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.”