Senators were intimidated and their privilege was breached in carbon tax fracas, Speaker rules

Any attempt to intimidate a senator while in the process of fulfilling their duties is a breach of their privilege, even if the effort is ultimately unsuccessful, the Speaker of the Senate ruled Tuesday.

Raymonde Gagne’s finding came nearly a month after the Senate erupted in what she called “exceptional chaos” during debate on a carbon pricing bill that would eliminate the levy from most natural gas and propane used on farms.

The bill got little attention in the House of Commons, where it passed without the support of the governing Liberals. It has been under closer scrutiny in the Senate since Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre launched a full-scale campaign to get it passed.

The bill’s future was in more doubt Tuesday night after the Senate narrowly voted to amend it to limit the carbon pricing exemption only to propane used for grain drying.

A clause that would also have provided an exemption for fuels used to heat farm buildings, including barns, was removed in an amendment that passed by a narrow 40-39 margin.

The amendment means that if the bill is passed by the Senate, it will then have to go back to the House of Commons, where the Liberals have more influence over how long the bill can languish before a vote.

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The amendment vote result Tuesday was met with polite and brief applause in the upper chamber, a far cry from the chaotic scene that led to Gagne’s ruling after an earlier amendment was introduced.

That all happened on Nov. 9, after a Senate committee’s recommended amendments to the bill were rejected and one such amendment was reintroduced. That was followed by an effort to adjourn debate, enraging Conservative senators who support the bill.

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The ensuing tumult involved Sen. Don Plett, the Conservative leader in the upper chamber, who angrily threw down his earpiece and went to confront and berate two of his colleagues.

A man wearing glasses is shown in a shirt and tie.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett apologized for his actions and said, ‘I lost my cool.’ (Chris Rands/CBC)

Those colleagues were Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, who raised the question of privilege, and Sen. Bernadette Clement, who moved the motion to adjourn debate. Both are part of the coalition known as the Independent Senators Group.

In an interview last month with The Canadian Press, Clement described being so rattled by the confrontation that she simply froze.

Plett apologized in the Senate two weeks later — “I lost my cool,” he said — although he argued last month that his behaviour did not constitute a breach of privilege.

On Tuesday, Gagne came to a different conclusion.

“Even if some senators disagreed with the course of events, nothing could justify such a disproportionate reaction,” she said.

The evidence showed senators were shouting at their colleagues and “insulting and unacceptable remarks were hurled across the Senate chamber,” Gagne said. Some senators were even threatened with procedural trickery, she added.

“All these events could be understood as attempts to intimidate colleagues and to unduly constrain, or even to extract retribution against them in the performance of their duties as parliamentarians,” Gagne said.

She rejected arguments from some that Clement hadn’t been intimidated, since she remained in the chamber and voted on the adjournment motion.

“Privilege should not be seen as something that only comes into play if there is an actual undesirable outcome,” Gagne said. In other words, harm need not have been caused, she added.

“Senators should not have to fear for their safety or about any retribution for the simple act of moving a motion or voting,” Gagne said.

“It is very possible that if such behaviour is not stopped, a senator could soon say to themselves, ‘Perhaps I will sit out this vote or this debate, or this meeting. I can’t keep on being yelled at and threatened.”‘

Gagne also touched on Clement’s claim that a social media post triggered physical threats that prompted police to urge her to leave her home temporarily for her own safety.

A man in a dark suit and blue tie rises in the House of Commons.
Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer rises during question period on November 23, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

That post, from Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer, resembled what Clement called a “wanted poster.” It included her photo and contact information and urged people to contact her to complain.

Gagne said while it is important not to limit freedom of speech, senators must be mindful of what they post and share online.

Senators disagree about who did or said what prior to the melee. Some accused Conservatives of urging the Senate to reject the committee report so the Senate as a whole could debate each amendment individually.

Conservatives have accused several members of the Independent Senate Group of conspiring with the government to delay the bill, including by introducing a flood of amendments.

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