Despite Conservative calls for the Red Chamber to resume modified in-person sittings next week, Speaker George Furey has extended the Senate’s adjournment to June 16.
The Senate has sat 17 times since the start of 2020 and only three times since the COVID-19 crisis began, to pass emergency government legislation.
Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett asked Furey to recall the upper house next week to give the opposition and other senators the chance to question the government’s response to the pandemic.
He suggested that the Red Chamber sit twice a week, with one day set aside to hear from cabinet ministers.
“Storms have come and gone, but the role of Parliament to ensure oversight and transparency should never be weakened or undermined, regardless of the crisis of the day or the party in power,” Plett said in a letter sent to Furey Thursday.
Unlike the case of the Commons, there hasn’t been a virtual “committee of the whole” in the Senate where senators can ask questions of cabinet ministers or Sen. Marc Gold, the government representative, about the pandemic response.
But after consultation with the other recognized Senate caucuses and groups, Furey, who was appointed Speaker by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has rejected the Tory arguments.
In a memo to senators, Furey said the “public interest does not require the Senate to meet.”
“The Senate’s priority remains the health, safety and well-being of all Canadians, and it is taking every precaution to adhere to the ongoing recommendations issued by public health authorities,” a spokesperson for Furey said later in a statement.
Plett said the Independent Senators Group (ISG), a caucus largely composed of Trudeau appointees, is partly to blame for this decision, saying the group rolled over to the Liberal government.
Trudeau has been reluctant to resume normal in-person sittings, citing a health and safety risk to parliamentarians and their staff. The Conservatives in the Commons lost a similar bid to resume in-person sittings.
“It is mind-boggling to try and understand why the Speaker of the Senate, and the so-called Independent senators, cannot grasp the fundamental obligation that we have as senators to have regular sittings to ensure that the government remains accountable to Canadians,” Plett said in a statement.
“It is truly disappointing to witness the so-called Independent Senators Group fold like a house of cards on the notion of keeping the Trudeau government in check.
“Their refusal to come to Ottawa to review and have proper oversight of the government’s decisions – in an abbreviated form of sitting while respecting public health guidelines of the COVID-19 pandemic – is an indication of their true dedication, or lack thereof.”
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, the leader of the ISG, pushed back against that criticism, saying Plett’s proposal to have the Senate meet only to discuss government business “suggests that he is interested in sitting for the sole purpose of partisan point-scoring.”
He said the ISG helped create the Senate’s COVID-19 oversight committees — the national finance and social affairs committees are meeting virtually — “despite Conservative senators blocking this initiative during a sitting in March.”
The return to normal sittings would be a challenge for some senators, notably for those who live in Atlantic Canada.
The Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador have restrictions on domestic travellers that require people to self-isolate for 14 days when returning to the province.
“Under the current circumstances, the advice of public health officials in a number of provinces effectively means that many senators would be unable to travel to Ottawa,” Woo said.