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Harper is not Serious About Senate Reform

Stephen Harper is not serious about senate reform.

Despite his announcement last week that he plans to stop filling vacancies in the upper chamber until the senate is reformed, his track record on the issue is very poor.

Stephen Harper, cc: pmwebphotos (Flickr.com)
Stephen Harper, cc: pmwebphotos (Flickr.com)

Harper was first elected to parliament in 1993 as the Calgary West MP for the Reform Party, which was well known for its stance favouring a Triple-E (equal, elected, effective) senate. Since becoming Prime-Minister nearly 10 years ago, his only substantive action on senate reform has amounted to just two things: appointing senators elected in ad hoc Alberta elections and asking the Supreme Court to write an opinion on senate reform. The latter move merely provided him with the opportunity to throw his hands in the air andclaim that reform was impossible.

Harper has actually done more to harm democracy vis-avis the senate than he has to help it. Appointments like those of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have irreparably harmed the vision of the Senate as a house of sober second thought. Moreover, he has used his influence over the Conservative majority in the red house to water down the effect of its work.

The recent passage of union busting private member’s Bill C-377 is a prime example. The ideologically driven and poorly developed legislation passed through the House of Commons in December of 2012 after receiving support of the government caucus which has lead many to believe that the bill is a de facto government bill disguised as a private members bill. In the summer of 2013 the Senate, led by Conservative Hugh Segal, sent it back to the Commons for amendment. The parliamentary budget officer and privacy commissioner expressed serious concerns with the bill and the senate exercised their due diligence. This presumably enraged Mr Harper. He prorogued parliament that summer and as a result the bill came back to the senate in its original form. Fast forward to the summer of 2015 when the bill ends up being passed by the senate without amendment. Getting there wasn’t easy. The Conservatives had to overrule their own senate speaker, they had to introduce new rules to invoke closure on debate of private members bills and they had to wait out the terms of senate rogues like Segal. In short, it was an abomination of process.

You see for Harper, senate reform is not a priority as long as the senate does his bidding. He’s tried this moratorium on appointments before. When he first became Prime Minister in 2006 he refused to appoint senators that were not elected. He gave up on that strategy by December 2008 when he was faced with a senate that would not cooperate with his agenda. Harper has become the Prime Minister he decried as a Reform MP in 1996:

“Canadians from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia remain ashamed of Canada’s senior legislative body. They are ashamed the prime minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.”

Stephen Harper’s latest move on the senate is quite possibly illegal, but it is also a shrewd power play that demonstrates a popular disdain for the senate while guaranteeing that he will have majority control over it as long as he needs it.

Canada's Premiers meet in July 2015. C: cof-cdf, Flickr.com
Canada’s Premiers meet in July 2015. C: cof-cdf, Flickr.com

If he actually wanted to do something meaningful on senate reform the Supreme Court has laid out the conditions for reform and it requires the support of the provinces. If he actually wants this then he should start talking with them. Unfortunately he has never taken the opportunity, as he continues to refuse to join in on Council of the Federation meetings.

I think that deep down he’s just not that serious about it.