Harper’s Se­nate boy­cott is a cyn­i­cal bid for votes

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL -

Cana­di­ans are thor­oughly sick of the Se­nate and its end­less scan­dals. Many would like to see it con­signed to the dust­bin of history. But re­form­ing the 19th-cen­tury relic, much less abol­ish­ing it, is next to im­pos­si­ble.

And Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper knows it. His an­nounce­ment on Fri­day for­mally “en­trench­ing” his legally du­bi­ous 2 1/2-year mora­to­rium on nam­ing new sen­a­tors — there are 22 va­can­cies in the 105-seat cham­ber — comes con­ve­niently on the eve of a fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign. And it isn’t a se­ri­ous bid to fix the place.

Mainly, it’s a stratagem to tem­po­rar­ily boost his Con­ser­va­tive party’s strug­gling for­tunes by align­ing the party with public dis­gust, pur­port­ing to throw the prob­lem into the pro­vin­cial pre­miers’ laps, and hop­ing to dis­tance him­self from it.

But the Se­nate mud will stick, no mat­ter what. The Red Cham­ber has sunk to a new low on Harper’s long watch, chiefly be­cause of his own poor judg­ment in ap­point­ing man­i­festly un­fit cronies to the place. And now his party is pay­ing a po­lit­i­cal price.

Dis­graced Sen. Mike Duffy’s trial on fraud and bribery charges is set to re­sume next month, and Harper’s for­mer chief of staff Nigel Wright is ex­pected to shed light on how he came to give Duffy $90,000 to re­pay dis­puted ex­penses. That can only mean more grief for the gov­ern­ment at the worst pos­si­ble time, as it trolls for votes in the run-up to the Oct. 19 fed­eral elec­tion.

Mean­while New Demo­crat Leader Tom Mul­cair and Lib­eral Leader Justin Trudeau have both tapped into public anger. Mul­cair, who is ahead in the polls and whose party is un­tainted by the Se­nate scan­dals, boldly prom­ises to abol­ish it de­spite the con­sti­tu­tional hur­dles. And Trudeau, with an eye to deep re­form, has tossed sen­a­tors from his party’s cau­cus and prom­ises to cre­ate a non-par­ti­san Se­nate if he comes to power.

Harper sim­ply wants to deny his ad­ver­saries the moral high ground, at least for the next three months, and to shift the fo­cus away from him­self. Hence his in­vi­ta­tion to Cana­di­ans to press their pre­miers to cook up the fix that he failed to de­liver. “I think public pres­sure will rise,” he said af­ter meet­ing with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

Maybe so. Cer­tainly, the vast ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans favour re­form or abo­li­tion. The polls leave no doubt.

But as the Supreme Court force­fully re­minded us last year, the Con­sti­tu­tion sets a high bar for both re­form and abo­li­tion.

The Se­nate is part of Canada’s “con­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture,” the high court ruled. Get­ting rid of the Se­nate would re­quire the as­sent of Par­lia­ment — in­clud­ing both the Com­mons and the Se­nate it­self — plus the ap­proval of all 10 prov­inces. And it can’t be abol­ished by stealth by al­low­ing va­can­cies to pile up. Even the lesser re­forms Harper once en­vis­aged — mak­ing the Se­nate an elected body, and lim­it­ing sen­a­tors’ terms — would need the sup­port of Par­lia­ment plus seven prov­inces with half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion.

And as na­tional colum­nist Chan­tal He­bert has noted, Que­bec Premier Philippe Couil­lard, for one, is more in­ter­ested in con­sti­tu­tional re­form that rec­og­nizes Que­bec’s dis­tinc­tive­ness. There’s not much of a con­stituency in Que­bec for Se­nate re­form for its own sake.

Cana­di­ans learned how hard it is to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion over Que­bec’s ob­jec­tions from the Meech Lake Ac­cord of 1987, which un­rav­elled, and from the Char­lot­te­town Ac­cord of 1992, which went down to de­feat in a na­tional ref­er­en­dum. Con­sti­tu­tional change doesn’t come easy in this coun­try. And few have the stom­ach for yet another round.

So Harper’s claim that “the ball is in their (the prov­inces’) court” doesn’t amount to much. It’s just a gam­bit to dis­tract vot­ers from his failed re­form bid, and the stench his ap­point­ments have caused.

This prime min­is­ter has gone full cir­cle from ar­dent Se­nate re­former, to in­ept Se­nate stacker to petu­lant Se­nate boy­cotter, all in a sin­gle elec­toral cy­cle, and all for per­ceived Tory ad­van­tage. This cyn­i­cal spec­ta­cle just never ends.

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