There’s probably no better promise for a politician than one they make knowing that the courts will keep them from delivering.
Welcome to the federal election campaign, and the Senate.
As we go into the current election, at least two federal prime ministerial candidates have made promises about the Senate: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he won’t fill Senate seats, thus killing the place by attrition, while Tom Mulcair has said he’ll get rid of the Senate outright.
Both are angling for popular support based on the general disapproval Canadians feel for the well-disgraced upper chamber, but both also know that neither of their options will really work.
James McGrath, a nine-time Progressive Conservative member of Parliament from Newfoundland and a full-time pragmatist — and if that’s not enough credibility, a man who actually turned down a Senate seat when it was offered — points out that the candidates had better have a Plan B. And they should. Why? Neither Harper’s nor Mulcair’s stated positions actually fix anything. Harper’s decision to just not appoint any more senators is, in fact, a sign that he’s willing to violate the Canadian Constitution to get his own way: the Constitution says that the Governor General, on the advice of the prime minister, “shall … summon qualified persons to the Senate” with the prime minister’s advice.
“Shall” does not mean “may not,” or “when the prime minister feels like i,t if he ever does.” And Mulcair’s approach? Good frigging luck there — you can promise that everyone will have their own money tree, too, but it doesn’t mean you can invent such a thing. ( Justin Trudeau has promised reform and has pitched senators out of the Liberal party, but hasn’t made the details clear yet.)
The Supreme Court has already made it abundantly clear that the federal government will need the support of seven provinces with half the country’s population in order to introduce even changes as simple as having term limits or elected senators.
And let’s face it: there isn’t a provincial government in this country that doesn’t view any sort of constitutional change as primarily an opportunity to stuff its pockets with any federal benefits it can demand or, frankly, extort.
“Hello, premier of Manitoba, it’s the federal government, we’d like your help to change the Senate.”
“Well, OK, but in return, we want a Sparkle Spirograph, an RV, a PS4 — oh, and $34 billion in no-stringsattached gravy — sorry, rural development money. And a pony. And we’ve heard you’re giving Nova Sco- tia a free pass to the circus. We want that, too.”
You get the idea — and there would still be at least six provincial governments left to call.
But back to Plan B. McGrath’s idea is that provincial governments could submit a list of five names every time a seat opens in the Upper Chamber, and that the federal government could then make a choice from among those names.
It wouldn’t eliminate politics from the Senate equation, but it would be better than having the prime minister stuff the chamber with cronies, press assistants, bagmen and hacks — the kind of appointment strategy, by the way, that has made the Senate exactly what it currently is. If you spend a decade flagrantly urinating in a well, it’s disingenuous to then claim that you’re upset because the water’s contaminated and no one can drink it anymore.
If governments actually appointed qualified, experienced people to review legislation and seek to improve it, we might actually end up with something that, well, works. Too bad we didn’t have something that worked when the Harper government was passing Bill C-51.
The Senate is, for all practical purposes, here to stay. Let’s at least try to make it better.