Senate appointments: "There oughtta be a law"

John Geddes on why the 'patronage chamber' is an affront to democracy

There is no appointment to the Senate that sits well with me. The patronage chamber is an affront to democracy no matter who gets to ride its gravy train. But to appoint individuals who have only just been rejected by the voters in an election, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper did today, compounds the insult.

Jack Layton commented on this very situation during the recent campaign when he talked to Maclean’s editors and writers. The NDP leader alluded to the day in the House back in 2007 when Harper seemed open, if only for a tantalizing moment, to the idea that the Senate could be abolished after a referendum.

“Stephen Harper was getting frustrated and he said essentially, well, y’know if certain things don’t happen, maybe we should have a referendum on the Senate,” Layton recalled.

“We kind of came that close, but then he saw the opportunity to put in an awful lot of his friends, even defeated candidates. Now, why doesn’t that get commentators more upset? Defeated members of Parliament! Somebody who is turfed out, then getting appointed to the Senate! I mean, pardon me, but there oughtta be a law.”

The response of the Conservatives to this sort of complaint is that they are trying to incrementally reform the red chamber, by moving toward term limits and the election of senators.

Unfortunately, as I’ve argued before, this stealthy reform process amounts to fundamentally changing how we’re governed—turning the Senate into a centre of political power to rival the House and the provinces—without bothering to debate the matter in any serious way, let alone convene a real federal-provincial constitutional negotiation. Big change just shouldn’t happen this way.

So scrapping the Senate is the preferable route, although getting the provinces to go along with it, as the Constitution requires, would be no easy task. Still, Harper did seem, on that day Layton remembered, to recognize abolition as at least a theoretical alternative. Here’s that Oct. 17, 2007 exchange in the House:

Layton: …Many provincial leaders in this country support the abolition of the Senate. So, let me ask the Prime Minister seriously, is he willing to open up a dialogue with provincial leaders regarding the steps that would need to be taken to abolish the Senate? If it is broken, let us abolish it now.

Harper: Mr. Speaker, as I just said, this party’s preference has always been to see a reformed and elected Senate, but if the Senate cannot be reformed, the only other alternative would be to abolish it. I think we recognize that.  Once again the leader of the New Democratic Party is in a bit of a contradiction. He cannot blame the Senate for having unelected senators when he himself refuses to pass legislation to allow senators to be elected.

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