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Has PM Harper abandoned elected Senate?

By Kevin Gaudet
web posted August 9, 2010

Recently two of Stephen Harper's 35 appointed Senators flip-flopped on what, until now, was assumed to be their raison d'être. Senator Richard Neufeld now favours an appointed Senate instead of an elected one. Another Harper Senate appointee, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, says he now favours a mix of appointees and elected senators.

Given that as a condition for appointment, all of the Prime Minister's new senators promised to advocate for Senate reform and Senate elections, the PM should demand both Neufeld and Boisvenu resign. Importantly, it is way past time Mr. Harper got serious about Senate reform.

Talk of a 'triple E' Senate – elected, equal and effective – is long gone, but hope remained that future senators would, at least, be 'elected.' Unfortunately, it seems the Prime Minister would rather burn up political capital reforming the census than  the Senate.

Mr. Harper could be building even more political support if he were to campaign seriously for Senate reform. Demand for an elected Senate isn't just coming from the West. A recent public opinion poll by Angus Reid reveals that over 70 per cent of Canadians favour electing senators. In every single region of the country support for elected senators exceeds 66 per cent. An equally large number – 71 per cent – favour holding a referendum on the future of the Senate. 

The Angus Reid report states that "a majority of Canadians (62%) believe Harper is being hypocritical because he is appointing senators despite his long-standing opposition to the Senate in its current form." He could reverse this impression by putting political weight behind a re-commitment to elected senators.

So, why isn't he? Is it possible Mr. Harper has grown to enjoy handing out the patronage plums by appointing Tory cronies to the Senate? Perhaps many of the appointees equally like the comfort of the appointment without having to do the hard work of running for election.

It is interesting to note that the promise of not appointing Senators was his first promise to be broken. One of his very first acts as Prime Minister was a cynical move to appoint his loyal political campaign chairman, Michael Fortier, to the Senate. This was done as the usual sop to woo Quebec and Montreal votes.

At least to Mr. Fortier's credit he promised to run in the next election as an MP. He did so and lost. His actions were importantly more honourable than Senators Neufeld and Boisvenu.

To date, the PM's defense for having made 35 appointments (34 are still there as Mr. Fortier is not) to the Senate in only 54 months has been to argue that in order to get an elected Senate he needed to overcome the substantial Liberal majority in the Senate to pass bills relating to Senate reform. He argued that Senate appointments were a necessary evil to pave the way to an elected Senate. As unsatisfying as this 'the ends justify the means' argument is, one could see the practicality of it.

Harper did make some effort to appoint Senators who shared his views on the need for an elected Senate. When the PM vetted his appointments they were appointed on the condition that they would advocate and then run for an elected Senate. Also, some appointees have a history of publicly supporting an elected Senate; for example; Bert Brown (elected Senator from Alberta), Stephen Greene (Preston Manning's former Chief of Staff), Caroline Stewart-Olson (former Press Secretary to the PM) and Bob Runciman (Ontario provincial politician).

So when appointees like Neufeld and Boisvenu breach their contract by denouncing a fully elected Senate, the PM should have publicly denounced their betrayals. Instead, he has met these betrayals with public silence.

After getting rid of the two turncoats, the Prime Minister should unleash the remaining 32 appointed Senators, sending them across Canada campaigning to bring democracy and esteem to Canada's upper chamber.

So far the only progress on elected Senators other than in Alberta (who, unfortunately, recently reappointed its Senators-in-waiting, instead of holding an election) is a promise of Senate elections in Saskatchewan. That leaves eight provinces and three territories that need to follow Alberta and Saskatchewan.

On September 6th, 2006, Mr. Harper made a rare appearance before the Senate to appeal for Senate reform. He said "once elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the government agenda, nothing ever gets done and the status quo goes on. This must end." He has never spoken truer words. It is time the Prime Minister lived up to them. ESR

Kevin Gaudet is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. © 2010, Kevin Gaudet

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