With defeat comes reward. At least that’s the case for Larry Smith, Fabian Maning and José Verner, Conservative candidates who were all defeated in the May 2 federal election.
After his new cabinet was named with no discernable controversy and a measure of praise, Prime Minister Stephen Harper mentioned that he had made three new appointments to the Senate — the above mentioned individuals who were rejected by voters — and unleashed a highly-critical reaction from the media, opposition parties and even long-time Conservatives who were appalled that a prime minister would reward failure with patronage plums after he promised to do better.
It has always been believed that Harper had a plan to reform the Senate, including the imposition of term limits of eight years and allowing the election of senators who presently do not have to retire until age 75 and on average spend 12 years in the Senate. Harper once said he will not be making any Senate appointments during his term in office, seemingly a recognition that he has little respect for how it’s now formed. But over the course of his first five years in office, he has made over 30 such appointments.
When he announced the three most recent appointments, Harper claimed in a statement: “Our government will continue to push for a more democratic, accountable and effective Senate.”
Apparently, Harper’s promised reform is reserved for another day. Meanwhile, the three failed Conservative candidates have landed jobs in the “chamber of sober second thought” that command an annual starting salary of $132,300. Of course, Smith and Fabian were senators prior to resigning their seats in the Old Boys’ Club to run in the last election, so as not-so-new senators they can expect a raise.
Right-of-centre newspapers have blasted the prime minister, who formerly could do not wrong in their estimation, with complaints of blatant political patronage and hypocracy, saying the appointments mock what Conservative supporters had voted for in the last election. But these newspapers should consider what Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier said of the Senate 105 years ago. Laurier quite aptly summed up the role of the Senate as a patronage plum for political cronies that always follows party lines. “When I come to the moment of selecting (for a vacant Senate seat),” he said, “if I have to settle between a Tory and a Liberal, I feel I can serve the country better by appointing a Liberal than a Conservative, and I am very much afraid any man who occupies the position I occupy today will feel the same ...”
In 1906, the Winnipeg Telegram called the senate “a refuge for men who could not win a seat in the Commons.” A statement that Harper confirmed applies as much today as it did back then.
On April 30, 1906, the House of Commons debated the very issue of Senate reform. Perth, Ontario, MP G.H. McIntyre put forward a resolution in the House to limit the tenure of senatorial appointments to 15 years and compulsory retirement at age 80. At the time, a Senate appointment was for life.
The Telegram said the debate went on for several hours, and that Prime Minister Laurier said there had been from time to time outbreaks of popular sentiment for Senate reform, but no one could really agree upon a set of changes.
Laurier said a second chamber was necessary: first as a check upon hasty legislation, and secondly, it provided a safeguard to the smaller provinces against the infringements of their rights.
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, called the Senate, the chamber of “sober second thought” against the vagaries of the democratically-elected House.
Today’s Senate can delay, refuse or amend the passage of legislation from the House of Commons, but by convention it rarely does. The Senate can introduce legislation, but cannot introduce financial legislation which is the solely the role of the House of Commons.
“As to an election to the senate — by whom should it be elected?” asked Laurier in the 1906 Telegram article.
Laurier said he would not support an elective or a provincial system of appointments, although he was well aware of the imperfections of the existing system.
Many members of the former Reform Party, especially from Alberta, remember that the party called for a triple-E Senate: Equal, Elected and Effective. It was Alberta that elected the first senator-in-waiting, Stan Waters, who was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990. Of course, Mulroney had already put the Senate into disrepute by making a spat of eight new appointments to overcome the Liberal majority in the Red Chamber in order to pass the controversial GST bill. In an orgy of new patronage appointments during his last months of office, Mulroney also appointed 15 new senators.
“For ten years the Liberals (under Laurier) had been in power,” the Telegram paraphrased Opposition Leader (Conservative) Robert Borden as saying, “yet except on occasions when the senate threw out a bill Sir Wilfrid Laurier had made no attempt to reform the senate. On that occasion he had endeavoured to have passed in all the provincial legislatures calling for the abolition of the senate.”
This is the long-time position taken by the federal New Democrat Party. When Harper made the three appointments to the Senate, Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin again called for the abolition of the Senate, citing Manitoba’s example from 1876, when the provincial legislature abolished the Executive Council, more commonly referred to as the Manitoba Senate.
Since the Liberals controlled the House of Commons in 1906, the Senate reform resolution came to naught. As a result, Senate reform was once again on the backburner, and is now only brought up when a politician sees some political advantage that can be gained.
Although Harper said term limits (and later elections for senators) could be imposed unilaterally by Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1980 that any changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate would require the approval of seven provinces, representing 50 per cent of the Canadian population. Yet, there had been a precedent set to support Harper’s proposal — Parliament unilaterally in 1965 approved the retirement age of 75.
But as Harper so clearly recently demonstrated, Canadians should still take heed Laurier’s 1906 warning “that so long as the appointing is as it is today, in the hands practically of the First Minister (prime minister), I am afraid we stand little chance of reform.”