Why nothing gets done on Senate reform - Macleans.ca

Why nothing gets done on Senate reform

Martin Patriquin explains why the status quo is here to stay


In a column that could have been written yesterday afternoon, L Ian MacDonald said the following about Senate reform in 1985:

When Canadians think of the Senate at all, they clearly don’t think much of it, which is why the New Democrats in the Commons think they’re on to a good thing in calling for the abolition of the upper chamber.

The truly cynical would say the column was an attempt by MacDonald, who would become speechwriter for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney later that year, to tamp down the expectations of the voting public. After all, the same voting public elected Mulroney in part because he would put an end to what Peter C. Newman called “the orgy of patronage appointments” of previous Liberal governments. I was a tyke at the time, but I still remember my old man watching the debate when Mulroney made John Turner’s campaign go poof! by delivering that famous “You had an option, sir” line in that indignant, fuck-off baritone of his. Turner’s crime, in large part, was appointing three senators during his three months as Prime Minister. Mulroney was disgusted and promised change. I think the old man even voted for Mulroney—though I doubt he’d admit as much in polite company.

Of course, this change never came. Once entrenched in office, Mulroney made a few noises about Senate reform. He appointed journalist Richard Doyle, noted advocate of an elected Senate, to the red velour chamber in 1985. He mused about a time limit on Senate vetos and debates. He promised a first ministers conference on Senate reform. And then, poof! Doyle did absolutely nothing for his cause, leaving the Senate in 1998 exactly as it was in 1985. That is to say, as the clubby, patronage-rife clique Mulroney ostensibly complained about. That Senate conference was rolled into Meech Lake, and died when Meech Lake died.  Mulroney, too, had an option—and he said yes to combating the Liberal Senate majority with an orgy of his own, appointing 57 Senators in his four years.

In short, Mulroney realized in 1985 exactly what Stephen Harper probably realized in 2006, when his transition from renegade anti-Senate egghead to canny Canadian Prime Minister was complete. It’s this: as grossly undemocratic as it may be, the Senate has both power and the benefit of history and inertia. Ergo, it’s a helluva a lot easier to join the hoard then continue to attack it. What we’re living through right now, as the Wallins and the Brazeaus and the Duffys and the Harbs inspire the usual spittle-inducing rage amongst opposition politicians and headline writers alike, is a slight refrain of what we saw nearly 30 years ago. And it’s yet another indication that the Senate, in all its current unseemly, patronage-y glory, is here to stay.

In his famous “firewall” letter to Ralph Klein in 2000, Harper urged the Alberta Premier to “force Senate reform back onto the national agenda.” The 2004 Conservative platform said a Harper government would only appoint elected senators. And like Mulroney, Harper made all the right noises about Senate reform once in power. In 2007, he appointed Alberta’s Bert Brown—the first elected member in nearly two decades. He raised the possibility of electing senators alongside MPs. “I will not name appointed people to the Senate,” Harper said in 2004.

If you forget all this, it might be because the noise of Harper’s own patronage orgy firing up in earnest. Barely a month after his election in 2006, Harper   appointed Michael Fortier to the Senate to serve as a de facto (unelected!) MP for the Montreal area, where the Conservative ranks were left a bit thin following the 2006 election. And he hasn’t really stopped since.

In six years, Harper has appointed 58 senators, and is approaching what took Pierre Trudeau 15 years to accomplish. Another two, and he’ll have tied the modern-day record set by Justin’s dad. You read that right: when it comes to patronage appointments, the rah-rah, formerly fervent anti-Senate activist Stephen Harper is behaving exactly like a wanton Liberal. Worse than a Liberal, even.

It brings to mind a speech Harper gave in those baby-fresh days of his government in 2006. “As everyone in this room knows, it has become a right of passage for aspiring leaders and prime ministers to promise Senate reform—on their way to the top,” he said. “But once they are elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the Government’s agenda. Nothing ever gets done. And the status quo goes on.”

How true.


Why nothing gets done on Senate reform

  1. We need to modernize the country, and our politicians are holding us back. Wonderful.

    • I don’t know if I’d say “holding us back” so much as lying about the practicality of enacting the change they claim to support.

      After all, it matters not one bit what the federal politicians think. They need seven premiers representing more than half the population to get through any of the types of changes that have been sugested.

