Not any more

Remember the Triple E Senate — elected, equal, effective?

In Canada on December 11, 2010 at 12:20

OTTAWA — A majority of the 36 senators appointed by Stephen Harper have close ties to the prime minister and the Conservative party — despite Harper’s previous scathing criticism of the upper chamber as a patronage dumping ground for Liberal “cronies.”

The Senate appointees — who are paid an annual $132,300 salary and can claim thousands of dollars more in expenses for travel, accommodation and meals — come from different walks of life, but many share a common bond of political service to Harper and the Tories. They include Harper’s own former press secretary (Carolyn Stewart Olsen); the former chief fundraiser for the Conservative party (Irving Gerstein); the former Conservative party president (Donald Plett); the Quebec co-chair for Harper’s 2004 Conservative leadership bid (Judith Seidman); the national campaign director who ran two of Harper’s federal elections, including the one that vaulted him to power in 2006 (Doug Finley) and several defeated Tory candidates who were rejected by voters when they sought a seat in the House of Commons.

The list of appointees is sprinkled with others who now sit as Conservative senators but who had no formal Tory ties: former journalists Mike Duffy, Linda Frum and Pam Wallin; former Olympic skier Nancy Greene Raine; ex-NHL coach Jacques Demers; and victims-rights advocate Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu.

But political observers say what stands out about Harper’s record on Senate appointments is the fact that they include so many well-connected Tories, and that the prime minister is doing so little to pressure the provinces into holding elections to choose senators.

A review of Harper’s appointments shows 21 of the 36 have strong partisan links either to Harper personally or the Conservatives (federal and provincially) and their predecessor parties — the Reform party, the Progressive Conservative party, and the Conservative Party of Canada.

“It’s hypocritical,” says Kevin Gaudet, national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “It’s easy for people to be extremely disappointed in watching him do exactly everything he used to criticize. It sends the important message that politicians will say one thing and do another. It’s not hard to see the reason why people are frustrated and apathetic with politics. It fuels that cynicism.”

Gaudet says the hypocrisy might be easier to swallow if Harper was doing more than just tabling Senate reform bills in Parliament that have been going nowhere. “The prime minister has a bully pulpit that he chooses to use on any number of issues. Why not use it on this one? Why not convene some kind of national conference? Why not bring it up publicly with the premiers in a meeting? Why not push hard on this?”

Harper’s use of the Senate will increasingly hold centre stage in national political debate. The Conservatives, with 52 of the Senate’s 105 seats, now have a plurality which gives them increased control of the upper chamber. With pending retirements, Harper will have a chance to appoint more Tories in the months ahead, giving him an outright majority.

Harper says he is intent on gaining control of the Senate so he can quickly implement government bills that come from the Commons. Just as important, he makes no apologies for how the Conservatives will flex their muscle in the Senate by blocking opposition-driven bills that are passed by the minority House — something which the Tory senators did recently by killing a climate-change bill initiated by the NDP.

David Docherty, a Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor, says Harper used Senate-bashing for many years as “fodder” to gain grassroots voter support. In opposition, Harper blasted the Senate as an undemocratic institution where the governing Liberals sent their well-connected faithful to be rewarded for service to the party. He promised Senate reform, insisting “only candidates elected by the people will be named to the upper house.” Furthermore, he pledged to “cease patronage appointments to the Senate.”

But once in office, Harper’s actions on Senate appointments didn’t match the rhetorical pledges, says Docherty. “He’s playing the same game that former prime ministers did, except people like Jean Chretien were open and honest about it when they said ‘That’s what it’s there for.’ ”

Eventually, predicts Docherty, Harper will pay a price.

“That’s what’s going to come back to haunt him because it’s one thing for a prime minister to say, ‘Absolutely this is what I’m doing.’ And it’s another to say, ‘This Senate is full of old political hacks. I’d like to change it, but until I do I’m going to keep on filling it with old political hacks.’ That’s where the hypocrisy comes in.”

Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s press secretary, says the prime minister hasn’t given up on his goal of Senate reform.

On several occasions, the Harper government has tabled Senate reform legislation that has been stalled because of opposition complaints the legislation is flawed and perhaps even unconstitutional. One bill would set eight-year term limits instead of allowing senators to remain in the chamber until they are 75.

The other bill would establish a framework for provinces to voluntarily hold elections for senators. If this system were enacted, the prime minister would choose from the election winners for his appointments to the upper chamber.

“At every step, the government has faced opposition,” says MacDougall. “You can only bring forward legislation for reform and work at it for a long period of time and continue to bang your head against wall while getting nowhere. And then realizing that if we’re going to make this happen legislatively then we’re going to have to appoint some people who believe, as we do, that the Senate needs to be reformed.”

During his first three years in power, Harper tread cautiously — appointing only two senators (Michael Fortier, the former Montreal Tory organizer who attracted controversy when Harper immediately sent him to the Senate upon assuming office in 2006 and who later resigned to unsuccessfully seek election as an MP; and Bert Brown, who was chosen by Harper in the wake of an election in Alberta for Senate nominees).

MacDougall says Harper waited the three years because he hoped the existing Senate would pass reform legislation. “I think what you’ll see now is you’ll have a Senate that reflects the ideals of the prime minister, that wants to see reforms changed. We’re serious about it.” In response to criticism that Harper’s appointments mirror the Liberal patronage practices he once criticized, MacDougall says all the senators are “firm believers” in how the Senate must change. He says the government’s view is that “people should not be appointed for their party affiliation, but neither should they be discounted as candidates because of a party affiliation.

University of Ottawa history professor Michael Behiels says Harper knows his Senate reform plans are riddled with problems and won’t get buy-in from the provinces. Still, he says the prime minister must play to his base by continuing to promise action that will go nowhere.

Behiels thinks Harper has a plan up his sleeve: bring so much disrepute to the Senate that Canadians explode in anger, giving him the excuse to hold a referendum on whether to implement constitutional change to allow for direct election of senators.

In the wake of that referendum, with a mandate for change in hand, Harper would then call a meeting with premiers to push for constitutional amendments, says Behiels.

“This is the long-term game plan. Let’s make this thing so disruptive that Canadians are going to say we have to get rid of it. So he’s creating a crisis.” In the meantime, say observers, it’s business as usual in the red chamber.

Mark Kennedy writes for Postmedia. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mark_kennedy

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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