When it comes to the Senate of Canada, no news is indeed good news.
If the Upper House is in the headlines, or leading broadcast newscasts, or the subject of spirited online discussions, chances are good that it is for reasons that don’t reflect well on the institution.
After Prime Minister Stephen Harper swore in his new cabinet last month at Rideau Hall, he spent a few minutes speaking to the media about the ministers he had just appointed.
His office waited until after Harper was done speaking, and safely out of earshot of reporters’ questions, before announcing via press release that the Prime Minister was also appointing three Conservatives to the Senate, all of them unsuccessful candidates in the election that had taken place only two weeks earlier.
In fact, two of the three new senators – Larry Smith and Fabian Manning – had only recently resigned from the Upper Chamber in order to run their failed campaigns for House of Commons seats.
Nice consolation prizes. And nice work if you can get it: The base salary for a Canadian senator is $132,000 a year until the age of 75. Smith, of course, famously referred to that as a “dramatic, catastrophic pay cut” from his previous salary as president of the Montreal Alouettes when he was appointed to the Senate for the first time in December. But Senate appointments have been plum rewards for party loyalists since the time of Confederation.
If the Conservatives thought they could bury the news by announcing it on the same day as the cabinet shuffle, they were mistaken. The Senate appointments knocked the cabinet news off the front pages.
Critics said the appointments smacked of cynicism and contempt for democracy from a Prime Minister who just won his first majority government.
Jack Layton, the new Official Opposition leader, called the move a “slap in the face” to voters.
“Canadians should be outraged that three individuals who were just defeated by the Canadian people in an election have now been appointed to the Senate,” he said.
The public advocacy group Democracy Watch went even further. It called for a police investigation into the appointments, arguing that if the new senators were promised reappointments if they lost their elections, that would have violated a law against inducing Parliamentarians to resign in exchange for reward.
In response, the new-old senators said their surprising reappointments also came as surprises to them.
The government’s explanation for the appointments seemed paradoxical to some. Marjory Lebreton, the government’s leader in the Senate, said the new appointees were necessary to bring the Conservative numbers back up to a solid majority in the Upper House – a majority that can now help pass reforms to the Senate to make it more democratic.
“They’ve all served in caucus, they all support Senate reform and they’ll make a great contribution to the Senate,” Lebreton told CTV News.
Missing from the explanation was a justification for why these particular appointees – and not others – were necessary to ensure such a majority.
But with majorities in both Houses of Parliament, will the government now move quickly to enact Senate reform?
Harper has always advocated some sort of reform, but he will not even entertain the idea of re-opening constitutional talks with the provinces in order to fundamentally change the way the Senate operates – to make it “equal, elected and effective,” in the language of the old Reform Party, in which Harper cut his political teeth.
Instead, his party will soon re-introduce legislation that it couldn’t pass when it had a minority government – legislation that will enable provinces to hold elections for senators that the Prime Minister will be expected to appoint, and that will impose term limits on the winning candidates. Opposition parties blocked such initiatives in the past, arguing they would create a half-baked Senate with uneven regional representation, a fuzzy democratic mandate, and an uncertain legislative role.
Provincial governments are also mostly opposed to this plan (maybe because elected senators could challenge their own monopoly as democratically-elected provincial representatives). Quebec’s government is threatening to take the matter to court if the federal government attempts unilateral reform. Other provincial leaders, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, are echoing the federal NDP’s call for the Senate to be abolished entirely.
To effectively enact its plan, the federal government will need the provinces’ co-operation.
If the Prime Minister really is trying to move toward a more democratic Senate, his recent actions on that file may have damaged the credibility of his cause.