The Legislative Process

Recent events within parliament surrounding bill C-14 have cast a light on the possibilities of the two houses of parliament stuck at a deadlock. In actuality, any theorizing was dubbed moot because the House of Commons rejected the proposals from the Senate on bill C-14 and the Senate duly accepted the rejection from the Lower Chamber. Democracy, as the pundit would say, was saved for the day. But there is something inherently wrong in claiming that having an Upper Chamber capable of overriding the Lower Chamber on legislative affairs is an outright offence of democracy and democratic values in Canada. It is certainly worth taking a closer look at the legislative process in Canada in comparison to the democratic process– most people, I wager, would be surprised to understand a difference between the two.

There is no question that if you are reading a blog such as this, and a post such as this, that you have a basic understanding of how laws are made within parliament in Canada. Bills are proposed as Acts of Parliament in either the House of Commons or the Senate. Some bills are “special” compared to others because they originate from the government (which resides in the House of Commons). The Senate is composed of Senators who are appointed by the elected Prime Minister of the day (or more technically by the Governor-General on advice from the Prime Minister of the day). Bills are read a certain number of times in each house and are sent to committee for a clause-by-clause review. Each reading stage of the legislative process (there are three in total within each house), have a specific purpose and scope of debate. At the end of the reading stages, each house puts the bill to question (that is to say, votes) and it is moved on the to next step in the process. The final step being Royal Assent, where the Governor-General signs the bill which thus becomes an Act of Parliament and the law-of-the-land. Where things get murky in the process, however, is when legislation in moved between the House of Commons and the Senate. Obviously, all government bills will originate in the House of Commons and be sent to the Senate for further review and eventual approval. But what happens if the Senate rejects a bill proposed by the House of Commons, and more specifically, generated by the government of the day?

Canadians saw this process somewhat unfold between the House of Commons and the Senate recently on bill C-14. The House of Commons passed the bill on Third Reading and sent it to the Senate for further review (never minding the deadline issue at this moment). The debate in the House of Commons on the bill was substantial and focused on the constitutional nature of the bill. In the Senate, the Senators heard testimony from constitutional experts that the bill would have violated Canadian law. The Senators proposed amendments similar to what was proposed by the opposition in the House of Commons in order to avoid a conflict with the Charter. Surely, however, the Senate would be out of line for proposing such amendments over the government and the House of Commons because unlike the Lower Chamber, they are unelected! This is where the debate gets sidetracked by the introduction of the democratic process. The problem is that both processes are separate from one another, and should not mix as closely as it being attempted in this sort of debate.

The democratic process in Canada serves one purpose: the composition of the House of Commons. About every four years (a maximum of five as mandated in the constitution), Canadians participate in a general federal election. Which more accurately should be called federal general elections, because in reality there are over three hundred elections happening across the country. The purpose of the election is to select an individual Member of Parliament to serve in Ottawa on behalf of a geographical boundary drawn up based on population (and mandated representation requirements). Once the MPs are selected across the country, they are sent to Ottawa and a government is formed from among their ranks by appointed of the Governor-General. Note, that Canadians play no part in the formation of their government aside from the indirect manner of electing Members of Parliament. A key component of responsible government is that members of the cabinet, the executive body, are appointed from among a pool of elected MPs. This is exactly where the democratic process ends and the legislative process begins. Once a parliament is formed, and more specifically once the House of Commons is formed, the democratic process ends and the legislative process kicks in to full swing. From the basis of responsible government, which sustains a particular ministry through the maintenance of the confidence of the entire House of Commons, the government can participate and dominate the legislative process. This dominance is scalable based on the size of their influence within the House of Commons (the formation of majority or minority governments, for example). The continuance of responsible government permits the appointment of agents of the state such as Senators, who are empowered through the constitution to participate in the legislative process alongside the duly elected government. And while mandates will shift between ministries, generally those agents of state remain empowered within the legislative process, intentionally made to be immune from the democratic process. This is an essential balance between the elite and the populist, and is a key feature of any Westminster parliamentary system.

It is therefore not undemocratic for the Senate to reject any piece of legislation coming from the House of Commons, especially legislation coming from the government benches, because there is nothing that should permit the democratic process from interfering with the legislative process. While principles of democracy are inherent in the system (MPs for example vote by majority, as do Senators), the process itself, the democracy-in-Canada (to fancy a label on it), is not a part of the legislative process. That process exists when the people elect their individual Member of Parliament. The rest is the entire system working as it ought to and churning out lawful decisions of the state.

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