill now seems likely to be passed in the Senate by the end of Tuesday.

Hiebert (South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale) as said C-377 is intended to provide transparency in unions’ financial affairs by requiring them to report in detail to the Canada Revenue Agency.

But many critics have attacked the bill, accusing it of being a transparent attempt at  ‘union-busting’  that is both unconstitutional and so loosely drafted that it will be liable to legal challenge.

Hiebert was not available for comment Friday.

As Speaker, Housakos had ruled that C-377, as a private member’s bill, was private business – not government business – and not subject to a call for closure.

Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan said he was “disappointed” by the Senate vote. He and other Liberal senators had signalled their intention earlier this week to continue the debate through the summer, expecting it would die on the vine if not passed by the Senate before this fall’s federal election.

But moments after Housakos’  delivered his decision, Claude Carrignan, Conservative leader in the upper chamber, called on the Senate as a whole to overrule it.

Carrignan’s motion was passed on a vote of 32-17, with five Conservatives abstaining and Conservative Sen. Diane Bellemare – and Housakos – voting against it.

“I can’t say I’m pleased,” Housakos said Friday morning, adding that he believes that the call for closure goes against Senate principles on the division between government business and private business “that have been in place for 148 years.”

“As Speaker I was put in a difficult situation,” he said, adding that the role of Senate Speaker, unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons, is to be “a barometer of consensus.”

This means that he can vote on issues and be more directly involved in discussions than his parliamentary counterpart, he said.

But while Senate rules allow senators to overrule the Speaker, it is a very rare occurrence, he said.

“When a ruling is on the floor, it is rarely challenged,” he said.

“This is only the seventh or eighth time this has happened in the history of the Senate. I didn’t think this action was warranted.”

He noted that while Senate rules prevent a “filibuster” per se, he was well aware the Opposition was using delaying tactics, within Senate rules,  to “string out debate as much as possible to avoid a vote.”

“(Evidently) the government arrived at the decision that the only way to get around that was to call for closure.”

Cowan, a steadfast opponent of C-377, said he was “disappointed” by the move to force a vote on the bill.

“It’s terrible,” he told PAN.

“I think there was a very clear distinction between government business, and non-government business. There’s a reason why the distinction exists. If the government had wanted to make the bill government business, they could have, but, instead, they chose (to make it a private member’s bill).

“What the government has said is that it’s unwilling to obey the rules and play by the rules. In any club or organization or political organization there are rules. You don’t say you’re going around them, just because you can.

“What happens next? People are critical enough of the Senate – for good reason – but what are they going to say about us now, when we don’t even pay attention to our own rules?”

Cowan said the bill, which had already been before the Senate in 2012 – and heavily amended, following testimony from a wide variety of witnesses – was returned to the chamber in original form after Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament, effectively turning the clock back on all previous deliberations.

“The government sat on it from October of 2013 to April of 2015 – day after day, week after week,” Cowan said. “Now we have to go through with it, and not abide by the rules?”

The Opposition leader noted that when originally considered by the Senate, some 16 Conservative senators, led by now-retired Sen. Hugh Segal, were in the forefront of seeking amendments.

“With no evidence that contradicted what we learned before, (it appears) some senators have changed their minds. I believe they – or some at least – have been forced to by Mr. Harper.”

Cowan said his and other senators’ opposition to C-377 was on the basis of overwhelming negative feedback from all quarters, including legal and constitutional experts, the federal privacy commissioner, labour unions and many other organizations, including professional associations, that would be included in the bill’s broad definitions.

“I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who said you should pass this bill. (We’ve) received thousands of emails saying this is bad legislation.

“That includes seven provinces now  – Alberta just sent us a letter asking us not to pass the bill – representing 81.4 per cent of the population.

“The principal objections are that it’s unconstitutional – that’s it an invasion of provincial powers because labour relations fall under provincial jurisdiction; that it’s against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that it’s so incompetently drafted that it casts too broad a net.

“Mr. Hiebert says the bill is supposed to be about transparency in labour unions. But that’s not what we can expect from the CRA – they’re going to apply the law as it is.

“I’d be delighted to sit down with Mr. Hiebert to discuss it, because the bill is also going to take in a doctors association in Nova Scotia and the NHL Players Association.

“He may say that’s not his intention – but that’s what the bill says, Mr. Hiebert.”