Is Stephen Harper planning a late arrival to the Senate abolition party? -

Is Stephen Harper planning a late arrival to the Senate abolition party?

‘Canada needs an upper house that provides sober and effective second thought’


John Ivison posits that the Harper government might, depending on how the Supreme Court rules, decide to push for abolition of the Senate.

The Conservatives argue that the Senate can be abolished under the constitution’s amending formula — section 38 — which states that any changes to the Senate would merely required resolutions in the House of Commons, Senate and seven provinces, representing 50% of the population (rather than unanimous approval).

If the Supreme Court agrees, it seems to me that we will see the Conservatives launch a full-on campaign for Senate abolition, in an effort to insulate Mr. Harper from accusations of being the Red Chamber’s patron. There appear few lengths to which this prime minister will not now go to distance himself from Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin — three of his 59 Red Chamber appointments.

John cited sources as suggesting as much earlier this summer.

How would Mr. Harper now make a case for abolishing the Senate? Let us leap into the rabbit hole of hypothetical arguments about hypothetical changes to the Senate.

It is not that Mr. Harper hasn’t previously allowed for the possibility of abolition. Here is what he told the House in October 2007.

Let me just say that I remain convinced the country deserves a reformed Senate, and an elected Senate for that matter, but the country needs the Senate to change, and if the Senate cannot be reformed, I think most Canadians will eventually conclude that it should be abolished.

The next day, Mr. Harper was more direct.

Mr. Speaker, I very clearly said that this party’s preference is to see a reformed and elected Senate, but the Senate must change; if the Senate cannot be elected, then it should be abolished. Those are the choices. 

A year later, his minister of state for democratic reform turned threatening.

Fletcher says he will introduce legislation to introduce eight-year term limits for senators, and a process to elect senators, as soon as the budget and economic issues are dealt with and issued a warning to any parliamentarians planning to block the reforms. “If we don’t get those reforms in a reasonable amount of time we will look to abolish it,” said Fletcher.

To its credit or curse, the government apparently holds an exceedingly generous view of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time.

But perhaps that patience has finally been exhausted. Perhaps the Prime Minister is feeling these days that he just would rather not ever have to think about the Senate ever again. Unfortunately, as the Prime Minister himself lectured the leader of the opposition just five months ago, abolishing the Senate is apparently impossible.

It is interesting to see that the NDP leader’s position is that the provinces should abolish the Senate, except he knows full well the provinces are not going to abolish the Senate. I do not know why he would not be honest with the Canadian people. If the Senate is going to exist, which it is, why would he not take the position of the NDP Premier of Manitoba, who said, “If there is going to be a Senate of Canada, I agree that future senators should be chosen through an election process.”

… Once again, the leader of the NDP knows full well that the provinces are not going to abolish the Senate. They are on the record on that. He knows the Senate will exist, so why will he not agree to elected senators?

Is it possible that, if the Supreme Court rules the provinces must agree (either unanimously or in the majority) to move forward with some form of Senate elections, abolition will somehow come to seem the easier option? Sure, anything is possible. But on what grounds would the Prime Minister argue for that abolition?

He could point to the recent travails of several senators, but then he appointed three of them. He could argue that achieving consensus is unlikely—perhaps on the grounds of something like the idea of equal representation—and so doing away with the contested thing is best, but would that represent some kind of new development? If public opinion shifts dramatically to the side of abolition, he could point to that. If a good number of premiers decide they support abolition, Mr. Harper could identify that as the path of least resistance.

Mr. Harper could conceivably argue that we don’t need a Senate. But then he’d probably have to explain when and why he changed his mind. Here is Mr. Harper’s testimony in 2006 to the Senate’s special committee on Senate reform. And here is what he said as part of his opening statement.

Honourable senators, I believe in Senate reform because I believe in the ideas behind an upper house. Canada needs an upper house that provides sober and effective second thought. Canada needs an upper house that gives voice to our diverse regions. Canada needs an upper house with democratic legitimacy, and I hope that we can work together to move toward that enhanced democratic legitimacy.

