OTTAWA - Conservative senators are being accused of deliberately stalling Liberal government legislation to keep it in the public eye for political benefit.
That's particularly true of Bill C-69, on environmental assessments of energy projects, which has drawn the wrath of Alberta, Saskatchewan and other provincial governments that fear it will scare off investment in projects like pipelines by setting up too many regulatory hurdles.
"This is a bill that could generate a lot of political attention and it is in the interests of some senators to use the bill as political hay," Sen. Yuen Pau Woo said in an interview.
Woo was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Liberal, but sits as an independent. He leads the Independent Senators' Group, an affiliation they came up with so they can get funding and committee assignments like members of party caucuses.
The argument over getting bills through the Senate broke into the open in the Senate chamber Thursday, just as senators agreed to delay until Feb. 19 their move into a new temporary home in Ottawa's old railway station while Parliament's Centre Block undergoes a restoration expected to take at least 10 years.
Workers have to fix a ceiling gap in the temporary chamber that was causing "disruptive noise levels" so bad that they would affect operations, including plans to provide for the first time live broadcasts of Senate proceedings. Senate staff didn't detect the design problem until they started running practice sessions to prepare for the real senators' arrival.
While the full Senate won't sit until Feb. 19, senators officially agreed that Senate committees should resume work on Jan. 28, as originally planned.
But Woo said Conservative senators seem intent on ensuring that committee work is also put off for another three weeks.
"To the extent that any given government bill can be used as a partisan talking point, it is in the interests of the Opposition to drag out the conversation for as long as possible, not only to have messaging around the bill but to also give the impression that there wasn't enough time to properly review the bill," he said.
Senate committees can't begin studying bills until their three-member steering committees recommend a schedule for hearings and propose a witness list. But independent senators say the Conservative steering committee members are suddenly saying they're too busy to meet, making it impossible to set the agendas for the committees.
Woo said the objective is twofold: to drag out controversy over contentious bills and to enable Conservative senators to claim the bills that eventually pass are flawed because there wasn't enough time to thoroughly examine them.
Trudeau indicated at last week's first ministers meeting that he's counting on the Senate to propose some amendments to Bill C-69, which had been stalled at second reading in the upper house thanks to procedural manoeuvres by Tory senators. Senators voted Wednesday to send the bill to their energy and environment committee for detailed examination.
On Thursday, the committee's chair, independent Sen. Rosa Galvez, complained that she was unable to get the steering committee together, even though the three members can meet by phone or even email.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett retorted that all three members of a steering committee must be present for it to meet and accused her of not wanting to follow rules she doesn't like.