Fri, Aug
28
2009

The Real Hypocrisy of Stephen Harper's Senate Appointments

Fri, Aug 28, 2009

Busy week this week. After the visit to the CNE, I’ve been working on the final book of my three book commission. It’s crunch time, now. I’ve also had to deal with kitchen renovations. I’m excited about both. So blogging has had to take a back seat. But I couldn’t help but notice the pocket controversy surrounding Stephen Harper’s nine new Conservatives to the senate.

Or, dare I hope, eight Conservatives and one independent. After all, if Demers hasn’t followed federal politics until now, how do we know what he’ll think about the day to day activities of parliament? And I’d like to see Harper try to keep Demers under his thumb if Demers isn’t interested in staying there. Sometimes a good body check into the boards is what our prime minister needs.

But let’s set aside the hypocrisy of Stephen Harper madly appointing unelected Conservatives to the senate after promising not to, and criticizing his predecessors for using the senate as a patronage vehicle to reward old friends. It’s not like Harper’s doing anything illegal. The act itself of abiding by the constitution and filling senate vacancies is perfectly moral and above board. After all, the senate represents Canadians too, and it would be a shame to reduce such representation while we wait out reform.

No, my biggest concern is the blindly partisan nature of these appointments. With these nine new senators, the standings now equate to Liberals 53, Conservatives 46, Independents 6. You can see what he’s trying to do: he’s trying to gain himself a Conservative majority in the senate in order to ease his path through the legislative agenda.

But Canadians did not give him a majority mandate. His party simply does not deserve a majority of seats in the senate. If we were to take the election results from last year and apply them to senate seats, then the standings should be as follows:

Conservatives: 40
Liberals: 27
New Democrats: 19
Bloc Quebecois: 9
Green: 8
Independents: 2

…making adjustments, of course, for regional differences in voting, et cetera.

Now, I know that this make-up is impossible given the previous Liberal stacking of the senate, but the fact is people who have campaigned for senate reform, such as Stephen Harper has done, have criticized the senate for three specific reasons:

  1. the senate is unelected, and senators have no mandate from the people to govern.
  2. the senate is unbalanced, giving far more representation to older, smaller provinces like those in the Maritimes, while short changing large provinces like Ontario and growing provinces like Alberta and British Columbia.
  3. the senate is unrepresentative, with its members appointed at the prime minister’s whim, and tending to reflect the colours of the party the prime minister of the time happens to represent.

I can respect it if Harper is a little frustrated over not being able to convince provincial parliaments across the land to set up senate elections, or (eek!) open up the constitution to alter the balance of senate seats, but point three is still within the prime minister’s power. All he has to do is appoint senators that cross political lines. He has his quota of Conservative and Liberal senators in the upper chamber, so where are the other voices? Where are the Greens? Where are the New Democrats (although, noting that the NDP refuse to accept NDP senators, how about non-NDP senators that embrace NDP policies)?

It’s this point, more than anything else, that exposes Harper’s political cynicism. It’s one thing to be frustrated that he can’t motivate the country and parliament sufficiently to get senate elections, or a redistribution of seats, but the power to make the senate representative was always with him.

And just like the predecessors he so criticized, he chose not to use it. Shame on him.


Further Reading

Conservative Andrew Coyne does not spare his delicious venom:

I suppose you can mount some sort of chess-playing rationale for Harper’s latest descent: he had to appoint somebody — might as well be people whose loyalty he can depend upon; with a majority in the Senate as early as next year, he’ll be in a better position to pass Senate reform; if he’d appointed respectable, upstanding pillars-of-the-community types, the kind with cross-party support, he’d simply be rehabilitating the status quo. So you see, by appointing egregious partisan hacks, he’s actually still a reformer.

But if that’s his strategy, why be so timid about it? Why not appoint his horse? Or convicted criminals? Colin Thatcher to the Senate!

(link / hat tip)


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