Sober Second Thoughts

Ah yes, the Senate! With Mr. Harper’s newest spate of Senate appointments, the debate re-surfaces.

Let me start by saying that I don’t have any problem with the idea that the Governor General has appointed new Senators upon the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. The fact is, that that’s how it’s written into the Constitution, and that’s how it’s supposed to work. Like it or not, unless or until we change the system, that’s the way it is.

What I do object to is that it is Mr. Harper, in particular, upon whose advice these appointments have been made, though he is, nevertheless, Prime Minister of the day.

For, while Senate reform is a fair topic of discussion, Mr. Harper himself has gone way beyond this in abusing others for such appointments, while never allowing that “that’s the way the system works” is any justification. Long, and stridently, Mr. Harper has reviled such appointments, even going the distance to proclaim that as Prime Minister, he himself would never do it.

It’s clear of course, that the appointments needed to be made. Regardless of anyone’s issues with the Senate as it is, it is, still, a key element in our parliamentary system. Leaving seats vacant and many areas of the country unrepresented does not serve Canada well, and would indeed be a breach of his responsibilities as Prime Minister. Leaving them empty for the next Prime Minister to fill would be politically insane. But, knowing these facts and this reality as well as anyone, he nevertheless promised to not do it.

Had he now admitted, upon sober second thought, that Yes, while he still thinks the Senate needs reform, he now recognizes the need for a sitting Prime Minister to take such action in the interim, and had he apologized for so unjustly criticizing his predecessors for knowing this at the outset, it could have been tolerable, perhaps even honourable. But he did neither. Instead of accepting responsibility for his own actions, he, true to form, blamed “the Liberals” for having thwarted his feeble and impractical feints at reform, thereby making his hypocrisy “necessary.”

It is a modern myth (promoted by Mr Harper and so freely subscribed by “the media”) that “the Liberals” oppose Senate reform. We don’t. But we do think that it should make sense.

Mr. Harper’s proposal for an elected Senate without constitutional change, a case in point, just didn’t make sense. This would have been every bit as worthless as his fixed election-date law. Absent constitutional change it cannot bind either the Governor General or the Prime Minister, as is also the case for the fixed election-date law. And, as for the fixed election-date law, it would be only as good as the will of the Prime Minister to observe it. Frankly, if the Prime Minister wants to advise the Governor General based on the latest 6-49 winner or anything else, excuses and personal integrity to the contrary, it is already his or her prerogative to do so. There is no need for an unenforceable law, nor is any absence of such a law any excuse to abandon professed and promised principles.

Similarly, in a context where the Senate remains an appointed body, imposing short term-limits on Senators is just dangerous. A term as low as four years would mean that within the term of a single majority government a Prime Minister would be able to recommend the appointment of the entire Senate, or most of it. An eight year term-limit is better, but still problematic. Imagine that with an eight (or even twelve) year term-limit on Senators, the Chretien/Martin Liberal governments would have been able to appoint the entire Senate!

Regardless of what you think of the worth of the Senate now, nothing would render it so pointless so fast as having the entire Senate appointed under the auspices of a single government. As governments come and go over time, while the balance of power will shift one way and the other, longer Senate terms help to maintain balance.

If we want to change the Senate, let us have that debate again by all means, and understand what we’re going to achieve. Let us understand, for example, that electing the Senate will dramatically change its nature; it will become far more powerful and politically active than now. Fair enough, if that’s what we want, but let’s be serious about it, and not just meddle.

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