Looking closely at the Prime Minister's new Senate stance

Harper adjusts his Senate strategy

He didn’t emerge in support of abolishing the Senate—but the Prime Minister’s plans are still worthy of scrutiny. John Geddes explains

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t come out in favour of scrapping the Senate today, as advance speculation predicted, but his comments at a joint news conference with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall were worth paying close attention to anyway.

Harper’s remarks had three key parts: one meant to frame a revised Conservative stance on the Senate; the second to give Tories a way to defend themselves against the NDP’s abolition policy (although he didn’t say so explicitly); and the third to cast the Liberal reform position in a bad light (again, of course, without the PM quite saying so).

1. Adjusting his Conservative position: “There are now 22 vacancies in the Senate and, let me be clear, it will be our policy to formalize that there will be a moratorium on further Senate appointments.”

By vowing not to name any more senators, Harper aims to distance himself from the upper chamber, and avoid further reminding people of his undeniably embarrassing record of 59 appointments, which includes the suspended trio of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.

But Harper also contends that refusing to replenish the Senate’s supply of patronage appointees as the old ones bow out will somehow prod the provinces into realizing that something must be done to fix the place, which brings us to his next point.

2. Defending himself against NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s abolition position: “It will force the provinces over time—who, as you know, have been resistant to any reforms in most cases—to either come up with a plan of comprehensive reform or to conclude that the only way to deal with the status quo is abolition.”

It is by no means clear how letting Senate seats sit empty will put any real pressure on the provinces. Even if they did take notice, as Harper assumes they will, it’s not obvious why the premiers would come closer to a consensus on reform, or agree amongst themselves on the need for abolition.

Still, Harper’s position does give him something new to say when Mulcair pitches abolition as the answer. Rather than having to explain an inevitably more complex case for reform, Harper can now fire back that he would accept abolition, too—if that’s what the provinces decide. And that sets Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apart as the only leader not talking abolition, which brings us to Harper’s third point today.

3. Casting the Liberal position as counterproductive: “The government is not going to take any actions going forward that would do anything to further entrench that unelected, unaccountable Senate.”

This was perhaps the strangest line in Harper’s comments today. After all, who has suggested that he might do something to further entrench the Senate? Nobody, of course. But Tories will argue that Trudeau’s policy—to create a new non-partisan process for appointing respectable senators—would do just that.

Early last year, you’ll recall, Trudeau took the dramatic step of kicking the Liberal senators, 32 at the time, out of his party’s caucus. He pledges, if he wins this fall’s election, to set up “an independent-minded, non-partisan group” to draft lists of promising individuals from which the prime minister would appoint new senators.

Trudeau’s position has the major advantage of not requiring difficult constitutional negotiations with the provinces (a point the Liberal leader repeated today). It looks as though Harper’s tack will be to argue that Trudeau’s plan, by making senators more acceptably non-partisan, would entrench a flawed institution.

So the Prime Minister’s comments today try to do three things: Distance Conservatives from the tainted Senate, make Mulcair look less distinctive in his pro-abolition position, and suggest that Trudeau’s way of making the Senate better would only make it more permanent.

It all adds up, not to a bold new policy, but to a strategic recalibration.


Harper adjusts his Senate strategy

  1. What strategy?

    Appointing hustlers, cheerleaders and the illiterate?

    • 1. A Senate is a must, 2. A Senate must be responsible.
      Without a Senate the P.M. with an absolute majority could become a ‘Dictator’ ‘Dictateur’ . This has happened in other Countries.
      The Senate must be elected by the people at a alternate time to the general election.

      Love it or hate it the U.S.A. Senate elect system functions much better.

      • When it’s not gridlocked

        And the PM with a majority is a dictator now….the Senate can’t stop him

        Be serious

  2. No problem, as long as he promises that should the provinces come up with a plan he will whip his caucus in the house and senate to adopt the provinces’ solutions whatever they may be, without any amendment or court challenge.

    He doesn’t want to meet the premiers, he doesn’t want to get involved, he says it’s up to the provinces, fine. Everything should be up for grabs, from the executive power of the Canadian government to its ability to adopt any legislation without the consent of provinces.

  3. “Trudeau’s position has the major advantage of not requiring difficult constitutional negotiations with the provinces (a point the Liberal leader repeated today). ”

    Well that and the fact his plan is the only one that is actually achievable.

    It is a sad state of affairs when the only party leader who is honest with voters actually gets punished for that. If he had a little less integrity he could join Harper and Mulcair in their dishonest and untenable positions.

    • Gee whiz! Emily can’t read, Lorraine can’t think and Gale forgets that nobody wants the senate anyway. If no party appointed senators as Harper is not doing then the senate would just disappear.

      • EXACTLY!!!

      • OK. I see this is super duper hard for you, so I will try to dumb it down.

        First, FYI, it’s Gayle, with a “Y”.

        Second, I get that some people do not want a senate. That is not the issue. What IS the issue is that it takes a constitutional amendment to achieve that goal. Neither Harper nor Mulcair is talking about that. Trudeau is. Hence the honesty thing. (IE: It cannot “just disappear” without the amendment).

        Let me know if you are still having trouble understanding. Constitutional law is hard…

        • Explain to me why none of the provinces have complained about the current 22 vacant Senate seats. Looks like Harper’s position is one he already has underway with no noise from the colonies.

          • Explain to me why that is at all relevant to constitutional reform.

            (I know, I know. Constitutional law is hard).

          • Simple: the provinces are not as irresponsible with taxpayers’ money as Harper is.

            There case will be heard in a BC court. The provinces will wait for the results of the federal elections before they throw money into taking this to court.

