A dynamic conversation with Senator Peter Harder

Posted by: Kaitlyn Mason on April 26, 2017

We recently hosted a dynamic round table discussion with a group of Senators on Senate reform and policy issues facing Calgary businesses. In case you weren't in the room, read this blog from our Director of Policy and Government Relations, Zoe Addington, for a first-hand account on what was covered.

On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, we hosted a conversation about the role of the Senate with the perspective of three generations of Senators appointed respectively through a non-partisan selection committee, through an election and through a political process.

The three Senators in attendance were:

  • The Government Representative in the Senate, the Honourable Peter Harder
  • Calgary elected Senator, the Honourable Doug Black
  • Former Senator from Calgary, the Honourable Dan Hays

Here, Calgary business leaders had the opportunity to engage the Senators on current policy issues, such as indigenous representation within government, leveraging government procurement to incent innovation, Canada’s energy future and our international climate change commitments, along with Canada’s trading future within North America and in Asia.

But mainly our discussion focused on what Canadian businesses need to know about the Senate's increasing independence – and how your voices can be heard on critical issues that affect your business.

The background

Last year was a transformative year for Canada’s Senate. There were 27 Senators appointed to the Upper Chamber under a new merit-based selection process that allows independent senators a role without being tied to a particular political party. 

There are 105 Senate seats, with independents currently make up the largest group at 42 (35 are in the Independent Senators Group and 7 are ‘non-affiliated’), along with 39 Conservatives, 18 Liberals (but not part of the federal caucus) and another 6 vacancies expected to be filled by independents by April 27, 2017. You can find out more about the Senate here.

Where Senator Harder fits in

One year after his appointment as the Government Representative, Senator Harder is tasked with both shepherding government legislation through the Upper Chamber and leading efforts on reform towards a more independent, accountable and transparent institution.  

While not part of the Liberal Caucus or Cabinet, Senator Harder still has most of the responsibilities previously assigned to a Senate government leader.

One interesting difference is that the Senate has a new practice of Government Ministers appearing before the Senate for weekly Q and A sessions, in the absence of a traditional government leader being there to speak on behalf of caucus or cabinet. And despite not being affiliated with the governing political party, Senate Committee reports still get in front of Cabinet, as government is required to table a response to any Senate report. 

The Senate was originally created to represent the provinces in national affairs and to be a place of ‘sober second thought.’ The Senate was used as a bargaining chip to unite Canada, allowing smaller regions to maintain a voice.

The Senate and Alberta business issues

On issues especially relevant to Alberta, such as oil and gas and energy pipelines, the Senators suggested that a political neutral Senate could raise issues and have a policy based discussion on behalf of a region, without the same level of politicization we see in Parliament.

And regardless of political affiliation, Senators play informal roles in the policy process and continue to play a positive convening role in Ottawa for interested stakeholders. And as we heard throughout the entire discussion, Senators are interested in representing their regions, being relevant, and not just doing studies for the sake of studies.

We heard that in the past Senators, like Parliamentarians, had staff in their constituencies to meet and support stakeholders. Unfortunately, Alberta only has six senators, the same number as many smaller jurisdictions.

Some Senators see an opportunity for a legislative body that is free from partisanship, and committees that are free from political grand standing – and Senator Doug Black has been tasked with reforming the Senate committee process.  

But can you maintain accountability from an appointed legislative body that can both initiate legislation, and amend and veto bills coming from an elected parliament?  

Let's talk accountability

In 2016 the Senate sent back a bill to Parliament on assisted dying for amendments, but the House of Commons rejected it. In this instant, the Senate and the Government Representative “accepted the message” of elected officials and proceeded to approve their version of the bill. However, the opportunity exists for gridlock between the two houses.

The message that was clear, is that when advocating on policy and legislation, it is now increasingly important to understand what role the Senate will play and how to include them in your government relations strategy.

In closing

On behalf of our Chamber members, we would like to express our gratitude to each Senator for engaging with Calgary’s business community.

Zoe Addington is Director of Policy and Government Relations at the Calgary Chamber.