OTTAWA — Stephen Harper once called the Senate a “dumping ground” for political cronies.
Now he’s being blasted as a hypocrite for appointing some of his closest Tory friends to the upper chamber Thursday.
The prime minister vowed in opposition to overhaul the Senate, saying he would never reward unelected supporters with what cynics call “a taskless thanks.”
So much for that.
His latest round of nine Senate picks includes Doug Finley, his campaign chairman and husband of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Harper’s longtime press secretary and fiercely loyal defender, also made the cut, along with Conservative party president Don Plett.
A failed Tory candidate in Quebec and Harper’s former leadership co-chair in the province also got the nod.
Finley, Plett and Stewart Olsen will represent Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick respectively.
Hockey commentator and former NHL coach Jacques Demers, whose courageous struggle with illiteracy added to his iconic status, will represent Quebec where Tory popularity has flagged.
Harper deflected questions Thursday about the cronyism. He would only say that he will appoint people willing to support his minority government and its ongoing attempts at Senate reform.
“Until senators are elected, this government will ensure that we have in the Senate people who will work hard and will support the elected government of this country,” he said. “And that includes passing our anti-crime legislation and passing our democratic reform which has been blocked in the Senate.”
Harper delayed filling vacancies from 2006 until last December as every province and territory was given time to draft laws allowing Senate elections. Only Alberta has actually elected a senator, Bert Brown.
Saskatchewan is the only other province to pass such legislation.
The Liberals blasted the new appointments as “Harpocrisy” and fired out a list of Harper quotes dating back more than a decade.
“Despite the fine work of many individual senators, the Upper House remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the prime minister,” Harper’s leadership website said on Jan. 15, 2004.
Harper, then a Reform MP, told the Commons on March 7, 1996:
“Canadians from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia remain ashamed of Canada’s senior legislative body. They are ashamed the prime minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton called the appointments a “shameless” replication of Liberal-style patronage.
“He’s doing it completely contrary to what he told the Canadian people he would do. He’s following the manual that was written by the Liberal party — which is to appoint your political friends.”
Conservative Senator Brown didn’t deny it. He downplayed the appointments as “a mirror image” of how former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien rewarded his former press secretary Jim Munson and Liberal campaign chairman David Smith.
“He’s playing from the Liberal playbook because it’s the history of the way the Senate has been filled, and it’s the tradition — the only way it’s ever been filled is by having people that are loyal to the prime minister who’s appointing them.
“He had to return to that because, first of all, we couldn’t get legislation passed fast enough with the provinces.”
Even with the latest appointments — on top of 18 in December — Liberals still outnumber Tories in the Senate 53-46.
The dynamics will change in about a year when retiring senators are replaced with enough Conservatives to finally form a majority and push through reforms, Brown said.
New Conservative appointees agree to support legislation that, if passed, would limit Senate terms to eight years, Harper said.
Senators are paid $132,000 a year and can serve until the age of 75.
The other appointees are:
— Judith Seidman, Quebec co-chair for Harper’s leadership bid in 2003 and a former educator, health and social sciences researcher. (Quebec)
— Claude Carignan, mayor of Saint-Eustache, Que., and a failed Tory candidate. (Quebec)
— Linda Frum Sokolowski, a journalist and author who has praised Harper’s support for Israel. (Ontario)
— Kelvin Ogilvie, past president of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and an expert in biotechnology, bio-organic chemistry and genetic engineering. (Nova Scotia)
— Dennis Patterson, a former premier of the Northwest Territories.