Mr. Harper thought (and seemingly still thinks) that Parliament could impose term limits and allow for consultative elections without the formal agreement of the provinces. On the matter of comprehensive constitutional reform to the Senate, he was of two minds. On the one hand, he thought abolition might be the only kind of such reform that could be achieved.

My observations over the last 20 years of federal-provincial politics, despite my relatively young age, are such that I do not see comprehensive Senate reform achievable today, except, perhaps, one kind of comprehensive reform — abolition. For that reason, I would urge all senators on this committee to conclude that step-by-step reform is the preferable way to proceed.

On the other hand, he hoped his proposed reforms would compel a discussion that he thought was necessary.

I can just say that my frank hope is that that process would force the provinces and others to, at some point in the future, seriously address other questions of Senate reform. There are questions such as the distribution of seats and the powers that we are all clear must be addressed through a general amending formula, constitutional amendment. I welcome the day when there is a public appetite for that discussion because I think the country needs it at some point.

There is no rule against changing one’s mind, of course. But if the Supreme Court rules that the Prime Minister will, one way or another, have to find agreement from the provinces to do anything substantial to the Senate, why not stick with the ideal that has supposedly guided the Prime Minister and his party all this time and (perhaps belatedly) lead that discussion?

(Mr. Harper’s testimony to the Senate committee in 2006 is an interesting artifact for a number of reasons, not least because of how he announced himself and his mission that day and the irony that must now be attached to those words.

I understand that, as you just said, this is the first time that a sitting Prime Minister has appeared before a Senate committee. This underlines my interest in Senate reform … 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. The promises are usually made in Western Canada. These statements of intent are usually warmly received by party activists, editorial writers and ordinary people but, once elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the government’s agenda, nothing ever gets done and the status quo goes on.

Honourable senators, this has to end for the Senate must change and we intend to make change happen. The government is not looking for another report but is seeking action.

Honourable senators, years of delay on Senate reform must come to an end, and it will. The Senate must change and we intend to make it happen. The government is not looking for another report — it is seeking action that responds to the commitments we made to Canadians during the recent federal election.

Six and a half years later, despite, by then, holding a majority in both the House and the Senate, Mr. Harper decided he wanted another report, this one from the Supreme Court.)


Is Stephen Harper planning a late arrival to the Senate abolition party?

  1. If it were anyone except a longtime reporter of national issues I would ask the author where he had been. Why would a CPCer bother explaining why they changed their mind? Simply spout the new line repeatedly and ignore any questions or comments that you ever said anything different. We have always been for abolishing Eurasia’s senate.

    • Are you saying politicians should never change their minds about anything, even in the presence of new developments and changes in popular opinion? IMO if the CPC ends up advocating abolition, then good on ’em. I always thought EEE senate was a dumb idea, and in any event it had a snowball’s chance in hell of ever happening. To me, this would be the CPC coming around to the right position on the issue.

      • that is, I thought relatively clearly, not what I am saying at all.

  2. While watching Charlie Angus and Stephane Dion on P&P yesterday, I was struck that no matter where the discussion on reform went, and no matter what the issue being discussed, all Angus could argue was to abolish; to accomplish this, he said things that were a little twisted from the truth of how things work. He came across as weak in comparison to Mr Dion’s intellectual and intelligent discussion. I admire Angus now and then but he came across as really crass compared to Dion. Even if Harper decides to announce that he’s so frustrated with the Senate that he wants it abolished, it doesn’t remove his responsibility for stacking it with self-serving rip-off artists. Are we going to pretend he didn’t do this on purpose so that he had taxpayer-funded, partisan fundraisers? He can say he wants it abolished until the cows come home, but his activities to date refute that position and rather show that he likes having the Senate around to serve his party needs.

    And maybe we should really be looking a little closer at that Tchakuk or whatever his name is — he was more than willing to counsel Wallin and Duffy, but now he’s back pedalling like crazy.

    • Angus does show his true colours.

