The road to Senate reform (or abolishment) should not require detours through patronage, political posturing and handshakes with national icons.
It should, however, run a course through public consultation and the due process of turning fair-minded ideals into a practical vision.
In short, it requires that Prime Minister Stephen Harper establish an itinerary for democratic reform and follow through without falling into the same jaded and disrespectful route that came to characterize the Liberals (who first endorsed, then abandoned Senate reform in 1885).
Harper’s Conservative government appointed nine new senators last week. They join the 18 senators whom the prime minister appointed last December, bringing the number of Tories in the 105-member Upper House to 46. In the next six months, as sitting Liberals and others reach the mandatory house retirement age of 75 and are replaced, Harper will gain majority footing in the Senate.
Then, if he wishes, he can push through any legislation he may choose, including Senate reform — provided it gets through the House of Commons (and keeping in mind the firm hand Harper has on his MPs).
In fact, it is the sluggish nature of the Senate’s examination and approval of Conservative legislation that has Harper justifying the appointment of party faithful and others beholding to the prime minister. Sober second thought doesn’t sit well with him when there is a partisan tinge to it — unless his party is responsible for the tinge.
“It is my intention to have senators in there that will support the elected government and will stop blocking our significant legislations — anti-crime legislation and legislation on democratic reform,” Harper said last week in making the latest appointments. “It’s unacceptable for unelected senators appointed by a different government to block the will of the people.”
The irony is that while Harper objects to unelected senators dictating the pace of governing, he is appointing more unelected senators to speed the process. They, in turn, possess the potential to slow the pace of a future government (with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff threatening to force an election later this fall, the Senate could soon be a barrier to swift passage of Liberal legislation).
The very core of Harper’s political being is the Reform movement, which grew out of the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. Brian Mulroney’s constitutional reworking would have included a democratic revolution: a triple E Senate (equal, elected and effective). When it was defeated, Preston Manning shouldered his way onto the national stage, seeking redress for the snub to Western Canada and seeking a better national model.
Harper was part of that movement.
But Harper apparently has not the patience, particularly in the climate of a minority government, to pursue Senate reform.
So instead, he’s using the Senate to hasten the accomplishment of other goals. He has enlisted an unlikely crew that includes ex-hockey coach Jacques Demers, Olympic hero Nancy Greene and media figures Mike Duffy and Linda Frum Sokolowski.
Some of the newly appointed senators have said quietly that they signed on to shepherd Senate reform. But no such official movement has been declared, and certainly the provinces have not been enlisted.
There are many steps in the process that must take place before Senate reform becomes the business of senators.
No good case can be made for the survival of the Senate as it now exists. Plenty of arguments can be made for a Senate that is both democratic and useful. Sound evidence exists that the Senate is simply a waste of taxpayers’ money and should be abolished.
But until Harper tackles the issue in an open, inclusive fashion, and expresses a vision with some clarity, with the help of the provinces and the public, the Senate will remain what it has been for more than a century: a rest home for the politically favoured.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.