      And more importantly, they need either the premier of Ontario or Quebec to agree. Without one of them it can’t happen, because they house nearly 2/3rds of the population between them. One or the other would have to be willing to relinquish either their representation in terms of numbers, or representation altogether in the case of abolishment. Since Ontario and Quebec simply won’t have that, and have been ultra-clear on that point, the whole thing’s a wash.

      And the politicians know it too. They just prefer to pretend otherwise to drum-up support.

      • Costs us money and time and constant problems, and is totally unnecessary.

        Holds us back.

      • “or representation altogether in the case of abolishment.”

        It’s a fallacy to suggest provinces have any kind of representation from the senate. What kind of representation does Mike “The Duff” Duffy offer PEI? A big fat zero. The province doesn’t even believe he lives there. The only one he represents is the PM who appointed him.

        In a democracy, a politician has to be elected in order to represent people. It’s absurd to appoint senators; pointless to elect them.

  2. Well, Mulroney did indeed end the orgy of patronage appointments by Liberal governments and replaced it with an orgy of patronage appointments by a Conservative government. And Harper has learned that lesson very well.

  3. You may want to stick in a lot after helluva.

    Good post… One off Pierre’s score eh. Bet that’ll impress the boys in Calgary a whole bunch.

  4. If memory serves, from the Mulroney Tapes (Peter Newman) I think it was, we later learned that while Mulroney was admonishing Turner he already had made his own list of senate appointments.

    And here we go again talking about the problems with the Senate in an article that points consistently and strictly to where the real problem is : with a prime minister’s power to recommend appointments to the GG (who cannot turn the recommendations down). That is the problem, we know it. But we don’t want to deal with the real problem. We would rather get distracted and we talk about the senate rather than the pm, mostly because the pm tells us to do so. Talk about having our strings pulled by the executive while in a responsible government it should be the people’s representatives holding the strings on the executive.
    The problem with the Senate has since 1867 sat centre front row in the house of commons.

    • Bang on Loraine, and well put.

    • The real problem is appointing politicians in the first place. The concept is absurd. In a democracy, politicians represent people which is why they are elected by them. Appointed politicians are not answerable to anyone, except the person who appointed them.

      The senate is all government waste. Commons committees do a better job of “second sober thought.” Provinces don’t need senates; neither does the federal government.

      It’s human nature to cling to institutions. But in the case of the senate, it’s misguided. The senate is the appendix of government which has been inflamed with corruption since Confederation. The most effective senate reform is also the simplest and easiest to achieve: appendectomy.

      • Depends on the definition of politician – if you mean a person engaged in party politics to seek and exercise political power, then I agree with you. Senators should not exercise power (i.e., Fortier, should never have been a minister). Senators can propose but they should never dispose. Elected politicians must have the last word: that is democracy.

        It’s in my human nature to wonder why there is no unicameral federal state on this planet. I seek answers; I get insults. It doesn’t offend me one bit but it doesn’t fill my need for answers. Some claim that our institutions have made Canada a state where democracy doesn’t exist, a country that lags behind the rest of the world. I disagree. I live in one of the most modern developed countries on earth, IMO, and this development occurred with the institutions we have. Before we throw them under the bus, I would like to know the merits of having Canada, a vast, decentralized, non-homogenous federation undergo a radical change and become the one and only unicameral federation on the planet.

        The corruption has always stemmed from the House of Commons, yet nobody is even attempting to correct that. I think it should be the starting point.

        • “It’s in my human nature to wonder why there is no unicameral federal state on this planet.”

          You mean it’s human nature to make utterly false assumptions like that?

          Your use of the word “radical” just goes to prove my point. James Burke talks about institutions in “The Day the Universe Changed.” People tend to believe it’s radical or revolutionary to challenge an institution. That leads to cognitive dissonance: people employing rationalizations to fend off uncomfortable facts.

          Wiki: Abolished upper house (contains list of unicameral nations)

        • “The corruption has always stemmed from the House of Commons, yet nobody is even attempting to correct that. I think it should be the starting point.”

          This is an example of a rationalization. This statement implies the elected House of Commons is the real problem with our democracy, which is to say democracy is the problem with democracy. It makes no real sense and is merely a rhetorical device that attempts to distract and deflect criticisms about the senate.

