by George Brown
You would be forgiven if when you heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper remark that there will be an era of change in the Senate, you thought all the geezers were called to the Big Bridge Game in the Sky.
No, it’s just with the appointment recently of five more Conservative party henchmen the minority Conservative government finally has a plurality in the red chamber. There are now 51 Conservatives, 49 Liberals and five senators not aligned with either party.
Now the government’s so-called get tough on crime measures will finally pass through the Senate unimpeded. Not that the Senate actually held up the crime bills when it was dominated by Liberals, it’s just now instead of being subjected to some form of sober second thought, the legislation will be rubber-stamped. Canadians had to rely on the Liberal Senate to review legislation because the spineless Liberals wouldn’t dare try to amend the legislation for fear of “looking soft on crime.”
A minority of Canadians voted for Harper’s Conservative government but the prime minister has stacked the unelected Senate with another round of sympathetic appointees. In a little more than a year, Harper has appointed 32 failed Conservative candidates, faded athletes and party bagmen to the Senate.
So much for Senate reform.
Overhauling the Senate the old fashioned way requires constitutional reform. Seven provinces containing at least 50 per cent of the population must be persuaded that the government’s plan is in the best interests of their Canadians. Prime Minister Harper has said making subtle change for a more democratic, accountable and effective Senate is easier; the government only needs to get a bill through Parliament.
Conservative MPs, including our own Blaine Calkins, admit the prime minister slyly prorogued Parliament to reset Senate committee appointments in favour of the new Conservative plurality. For years Harper has blamed the Senate for stalling legislation that Canada’s tossed salad Parliament had passed; now it will be rammed through. So if a Liberal Senate scrutinizes Conservative legislation that is deemed undemocratic, but if the prime minister of a minority Conservative government instructs an unelected Conservative Senate to hold its nose and pass the bill, that’s democratic?
In the last session of Parliament the government brought forward 17 crime bills and only two were held up in the Senate — over the summer recess. Most died on the order paper when Harper prorogued Parliament.
It’s likely that garnering Liberal support in the House will be more difficult now that Liberals senators won’t have their members’ back.
Harper might be right to pin all of his hopes for political change on the Senate — at least he’s certain his appointees will be around for a generation or two. Under law, senators hold their seats until their 75th birthday, although Harper’s senators have promised to remove roadblocks from Conservative legislation for just an eight-year term. The Conservative party’s biggest names are in the Senate: journalists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, Stanley Cup winning coach Jacques Demers, and ski hill darling Nancy Greene Raine are household names.
Most Canadians would have a tough time naming four Conservative cabinet ministers.
There’s been a lot of turnover in parliamentary seating assignments as Canadian voters outside of Alberta waffle back and forth. The majority of MPs, from all corners of the House, have never served in a majority Parliament; they’ve worked in a Liberal or Conservative minority government, propping up the government, in fear of an election. Harper has fought three election campaigns against two liberal leaders.
It’s interesting to note that the Conservative government has had an easy time of it in the House and been held in favour by Canadians when it has governed as the Liberal party might. But the prime minister is also lifting pages from the old Liberal party playbook: sucking up to Quebec; and filling boards, commissions and advisory bodies with lackeys.
If the Conservative Senate makes a habit out of doing the prime minister’s bidding, and Canadians continue to deny Harper a majority, it may become even more difficult to convince the government to keep its promise on Senate reform.