Senate reform: Stephen Harper decides it’s not worth the effort

The Supreme Court ruling disappoints the Prime Minister

A worker carries a bench while preparing the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Speaking to a public audience less than 24 hours before the Supreme Court was due to release its ruling in the Senate reference, Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, seemed to attempt to assure the nation of Stephen Harper’s resolve.

“The Prime Minister,” Poilievre explained, “will take every opportunity that the court gives him to make the Senate democratic and accountable to Canadians.”

A day later, seated on a stage in Kitchener, Ontario, Stephen Harper, quite literally, threw up his hands.

Shrugging with up-turned palms, the Prime Minister declared himself “disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s “decision for the status quo.” The Court ruled, you see, that implementing elections or term-limits for senators would require the agreement of at least seven provinces representing more than 50% of the combined population of the provinces. Furthermore, abolishing the Senate would require the unanimous agreement of all provinces.

Constitutional federalism is hard. And so, well, never mind. (Reviewing the tape, one notes that Mr. Poilievre had, in recounting the history of elected senators so far, slipped in a reference to not changing the constitution.)

Indeed, lest there was any doubt the government was hereby giving up, Poilievre was sent back out this afternoon with the message that the government had no desire to reopen the constitution.

So let us amend the minister’s statement of yesterday. The Prime Minister will take every opportunity that the court gives him to make the Senate democratic and accountable to Canadians, provided said opportunity does not involve anything too difficult or time consuming.

Do not act surprised. Because Stephen Harper did warn you this might happen.

“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 Prime Minister said seven-and-a-half years ago, making an unprecedented appearance before a Senate committee studying a proposal of his government—an appearance that supposedly underlined his “interest in Senate reform.” “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.”

But on that day in September 2006, perhaps tempting the gods of fate, Mr. Harper vowed  this time was different.

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

Unless, of course, another report explains that action will be more difficult than getting a bill through the two houses of Parliament. In which case, forget it.

The Harper government had by then tabled a bill in the Senate to change the tenure of senators. And in the House it would soon table “An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate.” Five more bills would follow during the years of minority government. One would be sent off for study and be the subject of seven committee hearings before dissolution killed it. S-4, the government’s first effort, would get the furthest—being kicked around for a year before the Senate decided that it wanted to hear the Supreme Court’s view on the bill’s constitutionality. That was in June 2007. The final four bills would get no further than first reading.

The Conservatives might not have had much chance of getting a bill through those parliaments, but then the spring of 2011 came and the electorate filled more than half of the seats in the House of Commons with Conservatives. And, with a majority in both chambers, the Harper government tabled C-7, a comprehensive reform bill, on June 21. The bill would be called for debate seven times, but the opposition parties would continue to insist on wanting to talk about it. Did the government move, as it has so often otherwise, for time allocation? Did it call the bill over and over until the opposition parties had exhausted themselves? Neither. Instead, the bill collected dust for 11 months and then the government appealed to the Court for guidance—the announcement of that appeal sent out under the headline, “Harper Government Advances Senate Reform.”

When that appeal reached the Court, Mr. Poilievre explained that the government was seeking a “legal instructional manual.”

In other words, the government had spent seven years looking at, thinking about and periodically fussing over the component parts of a piece of furniture splayed out on the floor in the spare bedroom only to suddenly decide that perhaps it might call the hotline on the box and ask for a set of instructions to be mailed over.

This is close, in fact, to a perfect metaphor for the Senate’s place in our collective home. It is the nagging issue ever in need of repair, but never quite worth attending to. We could get to it and we probably should get to it, but it’s not absolutely necessary—the house isn’t going to collapse if we never doing anything about it—and there is always something more important, or at least more interesting, that comes along.

And now Stephen Harper has learned what it would take to fix it—our national contractor has given him an estimate—and he has decided it’s not worth the trouble.

At least maybe unless and until seven provinces representing 50% of the population come to him of their own initiative with a fully drafted and agreed-upon solution that is to his liking. Perhaps then he’d have to consider doing something more than the relatively little he’s done so far.

So what now? Probably not much.

Some are already calling for a referendum. Most likely that would be nothing more than a non-binding waste of everyone’s time—in my favourite scenario, a resounding majority in every province would vote for abolition, except in Prince Edward Island, the equivalent of a mid-sized Ontario town scuppering the whole thing.

Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are apparently holding fast to their dream of doing away with the chamber. And while I personally sympathize with the idea, we now know for sure that getting away with it will require the consent of ten provincial legislatures (and don’t forget that referendum in British Columbia). Expect to hear much more of Jack Layton’s old rallying cry about not letting them tell you it can’t be done. But, what with the reopening of the constitution that would involve, expect various others to argue that it shouldn’t be done.

And so somehow it seems that in-over-his-head Justin Trudeau has something like the most easily plausible proposal for Senate reform. First, kick senators out of House caucuses. Second, maybe come up with some kind of non-partisan appointment process.

The latter will no doubt be the subject of some discussion in light of the Court’s ruling. But if Mr. Trudeau is truly serious about it he should be expected, upon becoming prime minister, to immediately refer his proposal to the Supreme Court. (Though even if he only gets the first part, it might still be better than anything anyone else has ever managed.)

If there is anything to lament here, it might be that eight years were wasted before we knew what was necessary to do what the government proposed. Never mind whether the government got the answer it was looking for today, should it have thought to ask earlier?

If it had, Mr. Harper might’ve had as much as eight years to see what could be done to pursue the sort of consensus he now says doesn’t exist and he now doesn’t seem much interested in trying to create. Or perhaps, after he’s gotten over his disappointment, he’ll surprise us.

On that September day in 2006, he was seemingly full of hope and principle. Asked by Conservative Senator Hugh Segal to consider how a Senate with “consultative” elections and term-limits would be balanced with the House of Commons—that the two houses might find themselves at impasses that could not be unbroken was a point never sufficiently addressed—the Prime Minister allowed himself to dream aloud.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Alas, what we “need” now seems as far away as ever. And Stephen Harper seems set to go down as another promise-bearing prime minister who leaves only the status quo behind.