Published by Senator Wilfred Moore on 05 November 2008
The Oct. 16th Globe article PM Prepared to Stack Senate repeated a deceptive new mythology being developed by the government to justify its total reversal on Senate elections and its abandonment of its Reform Party roots.
In the last Parliament, the Prime Minister launched an ambitious parliamentary reform package. He wanted to shorten the terms of senators and to establish a new method of selecting them while leaving the Senate’s powers intact. He also proposed to alter the formula for assigning House of Commons seats, to the detriment of Ontario and Quebec.
He used Senate seats as leverage, threatening to leave them vacant until his reforms were accepted. The constitutional rights of the provinces to representation in the Senate - the heart of the compromise that made Confederation possible – were cast aside. Provincial governments that did not fall in line by establishing a Senate “election” process would be punished by denying them representation.
By the end of the last session, the Senate selection bill was mired in a House Committee created to study this bill exclusively, the target of sharp provincial opposition, including threats of a constitutional challenge by the Government of Quebec. The National Assembly of Quebec passed a unanimous resolution opposing the bill and deploring the exclusion of the provinces from the constitutional process.
The battle was not going any better on the other two reform fronts. The government neglected its own Senate tenure and House of Commons representation bills, allowing them to languish at second reading for 9 months and 6 months, respectively.
In sum, Mr. Harper's failure on all three counts is no one’s fault but his own. He failed because he alienated the provinces instead of engaging them, and because he could not manage his own agenda in the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister seeks to assign blame to someone else. His bills were all introduced in the House of Commons, and they all died there. Yet to hear him tell it, the Senate is the culprit. This false narrative diverts attention from the Prime Minister’s recent signal of a 180-degree turn. He still wants to appear to push for elected Senators, but he wants to have his Senate appointments too.
The Prime Minister has a constitutional obligation to fill Senate vacancies. His explicit refusal to do so was a violation of the rights of the provinces - and of the people - to have representatives and advocates in both Houses of Parliament. Under his watch, the number of vacancies has risen to 17. British Columbia is missing half of its delegation, and my own province of Nova Scotia is deprived of 30% of its seats. Many seats have been vacant for years, including a PEI seat that has gone unfilled for 4 years and 3 months. By contrast, Mr. Harper filled the single vacancy that has occurred in his home province while the seat was still occupied.
For two years Mr. Harper ignored calls to do his constitutional duty by filling vacancies. I introduced a bill that would force him to do it. His ministers and caucus colleagues were deployed to oppose my bill and to defend his unconstitutional policy. But in the coming weeks, he is expected to reverse himself and fill every seat. That is what he should do. News of appointments will be testimony of Mr. Harper’s conversion.
In an attempt to draw attention away from this dramatic U-turn, the Prime Minister is trying to persuade Canadians that the devil (in the form of the Senate) is making him do it. He started out by musing that he might unilaterally abolish the Senate if it persisted in thwarting his reforms. This was an absurd statement given that they died in the House of Commons. It was all the more nonsensical given the level of provincial consent required for abolition. Nonetheless, he would like Canadians to believe that he needs to fill Senate vacancies in order to get his reform package through the House of Commons.
Furthermore, Mr. Harper has stated that it is his belief that the Senate should follow the will of the House of Commons. I would submit here that once again our Prime Minister is demonstrating his lack of respect for our Constitution which has provided for our two independent houses of Parliament. It is not the role of the Senate to do as Mr. Harper bids, and as much as he would like to have the Canadian public believe it, the Opposition in the Senate is not responsible for ushering in the government’s agenda.
The false narrative of Senate obstruction distracts from the real reasons for Mr. Harper’s failure. First, as Prime Minister of a federation, he took a unilateral approach to constitutional change. Second, the record of the House of Commons shows that none of these bills were a priority for Mr. Harper. Given the way they were neglected by the government in the last session, while it gave priority to 30 other bills that passed into law, it is hard to characterize them as anything more than window dressing. In the Parliament that is about to open, we can expect those bills to be introduced and neglected for the same cynical reasons. All the more ironic, then, that Mr. Harper would hold them up as justification for swallowing himself whole.