          Clearly Harper’s abuses of power had led to many democratic reform platforms over the past years from various parties. The main problem is we have an undemocratic voting system that awards unfettered power to a minority party. The fix is electoral reform. With the exceptions of Canada and the UK, all developed countries have voting systems that ensure a majority of voters is represented in government (the literal interpretation of democracy as opposed to our ironic one.)

          BTW, Trudeau has a pretty good democratic reform package (which would be cover all the bases if “Abolish the senate” was added):

          1. Open Nominations
          2. Loosen the Grip of the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament
          3. Enact Electoral Reform (Preferential Voting)
          4. Ban Partisan Government Advertising
          5. Embrace Evidence-Based Scrutiny (independent, third-party oversight)


      • Just to add to my already long comment…. It is not strictly my opinion that I live in one of the most modern and democratic countries in the world. The Economist, and others, measure democracy by country, and Canada is usually in the top ten out of about 190 countries. Criteria include:

        1. A competitive, multiparty political system.
        2. Universal adult suffrage.
        3. Regularly contested elections conducted on the basis of secret ballots, reasonable ballot security and the absence of massive voter fraud.
        4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open campaigning.

        I am more concerned about politicians whose goal in life is to to destroy the competition and the growth of voter fraud and voter suppression. These phenomenoms are more damaging to democracy in Canada than a non-elected chamber of sober second thought that plays no role in government.

        • Interesting bit of legerdemain, that definition. Me, now, I would keep it simple – maybe call a country a ‘democracy’ if it had a system in place which ensured that the will of a majority of informed, engaged citizens managed to get expressed as government policy. Not sure if any country we call a ‘democracy’ in the English-speaking west at least would qualify, certainly not Canada, where it is a pretty rare occurrence for any majority of the people to agree with what any government gets up to. In Canada, at least, we might say we have a system rather jokingly called ‘democracy’ which ensures that the will of the dominant wealthy minority gets expressed through a tweedledee-dum-dumber party system, which is ‘legitimized’ because all ‘recognized’ parties are actually subsets of the dominant Bay St Corporate State Party, enabled by the delusion of the people that they live in a ‘democracy’, a delusion maintained by the mainstream media constantly telling them what a great democracy Canada is, you people!! We do it better on Green Island – http://www.rudemacedon.ca/greenisland.html .

  5. You make it sound as if Stephen Harper is acting badly because he has appointed lots of senators. Here’s my question. Doesn’t the number of appointments have to do with the number of vacancies and not the moral disposition of the PM? That is my impression.

    • The number of appointments has to do with Martin leaving a number of seats unfilled, and Chretien’s habit of appointing older people to the Senate. Senate comes from the word senior, he used to say, and he didn’t want to pay them big pensions (contingent on how many years one sits in the Senate).

      I see two moral problems with Harper’s appointments.

      First, he chooses people he knows are under investigation for fraudulent activities (Finley) and unethical behaviour (Brazeau, Duffy), or people who cannot read (Demers). This is amoral and Harper must bear full responsibility for his decisions.

      Second: unlike his predecessor, all Harper appointees sit with the Conservatives. Paul Martin appointed a former conservative minister (Andree Champagne) and Hugh Segal, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney. Segal resigned from the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee because the government “wished to appoint a more ideologically conservative Senator to the role after the committee issued a report critical of the Conservative government’s foreign aid policy” (wiki). The moral problem here is that Harper obstructs the Senate’s work and uses it for political propaganda.

    • It’s at the Prime Minister’s discretion on both whether and how to make appointments DL. So of course he’s breaking his word, and of course it sucks, but I’d argue that he’d be hard pressed to do anything else practically speaking.

      Even my desire for a merit based appointment system would be difficult to set up, unless the change was based on stipulating a supermajority of votes from the house. Then at least changing it again in the future would be more difficult.

      But then to set that up he’d have to ensure that the inital vote in parliament to enact it had supermajority support from the house. Think he’ll get that?

      I don’t know DL, more and more this topic just seems like a distraction from more pressing issues.

    • Actually, leaving huge vacancies in the Senate might have been an interesting roundabout way to reforming it. What happens to the Senate if two-thirds of the seats are vacant and the Prime Minister refuses to fill them? He probably could have forced the issue quite effectively had he stuck to his guns on it.

