Is Stephen Harper planning a late arrival to the Senate abolition party?

'Canada needs an upper house that provides sober and effective second thought'

John Ivison posits that the Harper government might, depending on how the Supreme Court rules, decide to push for abolition of the Senate.

The Conservatives argue that the Senate can be abolished under the constitution’s amending formula — section 38 — which states that any changes to the Senate would merely required resolutions in the House of Commons, Senate and seven provinces, representing 50% of the population (rather than unanimous approval).

If the Supreme Court agrees, it seems to me that we will see the Conservatives launch a full-on campaign for Senate abolition, in an effort to insulate Mr. Harper from accusations of being the Red Chamber’s patron. There appear few lengths to which this prime minister will not now go to distance himself from Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin — three of his 59 Red Chamber appointments.

John cited sources as suggesting as much earlier this summer.

How would Mr. Harper now make a case for abolishing the Senate? Let us leap into the rabbit hole of hypothetical arguments about hypothetical changes to the Senate.

It is not that Mr. Harper hasn’t previously allowed for the possibility of abolition. Here is what he told the House in October 2007.

Let me just say that I remain convinced the country deserves a reformed Senate, and an elected Senate for that matter, but the country needs the Senate to change, and if the Senate cannot be reformed, I think most Canadians will eventually conclude that it should be abolished.

The next day, Mr. Harper was more direct.

Mr. Speaker, I very clearly said that this party’s preference is to see a reformed and elected Senate, but the Senate must change; if the Senate cannot be elected, then it should be abolished. Those are the choices. 

A year later, his minister of state for democratic reform turned threatening.

Fletcher says he will introduce legislation to introduce eight-year term limits for senators, and a process to elect senators, as soon as the budget and economic issues are dealt with and issued a warning to any parliamentarians planning to block the reforms. “If we don’t get those reforms in a reasonable amount of time we will look to abolish it,” said Fletcher.

To its credit or curse, the government apparently holds an exceedingly generous view of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time.

But perhaps that patience has finally been exhausted. Perhaps the Prime Minister is feeling these days that he just would rather not ever have to think about the Senate ever again. Unfortunately, as the Prime Minister himself lectured the leader of the opposition just five months ago, abolishing the Senate is apparently impossible.

It is interesting to see that the NDP leader’s position is that the provinces should abolish the Senate, except he knows full well the provinces are not going to abolish the Senate. I do not know why he would not be honest with the Canadian people. If the Senate is going to exist, which it is, why would he not take the position of the NDP Premier of Manitoba, who said, “If there is going to be a Senate of Canada, I agree that future senators should be chosen through an election process.”

… Once again, the leader of the NDP knows full well that the provinces are not going to abolish the Senate. They are on the record on that. He knows the Senate will exist, so why will he not agree to elected senators?

Is it possible that, if the Supreme Court rules the provinces must agree (either unanimously or in the majority) to move forward with some form of Senate elections, abolition will somehow come to seem the easier option? Sure, anything is possible. But on what grounds would the Prime Minister argue for that abolition?

He could point to the recent travails of several senators, but then he appointed three of them. He could argue that achieving consensus is unlikely—perhaps on the grounds of something like the idea of equal representation—and so doing away with the contested thing is best, but would that represent some kind of new development? If public opinion shifts dramatically to the side of abolition, he could point to that. If a good number of premiers decide they support abolition, Mr. Harper could identify that as the path of least resistance.

Mr. Harper could conceivably argue that we don’t need a Senate. But then he’d probably have to explain when and why he changed his mind. Here is Mr. Harper’s testimony in 2006 to the Senate’s special committee on Senate reform. And here is what he said as part of his opening statement.

Honourable senators, I believe in Senate reform because I believe in the ideas behind an upper house. Canada needs an upper house that provides sober and effective second thought. Canada needs an upper house that gives voice to our diverse regions. Canada needs an upper house with democratic legitimacy, and I hope that we can work together to move toward that enhanced democratic legitimacy.

Mr. Harper thought (and seemingly still thinks) that Parliament could impose term limits and allow for consultative elections without the formal agreement of the provinces. On the matter of comprehensive constitutional reform to the Senate, he was of two minds. On the one hand, he thought abolition might be the only kind of such reform that could be achieved.

My observations over the last 20 years of federal-provincial politics, despite my relatively young age, are such that I do not see comprehensive Senate reform achievable today, except, perhaps, one kind of comprehensive reform — abolition. For that reason, I would urge all senators on this committee to conclude that step-by-step reform is the preferable way to proceed.

On the other hand, he hoped his proposed reforms would compel a discussion that he thought was necessary.

I can just say that my frank hope is that that process would force the provinces and others to, at some point in the future, seriously address other questions of Senate reform. There are questions such as the distribution of seats and the powers that we are all clear must be addressed through a general amending formula, constitutional amendment. I welcome the day when there is a public appetite for that discussion because I think the country needs it at some point.

There is no rule against changing one’s mind, of course. But if the Supreme Court rules that the Prime Minister will, one way or another, have to find agreement from the provinces to do anything substantial to the Senate, why not stick with the ideal that has supposedly guided the Prime Minister and his party all this time and (perhaps belatedly) lead that discussion?

(Mr. Harper’s testimony to the Senate committee in 2006 is an interesting artifact for a number of reasons, not least because of how he announced himself and his mission that day and the irony that must now be attached to those words.

I understand that, as you just said, this is the first time that a sitting Prime Minister has appeared before a Senate committee. This underlines my interest in Senate reform … As everyone in this room knows, it has become a right of passage for aspiring leaders and prime ministers to promise Senate reform on their way to the top. The promises are usually made in Western Canada. These statements of intent are usually warmly received by party activists, editorial writers and ordinary people but, once elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the government’s agenda, nothing ever gets done and the status quo goes on.

Honourable senators, this has to end for the Senate must change and we intend to make change happen. The government is not looking for another report but is seeking action.

Honourable senators, years of delay on Senate reform must come to an end, and it will. The Senate must change and we intend to make it happen. The government is not looking for another report — it is seeking action that responds to the commitments we made to Canadians during the recent federal election.

Six and a half years later, despite, by then, holding a majority in both the House and the Senate, Mr. Harper decided he wanted another report, this one from the Supreme Court.)

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