In light of my recent post on the subject of the legislative process in contrast to the democratic process in Canada, I thought it would be appropriate for a post on the procedure for dealing with conflicts between the two houses of parliament. Most Canadians, I am sure, would be surprised to learn that there is in fact little formal procedure in the way of dealing with a conflict between the elected House of Commons and the appointed Senate, especially considering the fact that our large cultural influence to the South, the United States of America, actually has constitutional provisions to ease a deadlock between their two houses and executive branch (the President). Let’s examine the process in Canada more in depth.
There are no provisions within any Constitutional document to deal with a deadlock between the Senate and the House of Commons. Within the legislative process, bills which originate in the House of Commons (which can be either public or private in nature) are sent to the Senate for concurrence and approval prior to receiving Royal Assent. Conversely, bills that originate in the Senate are sent to the House of Commons for approval, again, prior to receiving Royal Assent. This process of having each house propose, debate, and approve legislation opens up the possibility for either house to propose amendments to legislation that could reasonably be opposed by one house or the other, by the government of the day or sponsor of the bill itself. All of these situations would create a scenario where each house could be seen to be in conflict with one another and thus create a legislative deadlock. The question then becomes who would “win” between each House and how would the bill proceed to becoming law in Canada?
When a disagreement arises between the House of Commons and the Senate as to the amendments to be made to a bill, there are two possible ways of proceeding: the disagreement may be communicated in a message (this is normally the first step taken), or a conference may take place. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed)
Messages can be passed between the houses of parliament between the Speakers of each house. Individual rules within each house govern the conduct of these messages, the crux is that they must be read in a timely manner to the members/Senators by the Speaker. It is interesting to note that the conference method cited in the Procedure and Practice manual has fallen into disuse in parliament. In fact, it has not been used since 1947 and only 16 times since 1903. The exact procedure around these conferences has changed since they were formalized in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in 1903. Prior to 1903, these conferences were considered “closed” in that the House of Commons and the Senate each sent specific delegates who could only voice the concerns of each house without debate or discussion. In 1903, provisions were put into place within the Standing Orders (and Rules of the Senate) which permitted “open” conferences where delegates (referred to formally as managers) would be sent to a conference between the two houses and were allowed to discuss the issues and were empowered to come to a solution. There have been 13 “free” conferences since the provision was introduced but again none since 1947.
Turning to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Rule 77 under the heading of Senate amendments, there exists provisions for the Commons side of arrangements for the messaging and a potential conference between the two houses.
In cases in which the Senate disagrees to any amendments made by the House of Commons, or insists upon any amendments to which the House has disagreed, the House is willing to receive the reasons of the Senate for their disagreeing or insisting (as the case may be) by message, without a conference, unless at any time the Senate should desire to communicate the same at a conference. (Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Order 77)
The pre-text of this particular provisions describes a situation where the House of Commons and Senate disagree. However, it could be argued that this provisions does not exactly settle a dispute between the Commons and the Senate but merely provides two avenues for further recourse. The rule goes on the state that any conference between the two houses shall be “free” (as explained above) and that reasons for a conference shall be provided to the Senate (and visa versa in accordance with protocol).
The Rules of the Senate certainly do not offer any additional helpful guidance. Under rule 16 which is reserved for instructions pertaining to messages to and from the Senate, there is a provision regarding the messaging between the House of Commons and the Senate regarding disagreement and protocols regarding the formation of a conference.
When the House of Commons disagrees with amendments proposed by the Senate to a bill that originated in the Commons, and the Senate insists on any of its amendments, the message accompanying the bill to the Commons shall state the reasons. The Senate shall receive by message the reasons for the House of Commons either disagreeing with Senate amendments to bills or insisting on Commons amendments, unless the House of Commons at any time wishes to communicate these reasons at a conference. (Rules of the Senate, Rule 16-3(1)(4))
The Rules of the Senate also contain the same clause as the Standing Orders of the House of Commons which require that any conference between the two houses be conducted in a “free” manner.