  6. Politicians like to tell us what we want to hear, and they’re rarely honest with us about the real difficulties in making certain types of changes. Yet somehow people still buy into these promises, even after they’re broken decade after decade.

    The simple fact is that any meaningful change to the senate requires a constitutional ammendment, and that’s about as likely as hell freezing over. All the fiddling at the edges we hear about is essentially meaningless really.

    Want an elected senate that actually works? You need to change the seat distribution, which requires a constitutional ammendment. Oh sure you can create a defacto elected senate, sort of, but without changing the distribution you simply hand more power to Ontario and Quebec, which completely defeats the whole point for most people supporting senate change in the first place.

    OK then, you say you want to abolish the senate? You can’t even play around the edges of this. You absolutely need a constitutional ammendment to do that, and there is no way in hell Ontario and Quebec will agree to that. Not ever. And without at least one of them, you can’t meet the threshold needed to change the constitution. So this one’s just dead in the water. Lost from the word go.

    So while we all know the status quo doesn’t work, given the circumstances, the only thing we could actually do at this point is insist on some sort of merit based system of selection for senators that bypasses the Prime Minister’s absolute power.

    But of course the proponents of change don’t want that at all. It sounds like giving up to them, and perhaps I would agree with them if I held their views, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that what they want would require far more popular support amongst the voters and the provincial governments than currently exists. It’s not even close in fact. They have no hope at all of getting either type of change in place.

    So to me, unless you’re talking about somehow decentralizing control of the appointments, you’re essentially talking about nothing at all.

    And you know what? That’s exactly what the politicians prefer you to talk about. They’d much rather you fight silly rhetorical battles than actually hold them to account for their day to day actions.

    We’re played for fools over and over again, and I’m amazed at how many people fall for it. It’s bloody embarassing.

    If we honestly and truly want to see change happen in the senate, we need to come to a consensus on a premise that will actually work. The only possibility other than the status quo, is to decentralize the selection proccess.

    As far as I’ve come to see it, if you’re not supporting decentralization of the selection proccess, then you are defacto supporting the status quo. You are reinforcing the absolute power of one person, one highly partisan person, to place their cronies and bootlickers into positions of great power. Is that what you all want? Because that’s what most of you are supporting.

    • Reforming the senate requires political will to do so, and as long as the senate lacks the legitimacy of representing people (ie- elections) the will is not going to be there.

      As a first step having senatorial elections has a chance of making people actually care enough about the senate to want to cooperate in reforming it.

      The consensus of which you speak is not going to arise de novo, but must be cultivated and nurtured.

      Thus far Harper has put into the senate every single possible elected senator; it’s not his fault that the other provinces have been laggard in not holding elections. And that’s de facto accomplishing exactly what you suggest in decentralizing the selection process.

      • How much you want to bet that neither Ontario nor Quebec will EVER choose to elect senators? Think about it: why would a premier want someone in the senate with an electoral mandate essentially representing the same region as they? Someone they will now have to convince and contest and deal with?

        Premiers are no less desirous of power than the Prime Minister. The premiers of Ontario and Quebec have been against elected senators no matter who’s been in power as a result.

        But let’s assume I’m wrong there and it does happen. Does that make things better for the west now? Nope.

        Giving democratic legitimacy to the senate will only increase the power of Ontario and Quebec over the west. They’d have a democratic mandate AND way more seats than everyone else. Talk about an effective control over federal legislation! I mean good grief, has anyone thought this out at all???

        And once that’s established, do you honestly think they’ll then give up that incredible power in constitutional talks they effectively control with their massive populations? LOL

        Dream on brother, dream on.

        • Unless you can think up a better way to approach the matter???

          At some point we can hope to have at least some statesmen among our politicians.

    • “The simple fact is that any meaningful change to the senate requires a constitutional ammendment, and that’s about as likely as hell freezing over.”

      That’s utter nonsense. All that’s required for a constitutional amendment is simple-majority support in 7 of 10 provinces. If there’s a national referendum that gets that kind of support, the senate’s fate is sealed: no premier will be able to stand in the way of democracy.

      Mulroney’s constitutional blundering failed because he brought in sweeping changes everyone wanted a say in and no one could agreed on. A single-issue constitutional amendment is a different story altogether.

