Published by Senator Colin Kenny on 15 December 2008
Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper really serious about burying the hatchet with non-Conservative parliamentarians in the interests of all Canadians? One major test will be whom he chooses to fill the 18 vacancies in the Senate -- and what marching orders he gives them.
After two years of resisting Senate appointments, Mr. Harper now wishes to fill the vacancies with Conservatives to help narrow the sizeable Liberal majority lest his government fall soon on a confidence vote in the Commons. The Liberals currently hold 58 of 105 Senate seats, compared to 20 for the Conservatives.
By the time Mr. Harper makes his appointments, the Liberal majority could be cut to 58-38. If the Conservatives manage to keep governing and Mr. Harper keeps appointing as senators retire at the mandatory age of 75, the Conservatives will have a majority by January 2010 -- only a little over a year from now.
Mr. Harper is well within his rights to make appointments and to make every one a Conservative if he so wishes. Speaking as a Liberal, I would actually welcome new Conservative faces. Over the past two years, the proud Senate tradition of non-partisan teamwork on issues of importance to Canadians has been badly eroded by the leadership of the Conservative minority. So let's have some new blood.
There is just one problem: What if the 18 new senators are given the singular mandate that seems to have seized the Senate Conservative leadership -- to destroy the institution itself because Mr. Harper, their all-powerful leader, doesn't believe in it?
If Mr. Harper chooses people who don't believe in the Senate and instructs them to keep throwing spanners into the works of Senate committees, he will prove the point that the Commons opposition parties made when they formed their coalition two weeks ago: that Mr. Harper really doesn't care much about making Parliament work for Canadians during a national crisis. It will illustrate clearly that he only cares about his own partisan objectives.
Why should you care? After all, it's just the Senate -- the cartoonists' favourite target, because many of its members are old and all are unelected. Well, you should care. The Senate has done some extremely valuable work on behalf of all Canadians over the years -- female Canadians, poor Canadians, aboriginal Canadians, sick Canadians, illiterate Canadians -- people the Commons often doesn't have time to bother with because there aren't many votes to be won.
There has been some criticism of the Senate (and some senators) that has been legitimate, but there has been a lot more that has been ill-informed drivel. My feeling on the Senate is that if Parliament wishes to reconstitute it -- even though it often works a lot better than the Commons, and just as hard -- then Parliament should go ahead and do so in a transparent and constitutional way. Otherwise, don't stand in the way of senators doing a job for Canadians. The Senate costs every Canadian $2.42 a year, and they deserve a return on their investment.
Instead of allowing senators to work in non-partisan harmony toward that end, however, Mr. Harper has managed to fill the Upper House with bile over the past two years. Here is a good example:
The Committee I have chaired for the past seven years, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, has produced 25 reports during that time on issues as pressing as airport security, Canada's mission in Afghanistan, our under-defended borders and clogged border crossings, and many others. Liberal and Conservative members of the committee have been critical of Liberal and Conservative governments alike for their molasses-like approach to improving the security of Canadians.
Former prime minister Paul Martin applauded our rigour, and told us to keep up the good work.
Mr. Harper, on the other hand, fumed. Then he decided that the non-partisan deputy chair was not keeping a lid on the committee, and appointed a new deputy who acknowledged that his role was to snuff out criticism of Mr. Harper's government.
Again, Mr. Harper is fully within his rights to appoint a battalion of new Conservative senators. If they come to work for a better Canada, I will welcome them, and so will other Liberal senators.
But the word on the street is that Mr. Harper only wants to appoint people who believe that the Senate should not exist.
If that's the case, a pox on Mr. Harper and his commitment to working in co-operative fashion to get Canadians through what are going to be some very tough times. Back to poking sticks in the faces of everyone who doesn't bow down and worship the emperor's wishes. Back to partisan bickering while the Canadian economy burns.
Colin Kenny was chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in the last Parliament.