Trudeau’s Senate rep willing to cut off debate on weed legalization bill to meet summer timeline

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s representative in the Senate says he is worried “partisan politics” will interfere in the government’s desired timeline for marijuana legalization — and, if the opposition doesn’t play nicely, he says he is willing to invoke time limits for debate.

As he proposed a schedule to get the bill passed by summer on Tuesday, Sen. Peter Harder ruffled Tory feathers by expressing concern over Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s “desire to delay Senate proceedings.”

“While I certainly agree we need to take our time to do our job of sober second thought, any potential delay for the sake of delay would do a disservice to Canadians and to the culture here in this chamber,” he said.

Harder made a thinly-veiled reference to the Conservatives’ long filibuster of a private member’s bill that changed two words of the national anthem. “My fear, quite frankly, is … we may see the sort of procedural obstruction we have seen from some senators this Parliament on multiple items of government and non-government business,” Harder said. “I would not want to see our deliberations on a matter of such immense consequence reduced to procedural back-and-forths.”

The national anthem bill came to a vote, after a year and a half in the Senate, with a so-called “guillotine motion” brought by Independent Sen. Frances Lankin that prevented further delay. As they boycotted the vote in protest at the end of January, Conservatives stood outside the Senate chamber and said they were putting Trudeau’s government “on notice.” This prompted some, including Lankin, to predict the Tories might retaliate by trying to delay the cannabis bill.

The government wants to implement its legal cannabis regime this summer. The House of Commons passed a federal legal framework in November, and provinces and territories have been unveiling their respective plans with that deadline in mind.

Harder is proposing a strict schedule to make it happen.

He said Tuesday he is looking for agreement on a deadline of March 1 for senators to pass second reading of Bill C-45 and send it to committee. In a motion he is expected to raise Wednesday, which would need to pass with a majority vote to take effect, Harder proposes to have the legal and aboriginal peoples committees get back to the chamber by April 19 with reports on Bill C-45.

A concurrent study by the social affairs committee, which would include a clause-by-clause review, could take these reports into account before submitting its own report, unbound by a particular deadline. The idea is to have third reading begin by early May, with the ultimate goal of passing the bill before the summer. Actual implementation, Harder said, would happen eight to 12 weeks after royal assent. 

Offering transparency on the likely timing of implementation would be of “great practical and financial importance,” Harder said, to provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous communities, cities, investors, businesses, labour, law enforcement, regulators, people with criminal records for marijuana possession, and “all Canadians, who have now been expecting implementation for several years as the results of a major policy commitment in the 2015 federal election.”

Conservative senators were off-put, interjecting several times during Harder’s speech with points of order. Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen worried Harder wasn’t doing enough to provide a rationale for “rushing” the bill through. “I would have preferred to hear the meat of the bill discussed rather than why we must proceed quickly and the threats of time allocation and things like that,” she said.

Time allocation — essentially, the imposition of a deadline for debate on a bill to conclude — hasn’t been used in the Senate under this government, but was sometimes invoked by the Conservatives when they held a majority in the Senate under the previous government. Harder said if no deal can be struck on a March 1 second-reading vote, he is ready to propose time allocation for the first time — though “I would vastly prefer to proceed by agreement,” he said.

Unlike with previous governments, Harder has no caucus to whip. Assuming Conservatives would vote against such measures as a bloc, he would need to convince a growing group of independents, and Senate Liberals, who don’t sit in a caucus with Trudeau and have been more likely to vote against him than independent colleagues, that debate should be structured around the government’s publicly-stated plans.

Harder’s schedule relies on a timeline uncomplicated by Senate amendments to the bill.

Senators have nonetheless been more likely, in the past two years, to offer suggested changes to government legislation. If sober second thought produces any such suggestions, the requisite back-and-forth with the Commons will inevitably add more time to the clock.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: mariedanielles

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