The Senate of Canada amends a surprising amount of legislation that originates from the House of Commons. In this role they are fulfilling their mandate articulated by Sir John A. MacDonald in being the “sober second thought” of parliament. The vast majority of amendments are technical in nature (amending legal wording, uniform formatting of the bill, etc) and are accepted without hesitation from the House of Commons. However, there have been historical moments when the House of Commons and the Senate have been at odds over the pith and substance of a particular bill. When Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Government Sales Tax, it was blocked by the Senate until he took extreme measures granted to him within the constitution to appoint additional Senators (thus allowing him to overcome the partisan deadlock within the Senate Chamber). Recently, we saw an empowered Senate review and propose amendments on the pith and substance of bill C-14 which sought to extend the right of assisted dying to Canadians. It is during these moments that the procedures and processes surrounding the deadlock between houses of parliament become even more important.
Amendments proposed by the Senate on legislation originating in the House of Commons are sent back for debate and approval (or rejection). The debate concerning these amendments is restricted to the scope of the amendment question itself, meaning MPs cannot begin a new debate on the merits of the bill as a whole, for example. Each amendment is voted on individually in the order that it would appear in the bill (reasonably presenting the bill in a logical fashion). The House of Commons can reject or accept all amendments, or can approve and reject some but not all amendments from the Senate. If all amendments are accepted, a message is sent to the Senate to this effect and the bill is scheduled for Royal Assent. If some of the amendments are accepted, but not all, the same message communicating this fact is sent to the Senate, but the Senate is given a chance to reply to this message. If the Senate cannot agree to the provisions than a conference may be formed between the two houses. In the case of C-14, after the bill was read and approved at Third Reading in the House of Commons, the Senate sent amendments back which were then rejected by the House of Commons (being controlled by the majority Liberal government). However, after the rejection of their amended version of the bill, the Senate then approved the final text of the bill, from the House of Commons, essentially backing down and avoiding a protracted deadlock.
If the conference fails, the matter is closed and the bill simply remains on the Order Paper where it dies at the end of the session. During that time, no new bill may be introduced in the House in respect of the same subject matter and containing similar provisions. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed)
At the end of the day, if the House of Commons and the Senate cannot agree and no movement is made through the options available in a conference, than the bill sits on the Notice Paper for the remainder of the session and is, for all purposes, dead. Furthermore, a legislative void is created because no bill on the same subject can be presented during the session until the similar bill on the Notice Paper is resolved. This was the case during the GST debate for a short period of time prior to the Prime Minister appointing additional Senators and reviving the legislative life of his taxation bill.
On a final note, and related to my last entry, the Senate understands it’s inherent democratic deficit. Because Senators are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day by the Governor-General collectively they do not possess the same democratic mandate as the government or the House of Commons as a whole. This does not impact their legal authority within the legislative process (as I have alluded to in my opinion piece) but it does inflict soft power over the Senate by the House of Commons. Often during debate, Senators who support the government can be heard calling on fellow Senators to speedily approve matters originating from the Other Place because they have no democratic right to hold up priorities of the duly elected government. And to some extent there is some truth to this statement, however, the Senate does have a legitimate role in the legislative process to review and scrutinize legislation, including government legislation. This is a key component of what little exists to resolved a dispute between the two houses of parliament. It is important to note, that no House can have authority over the other as they are each sovereign entities within parliament in union with the Crown. The executive, being embedded in the House of Commons, does not enjoy a carte blanche over legislation proposed within parliament and therefore the role of the Senate in being that sober second thought often becomes more powerful during periods of majority government rule in the Commons. It is therefore dishonest to simply cast the Senate away as an undemocratic institution with little or no value in the legislative process. On the same token, it could be argued that there exists a statutory nadir with regard to provisions for dealing with a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament which lends itself to relying on the false assumption that the House of Commons has authority over the Senate through their democratic legitimacy.