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Trudeau's Senate point man prepared to limit debate on cannabis bill

Senator Peter Harder, the Trudeau government's representative in the Senate, says Conservative senators are holding legislation "hostage." (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, is prepared to limit debate on the cannabis bill to move the legislation through Parliament ahead of the planned July 1 legalization date.

In a speech in the Senate chamber Tuesday, Harder said he would invoke time allocation — a tool that effectively ends debate and forces a vote — if Bill C-45 is not sent to committee by March 1.

The legislation, passed by the House of Commons and sent to the Red Chamber last November, is currently at second reading in the Senate, meaning there is still much legislative work to do before the bill becomes law.

Harder's warning is a shot across the bow at the Conservative senators who have said they have serious concerns about the bill — its potential impact on youth and on rates of drug-impaired driving and the short time frame between the bill's passage and full legalization. Conservatives have been pushing for a delay in implementation and a more robust public education campaign ahead of the bill's passage.

Harder said the March 1 deadline gives those senators who wish to speak to the bill two more weeks of debate at this stage before it moves to committee, where the Senate's "sober second thought" function is best carried out.

He said he is also willing to extend sittings to include Mondays and Fridays for the rest of the month. The Senate usually only sits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

So far, only one Conservative — Sen. Dennis Patterson of Nunavut — has spoken about the bill in the chamber.

Harder said he is signalling now he is prepared to use time allocation — a motion that would have to be approved by a majority of senators in the chamber — because he fears "partisan politics could affect our proceedings."

'I am concerned'

"I am concerned, for example, that the leader of the national Conservative caucus has publicly indicated a desire to delay Senate proceedings on Bill C-45. 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.

"My fear, quite frankly, is that March 1 would come, and 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."

Conservative senators have been accused of delaying legislation during this parliamentary sitting — Bill C-16, the trans rights bill, and a private member's bill that rendered the national anthem gender-neutral — through the use of debate adjournments to punt a vote to a later date. Senate rules allow debate to be delayed indefinitely as long as a single senator still wants to speak, unless time allocation or a similar measure is invoked.

Conservative senators have said they have a right to debate all legislation that comes before the chamber and point out it's not the opposition's job to pass government bills in a timely manner.

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith last week denied his senators plan to be "obstructionist" — but they will insist on a thorough examination of the legislation.

A spokesperson for Smith said Tuesday they have received Harder's draft motion on the matter, and "are giving it careful consideration."

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale, Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould and Bill Blair, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Health, listen to a question during a Senate Committee of the Whole, in the Senate Chamber, on Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Harder, to this point, has been reluctant to use a procedural move like time allocation to limit debate in the Red Chamber.

"As government representative in the Senate, I have never moved time allocation. In contrast, the previous government leader in the Senate used time allocation over 20 times in the previous Parliament," he said. "I very much hope time allocation will not be necessary. But that is not up to me. I would vastly prefer to proceed by agreement."

Harder's threat to cut off debate comes a week after Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told senators that provincial governments will need 8 to 12 weeks after the bill receives royal assent to prepare for retail sales of cannabis.

The Senate would have to pass the bill by the end of May at the latest for marijuana sales to start in July."

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