      • He’s NDP, and his colour is orange….what else would he say?

  3. “it seems to me that we will see the Conservatives launch a full-on campaign for Senate abolition, in an effort to insulate Mr. Harper from accusations of being the Red Chamber’s patron.”

    If he can reform/abolish the senate, I’ll be a happy man. The status quo isn’t an option, as they say. But I’m not going to give Harper any credit for rounding to face this ‘crisis.’ If he hadn’t appointed these duds, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The idea, too, that the prime motivating factor for the Conservative Party to abolish the senate — a dramatic and difficult reform that involves the fundamental governance structure of the country — is merely to save Harper’s political hide is… yikes.

    • Sometimes you make lemonade out of lemons. That’s life. I don’t think anyone is expecting you to give Harper a pat on the back. I’m not about to either. I’m just glad that we might ultimately get a good result out of this. If it took egregious scumminess on the part of some senators to get us to the right place, then so be it. My concern is that we might get some half-a$$ed compromise instead, especially because future PM Justin Trudeau is now on record as telling Quebecers that having 24 Senators is a great thing.

      • “My concern is that we might get some half-a$$ed compromise instead.”

        Your concern is well-founded, though I wouldn’t blame Trudeau, or Harper, or whoever for that matter. I don’t think anybody is going to clear the constitutional hurdles. After all, if I’m a Quebecker, I’m going to think having 24 senators IS a great thing, and I’m not going to want to give them up. Enter… the half-assed compromise (which will be better than nothing).

        I think there are two moving parts. The first is the short-term political issue — the political fallout for Harper, whatever that might be — and the second is the long-term issue — actually reforming the senate. My guess is that the short-term problem is going to fade to the back pages long before the long-term problem gets solved. I hope I’m wrong.

  4. I think that the Senate can be abolished and its regional function can be transferred to the House of Commons. For example, on third reading, a bill could require approval of a majority of the voting MPs representing EITHER a greater number of provinces/territories over those opposed OR a greater number of “national communities” (English Canada/Quebec) over those opposed. Note: tie would count neither in the affirmative nor negative.

  5. “Honourable senators, years of delay on Senate reform must come to an
    end, and it will. The Senate must change and we intend to make it

    Err, after we stuff it with hacks who obediently do what I tell them to, killing legislation passed by democratically elected MPs, and jetting around on the taxpayers dime to fill Conservative Party coffers.

  6. Come one! Come all!!

    See the Amazing Harperian Transmogrification: before your very eyes, he turns his wicked vice (stacking the Senate with spendthrift partisan hacks) into a noble virtue (leading the populist charge to abolish a Senate stacked with spendthrift partisan hacks).

  7. It’s probably simpler and better than any plan currently envisioned by Harper, not to mention less subject to unforeseen or barely-talked-about ramifications. (CPCs – The NDP in a hurry!)

    And if the ball gets rolling it will last until the first premier says “I like your idea and will sign this paper when you give me [thing which is popular in my province and I would like supplied by you]”

    • Exactly.

  8. This link…… is invaluable on a post like this? The last sentence is the punch line [ although there are a couple of memorable zingers in there by someone who does know a thing or two about the constitution and what it might take to amend/abolish/reform parts of it]
    So what has a normally pretty sensible conservative pundit like Ivison been smoking when he writes/posits crap like this?[if the SCoC agrees…] For god’s sake don’t encourage them sir! The SCoC is not a rubber stamp or a political fig leaf for any PM’s idiocies, least of all Harpers.

  9. Nicely-argued, nicely-‘penned’.

  10. Isn’t it risky to abolish the Senate considering the following clause,”In time of real or apprehended war, invasion or insurrection, a House of Commons may be continued by Parliament and a legislative assembly may be continued by the legislature beyond five years if such continuation is not opposed by the votes of more than one-third of the members of the House of Commons or the legislative assembly, as the case may be.”

    What is really going on here? Without a Senate there is nothing to stop any Prime minister from continuing his government for as long as they want.