Harper’s Senate boycott is a cynical bid for votes
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.