How did Patrick Brazeau rate a seat in the Senate?

Removed from this week’s news, it’s a question worth asking

When Canadians hear the Prime Minister calling Senator Patrick Brazeau’s situation “extremely appalling”—from Stephen Harper, uncharacteristically vivid language—they might well wonder how this character rated a Senate seat in the first place.

The short, glib answer is that he didn’t. In a way, no senator does. Our continued tolerance of an upper chamber in our Parliament that exists to be packed with partisan patronage appointees remains a national embarrassment—or would be if we thought about it much.

But Brazeau’s personal downfall is, of course, entirely distinct from the institutional problem of a standing affront to democracy right there on Parliament Hill. Nobody should suggest that the charges of assault and sexual assault laid against him today somehow reflect on the Senate in general.

And yet the natural question about how Brazeau got there to begin with is worth asking. If you imagine it’s inexplicable, try reading, for instance, the transcript of the June 16, 2008 Senate committee hearings into the Harper government’s bill to finally amend the Canadian Human Rights Act so that First Nations would no longer be exempt from its protections.

Back then, Brazeau headed the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which aims to represent off-reserve natives. He had championed bringing all aboriginals under the act. “Many band councils do not believe they have human rights obligations to their own people,” Brazeau declared at one point that day, adding later: “Let us face it—some chiefs themselves are the perpetrators of the discrimination that is experienced by First Nations citizens.”

The record of his incendiary performance reminds us why Brazeau drove the traditional First Nations’ leadership in Canada to distraction—and why Conservative politicians were drawn to him. Harper was looking to break away from having to negotiate mainly with the Assembly of First Nations. On winning power in 2006, he had alienated the AFN by ditching the previous Liberal government’s Kelowna Accord, and the promise of billions that came with it.

In the context of that broader game plan, Harper’s appointment of the controversial Brazeau to the Senate made sense. Now, everybody knows how it worked out: string of escalating controversies, culminating with Brazeau’s arrest this week after police in Gatineau, Que., across the Ottawa River from the capital, responded to a domestic 911 call.

Not only did elevating Brazeau turn out horribly, the political strategy behind it proved ephemeral. The Tories have largely abandoned their earlier approach of trying to work around the AFN. Harper has, in the past couple of years, tacked toward working with the assembly’s congenially cautious national chief, Shawn Atleo. In the era of Idle No More, the AFN looks less like an obstruction and more like an essential partner.

And so, even if we ignore the sordid developments of the past few days, Brazeau’s case reminds us that Senate appointments are frequently made based on short-lived political tactics and fleeting partisan calculations—just about the worst reasons to give anyone a lushly compensated, long-term position.

Will it ever be fixed? Don’t bet on it. Way back in 2006, Harper proposed his two-pronged approach to reform: provincial elections to choose the senators a prime minister would appoint, and nine-year term limits so those senators wouldn’t be hanging around until 75.  But only last week did his government get around to deciding to ask the Supreme Court of Canada, in what’s called a constitutional reference, whether it can proceed with the reforms on its own. The court could take two years to deliver its opinion.

Even the judges, though, can’t answer the real question: Do Canadians really want a respectable, democratic Senate? You might think the answer is an obvious, Yes, especially after this week. No more lousy patronage appointees. But think about it. A truly reformed Senate would have the legitimacy to challenge the House of Commons on a regular basis, and even compete with provincial governments to represent provincial interests. Have we agreed to that fundamental change in how we’re governed?

These issues have not been seriously addressed by the Harper government. But earlier this week, the National Post reported that Senator Bert Brown, who was appointed to the Senate by Harper in 2007 after being selected in an Alberta vote, said the Prime Minister is open to trying to pass a constitutional amendment that would put strict limits on the Senate’s ability to reject a bill sent to it by the House. Intriguing.

Of course, gaining provincial consent for such a constitutional amendment would be an extraordinarily tall order, perhaps impossible. And Harper has steadfastly avoided any hint of being willing to even try. I asked his office for a reaction to the report about Brown’s comments.

“I can’t speak for Senator Brown, but I can say that those views do not accurately reflect the views of the government,” said Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s communications director, in an email. “The path forward is the reference to the Supreme Court, and a term-limited Senate selected through democratic elections.”

Pressing ahead on that path without first nailing down how a reformed Senate’s power would be limited is, in my view, a reckless undertaking. After this week, though, the disreputable status quo on the Senate looks harder to support than ever. At least appearing to be pursuing a plan for reform, however flawed, may be politically indispensible.