Senate caves in budget standoff, but refuses to concede on amending powers
Despite the bluster, the Liberal government's budget bill cleared the Senate without changes, leaving the wider battle over the upper chamber's limitations unanswered
OTTAWA—The Trudeau government’s budget bill passed the Senate without amendments June 22, but the broader dispute over which parliamentary chamber has the right to decide budgetary matters was left unresolved as Parliament shut down for the summer.
Senators voted 50-33 to drop their insistence on amendments to the budget implementation bill, which would have deleted a provision allowing the government to hike the federal excise tax on wine, beer and alcohol every year by the rate of inflation.
But at the same time, they sent a message back to the House of Commons, reminding MPs that the Senate is constitutionally empowered to amend any legislation “whatever its nature or source.”
Their message was in response to the government’s rejection of the Senate amendments because they “infringe upon the rights and privileges” of the Commons.
That assertion, sent in a message to the Senate on Wednesday after passing unanimously in the Commons, echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s contention that only the elected chamber of Parliament has the right to make decisions on budgetary matters and that appointed senators therefore have no business trying to rewrite the budget.
Senators countered that the Constitution prohibits the appointed upper house from initiating a money bill, but does not stop it from amending—or even defeating—one.
Even the government’s representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, who had been urging senators to defer to the will of the elected chamber, agreed with the need to reaffirm the Senate’s powers to amend, even if it ultimately did not exercise those powers on the budget bill.
“We asserted our rights as a Senate, as an institution, with respect to our role and responsibilities on all legislation,” he said, emphasizing the word “all.”
“Our message is one that I very much support.”
However, government House leader Bardish Chagger declined to say whether she accepts that message or by what authority the government contends the Senate does not have the power to amend budget bills. Instead, she repeatedly made the point that the budget itself was passed by both houses of Parliament and that the budget implementation bill simply gave effect to it.
Nevertheless, Chagger listed the “healthy dialogue” with the Senate among the government’s accomplishments in the spring sitting of Parliament.
“Already we have shown we can work together in adopting Senate recommendations on bills such as the response to the opioid crisis and to amending our citizenship law,” she said.
The Senate’s message was supported by all independent Liberals and independent senators in the chamber, including a number of those who had raised significant concerns about the budget bill and had originally supported the Senate amendments.
Conservative senators—the single largest group in the Senate and the only group to remain openly partisan—voted against standing down on the amendments. And they suggested the vote demonstrated that the others are not truly independent.
“I think clearly we’ve seen in the last few days Trudeau’s appointments are doing what is expected of senators when they get appointed by a certain prime minister. They support his agenda,” said Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos.
“How independent are independents?” questioned fellow Tory Sen. Raynell Andreychuk.
But independent Sen. Andre Pratte, who had unsuccessfully attempted to divide the budget bill to separate out provisions creating the new infrastructure bank, said he and other independents believe they must ultimately defer to the Commons “unless it’s an exceptional circumstance … where fundamental rights of Canadians would be at play.”
“This is not such a case,” he said, pointing out that an excise tax “is not a matter of life and death.”
“We are appointed. Our role is to suggest amendments, to alert Canadian public opinion, but it’s not to defeat … a bill that has the support of the elected House.”
Sen. Elaine McCoy, co-ordinator of the independent senators’ group, suggested senators should stand firm only in exceptional cases where Canadians’ charter rights are violated or where they disagree with a declaration of war.