      People who say any constitutional change is impossible because of Mulroney seem to forget Trudeau brought in the Constitution Act a few years before. Was hell frozen over in 1982?

      • I think you’ve lost the modern context here Ron. The Constitution Act of 1982 almost failed multiple times throughout the process, and the issues of the day were far more straight forward in many regards.

        Do you honestly believe we could open the constitution now without everyone clammering to ammend a dozen other things? Other things that will cause even more disagreement? People have scores to settle now you know.

        Besides which, a referendum result will not be clear. Look at the polls as they stand. People are split between abolishment (the ultimate removal of power) and democractic empowerment (the ultimate endowing of power).

        Those things are absolute opposites for pete’s sake. A premier could take whatever stance they want with results like that and appear justified.

        And as I pointed out, neither the premier of Ontario nor Quebec will EVER agree to reduce their power in the senate if it is to be given a powerful democratic mandate. Without those two provinces no combination of votes of the other 8 matter, since they have less than 50% of the population.

        So…want to make a gentleman’s bet? Hell will freeze over before anyone agree to open the constitution again.

  7. message to patriquin,political parties dont appoint senators,PMs do,bonehead ! if you said SH is acting like JC or BM,than i would agree with you,but you seem to want to use your brush to paint certain political parties you dont like.

  8. easier to join the hoard then continue to attack it.

    Shouldn’t this read, “easier to join the herd…”?

  9. The Reform/Canadian Alliance didn’t read the fine print when they essentially bought the Conservative Party history from Peter McKay in 2004. Namely, that if they get to cling to Sir John A MacDonald as their politically conservative predecessor, then they’re going to have to face a cruel truth – the person who succeeded Sir. John A as Conservative PM was a senator (John Abbott). In 1894 the Conservatives gave us another senator-come-Prime-Minister, Mackenzie Bowell.

    That’s two PM’s who’ve been unelected senators – both from the Conservative Party (or at least the party they claim to have heritage from when it suits them).

  10. If you can’t change ’em, join ’em. So if no-one will go along with Senate Reform, why blame Harper for packing it?

  11. Unfortunately in the political realm carved out here in Canada, a majority vote precludes majority representation by elected officials. This ouccurs because our counytries elected officals are determined by the whims of creative minds rather than equality of representation. When a 38% electoral vote is reflected in a majority government something is wrong with the math, the representation and our rights as Canadian citizens.

  12. The annual cost to taxpayers to keep the Senate is approximately $60M including all the ridiculous perks. Why do we continue to accept this charade that they mask as a necessary process of government. If the constituion needs to be changed then change it. We as Canadians need to take a page from the First nations people and start demonstrating and closing down important pieces of infrastruture. It certainly gets results when they demonstrate. Idle rhetoric does nothing to bring about change

  13. To quote Mr. Mulroney “you had an option sir” and Mr. Harper certainly has not weighed the options very well, no problem filling the senate but keep true to your word, “I will not name appointed people to the Senate”. If you say you will only appoint elected senators then only do that until the senate is empty but for them. Some good lessons from Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, the former appointing older representatives to the senate, effectively limiting terms and the later leaving vacancies and making clearly less partisan appointments that in themselves were examples of senate reform in the making. There are simple solutions to all problems you just have to be prepared to accept them. Senate reform is something that could be accomplished in small bites on a regular discussion basis but Mr. Harper won’t even talk to the Premiers so where does the problem lie? There is past evidence that the Premiers are prepared to relinquich senate seats to appease the greater good, witness David Peterson during the Meech Lake discussions. No doubt the current problem is with the current PM, dictators it appears do not like discussion!

  14. You
    either demand performance you are promised or shut up and take the ‘porking’
    you deserve for your silence! Never forget Harpers Con party was formed by an allegiance
    of 2 western parties; separate NDP and LIBERAL parties guarantee many more
    years of this kind of Gov’t. Amalgamate or fold; YOUR egos are out of control
    worse than Harpers!

  15. I read all of these comments and say okay we know the problem! The more obvious problem is WE do not DEMAND from our elected officials to fix it. We all hear the words accountability and transparency and somehow the TRUE definitions get lost and why? The taxpayers are spineless and choose to ignore the problem because we have been brainwashed to believe differently!