      • That’s Loraine with one “r” by the way. I can’t think, at least not like you, that because nobody wants the senate it will disappear.
        Mr. Harper asked for answers from the Supreme Court of Canada as to the legality of some possible proposals. It responded with some inevitable truths:

        “The Senate is one of Canada’s foundational political institutions. It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation.”

        And, to your argument:

        “The mention of amendments in relation to the powers of the Senate and the number of Senators for each province presupposes the continuing existence of a Senate and makes no room for an indirect abolition of the Senate. ”

        In case you didn’t have a chance to read it:


        • To both Loraine an d Gayle my apologies for mis-spelling your handle. To Loraine, thank you for the reference to the SCC reference and I stand corrected. It looks like it is a real no win situation as the big provinces (Quebec and Ontario) wouldn’t stand still to lose their big majority of Senate seats and the West is underseated. Not that the whole thing is in anyway useful except as a slop pail for the undeserving. I think we have to bite the bullet and open up the constitution and get rid of the useless charge on the taxpayer. I don’t buy that it has ever done anything useful that a committee of the Commons couldn’t do, considering the problems it causes.

    • Trudeau is not being punished for being honest-I have no way of assessing his degree of honesty-he is being recognized for what he is-shallow and inarticulate.

      • Sigh. Maybe read the whole article and try again.

        • No-just do two things. Recognize that he can neither think nor articulate. He has his father’s swagger and his mother’s brains.

          • Maybe Trudeau can’t think or articulate but Harper can’t think or articulate or do anything at all. He just sits, and it shows.

          • I recognize that you don’t know what you are talking about, and that you think making things up substitutes for rational debate. I think that’s all I need to do.

  4. For all the Cons on here……the Supreme Court has ruled that you can’t eliminate the Senate by ‘stealth’……that is, by refusing to appoint people until the place disappears.

    The country must CHOOSE to get rid of the Senate, and amend the Constitution accordingly.

    And no that doesn’t mean a free-for-all on the constitution. We’ve already amended it at least 10 times.

    • Amendments to the constitution since 1982 were done in accordance with s. 43, provisions relating to some but not all provinces. For example, New Brunswick asked that the constitution be amended to make it an officially bilingual province. These amendments require resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of the province to which the amendment applies.

      In the case of the Senate, the Supreme Court made it clear in its April 2014 reference:

      “The Senate is one of Canada’s foundational political institutions. It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation.”

      “Abolition of the Senate would therefore fundamentally alter our constitutional architecture — by removing the bicameral form of government that gives shape to the Constitution Act, 1867  — and would amend Part V, which requires the unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces under s. 41 (e) of the Constitution Act, 1982 .”

      I wish that a touch of the abolition wand would do it but abolition puts into question the existence of the federation as we have known it for 148 years. Free for all is a good term. We would need very strong leadership, and Harper himself recognizes that he doesn’t have what it takes.

      • I believe I already said the country would have to agree…..but a little horse-trading would solve that.

        Crikey….it wouldn’t cause Armageddon. Countries have broken up, or come together,,,, changed things completely,,,, without Armageddon.

        The federation isn’t sacred you know…..we can rearrange it to suit ourselves.

        • Mr. Couillard’s minister announced yesterday his interest in pursuing reform but not abolition.

          « Dans un pays aussi vaste que le Canada, on ne peut prétendre que le gouvernement fédéral [est] un gouvernement de proximité. Pour que soient mieux prises en compte les réalités des provinces de l’Atlantique, du Québec, de l’Ontario, de l’Ouest et du Nord, il est nécessaire de réformer le Sénat afin qu’il joue efficacement ce rôle de représentation régionale. » Jean-Marc Fournier, minister of inter-governmental affairs.

          This prime minister of Canada who would presumably remain responsible for the expenses incurred in federal institutions has indicated he will not meet with the provinces on the Senate. The provinces must agree amongst themselves first, he claims, without giving any assurance that he would accept an agreement without amending it in any way before submitting it to Parliament, or contesting it in court.

          My opinion: Harper is just squandering money on the Senate issue for political gain. Same old. The man who has presented himself successfully to the electorate as the champion of Senate reform sees no political gain in resolving the issue.

          “Countries have broken up, or come together,,,, changed things completely,,,, without Armageddon.”, true, but not without responsible leadership.

          • ?? We get whatever leadership there is at the time.

            Had Quebec departed it would have instantly thrown everything into a cocked hat.. and we would have had to deal with the chosen leadership of Quebec

          • Em, I think the “responsible leadership” reference is aimed at Harper (and properly so), not the leadership of Quebec.

  5. Speaking from a neutral point of view, Harper, or whoever the CDN P.M. is, can leave the CDN Senate seats vacant for only so long. Constitutionally, vacant Senate seats are REQUIRED to legally be filled after a certain amount of time. Harper can not wait forever to appoint new senators. He is simply VIOLATING the CDN Constitution if he does not do so. It does not matter what his position or policy is. The CDN Supreme court and/or the Gov. General would have to pressure him to appoint new senators. I am not going to claim to be a legal expert but I would guess that the Head of the Supreme Court would have to get directly involved in seeing that new senators are appointed. Anyway, Harper is going to lose the election anyway and we will soon be rid of this dictator and bully of an idiot Conservative P.M. Yea!!

    • Harper really doesn’t value the Constitution – he sees it only two ways: As a nuisance, blocking his totalitarian leadership desires; and as something to use to fire up the right by deliberately passing laws that he knows will not pass muster, so he can blame the “activist courts”.