Do-nothing Senate solution
Summer is here, the government is on vacation. The chief job of our elected leaders in July is to serve pancakes at the Calgary Stampede.
Our chief job is to apply enough sunscreen so we can enjoy the precious few weeks that pass between snow storms in our country.
So who needs a constitutional argument right now? Right now, that would be the CBC.
The national news network has been keeping tabs on the number of vacancies in the Senate, which the prime minister has thus far left unfilled. They are consulting experts, and even senators, about the crisis and are filing regular reports most of us cannot read on our iPads in bright sunlight.
It’s a rare prime minister who refrains from packing duly-qualified and politically loyal Canadians to the Red Chamber. But Stephen Harper has experienced pain with both the concept and the practice of filling the Senate seats, so he can be excused for his lack of enthusiasm for the job.
In the past couple of weeks, the CBC has found that even Conservative senators are not feeling the love, and that the workload on some committees is becoming unbearable, due to a lack of membership.
There are 105 chairs in the Senate. Right now, 11 are waiting for new appointments. Three senators are suspended, and we are told that looming retirements will bring the membership shortfall to 17 by the end of the year.
Seventeen gone, out of 105 members. Yes, the workload must be absolutely crushing.
But with three of his own high-profile appointments sitting in limbo for overbilling, and having lost a top PMO advisor in the scandal, plus taking a legal setback from the Supreme Court over Senate reform, you can easily assume Harper would much rather flip pancakes than fill Senate vacancies.
He has the public’s support on that. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and even federal Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair support allowing the vacancies to just pile up.
If the Supreme Court won’t allow Senate reform without engaging constitutional reform (a political impossibility), they (and likely most Canadians) agree that doing nothing — letting the Senate die of attrition — is doing something. Doing something positive, even.
Except that doing nothing probably can’t work.
Eventually, someone will ask the Supreme Court to instruct the Governor-General to do his duty and compel the prime minister to put people in Senate chairs. If the prime minister refuses, he will be in violation of the Constitution (some say that anyway). Then the Governor-General will be required to dismiss the prime minister for constitutional non-performance.
Maybe that’s Mulcair’s game plan. But doing nothing is seldom a good solution to a problem.
But while the summer sun sets on the Senate, a new light shines in the east.
A group of 15 Conservative and Liberal senators is reported by The Hill Times to be holding secret wildcat meetings of their own in an Ottawa hotel. NDP senators are not invited, obviously, because the NDP wants the Senate abolished outright.
The meals and room rentals for this are being paid out of the group’s own pockets. Completely outside of Senate authority, they are meeting as concerned citizens, discussing ways and means of making the Senate relevant once again — and worth the prime minister’s attention. And ours, too.
The Hill Times reports they discussed doing away with their question period. They want to restructure their committees (overworked as they are). They want to end all partisanship (the Liberal members are already officially non-partisan anyway, by decree of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau). They also want to elect their own Speaker once current Speaker Noel Kinsella retires in November.
There. If the prime minister cannot reform the Senate because of that darned Canadian Constitution, maybe the Senate can just reform itself. Who’d have thought?
Apparently, there was a motion passed last May calling for a special committee to report back on internal measures to make the Senate more transparent, accountable and relevant to Canadians. By Dec. 31, 2015.
By then, who knows how many Senate seats might remain vacant? And we surely wouldn’t want yet another summer ruined by a constitutional impasse.
So bravo to the Group of 15. Summer saved. Inaction justified.
And if we didn’t pay attention to CBC and The Hill Times, we’d never have known. Please enjoy your summer.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.