Senate appointments: “There oughtta be a law”

John Geddes on why the ‘patronage chamber’ is an affront to democracy

by John Geddes

There is no appointment to the Senate that sits well with me. The patronage chamber is an affront to democracy no matter who gets to ride its gravy train. But to appoint individuals who have only just been rejected by the voters in an election, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper did today, compounds the insult.

Jack Layton commented on this very situation during the recent campaign when he talked to Maclean’s editors and writers. The NDP leader alluded to the day in the House back in 2007 when Harper seemed open, if only for a tantalizing moment, to the idea that the Senate could be abolished after a referendum.

“Stephen Harper was getting frustrated and he said essentially, well, y’know if certain things don’t happen, maybe we should have a referendum on the Senate,” Layton recalled.

“We kind of came that close, but then he saw the opportunity to put in an awful lot of his friends, even defeated candidates. Now, why doesn’t that get commentators more upset? Defeated members of Parliament! Somebody who is turfed out, then getting appointed to the Senate! I mean, pardon me, but there oughtta be a law.”

The response of the Conservatives to this sort of complaint is that they are trying to incrementally reform the red chamber, by moving toward term limits and the election of senators.

Unfortunately, as I’ve argued before, this stealthy reform process amounts to fundamentally changing how we’re governed—turning the Senate into a centre of political power to rival the House and the provinces—without bothering to debate the matter in any serious way, let alone convene a real federal-provincial constitutional negotiation. Big change just shouldn’t happen this way.

So scrapping the Senate is the preferable route, although getting the provinces to go along with it, as the Constitution requires, would be no easy task. Still, Harper did seem, on that day Layton remembered, to recognize abolition as at least a theoretical alternative. Here’s that Oct. 17, 2007 exchange in the House:

Layton: …Many provincial leaders in this country support the abolition of the Senate. So, let me ask the Prime Minister seriously, is he willing to open up a dialogue with provincial leaders regarding the steps that would need to be taken to abolish the Senate? If it is broken, let us abolish it now.

Harper: Mr. Speaker, as I just said, this party’s preference has always been to see a reformed and elected Senate, but if the Senate cannot be reformed, the only other alternative would be to abolish it. I think we recognize that.  Once again the leader of the New Democratic Party is in a bit of a contradiction. He cannot blame the Senate for having unelected senators when he himself refuses to pass legislation to allow senators to be elected.



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Senate appointments: “There oughtta be a law”

  1. Abolish the Senate, and end the problem. 

    • And create a whole bunch of new problems.

      • It won’t create any new problems, but it will sure end a lot of old ones. 

        • One “proble” it would create is the automatic passing into law  of any bill endorsed by a majority government. That would be prevented by having an upper house to forestall a “bad” bill. How would that house be chosen. Ahh, there is the problem.

          • That’s not a problem. When a majority of the elected MPs in a democracy pass a bill, it should become law. Period.

            It’s examined via committee at least twice before the final reading, so we don’t need a senate to do it again. 

          • Well said. Parliament represents the will of Canada as a whole and that will should not be thwarted.

    • Make the Senate hereditary!

  2. Canada is to diverse and far to fragmented to only have the Commons to represent us, especilly with the deeply flawed ‘first past the post’ system we use to elect out MPs. What we need is a preportionally represented Senate made up of a party list vote. All parties to get above 10% of the popular vote can name theire choices o na list from 1-100. If they get 10% the top ten are in, 20% and 20 Senators and so on. This will balence out the power of the Commons and ensure that those whos’ votes don’t count in thier riding will be represented.

    •  Yup because the current senate isn’t really a welfare programme for party loyalists and MPs who can’t muster enough votes.
      The Senate should be made up of independents who are elected using STV on a riding by riding basis, but you know that isn’t going to happen.

    •  This is an extremely unworkable idea. Lets imagine what our government would look like under this plan, assuming similar results to the 2011 election. We’d have a Conservative majority in parliament, and probably a Liberal-NDP coalition in the senate. In order words, for something to be passed, EVERY SINGLE PARTY would have to agree. 

      This is, simply put, a recipe for gridlock. There is a case to be made for PR, and although I prefer FPTP, I can respect the points made against it (my main objection is that because PR guarantees minority governments, it is unclear what the actual platform of any parties will be in an election, and difficult to hold anybody to account). However, I don’t think a hybrid system like this is going to work very well.

      • I’m also not a huge fan of ironclad party discipline either, I do have a bit of common sense  after all :) . In this system I’d also limit the members of the Senate to a single term and have thier apointment to the list by a party vote. In effect it’s the anti-PMO. At first there would be deadlocks, true, but that would force us to expand on the current rules as per the roles of the upper and lower house. In a very short time the Senate could be a quasi-party independent body with far more exploritory power and a mandate to control the Commons as it was in the beggining.

  3. The Liberals have very short memories, when they were in power for eons they stacked the Senate with Liberal sympathizers and ruled the roost. They were deaf to any concerns about the Senates one sided rulings on their proposals. Now the shoe is on the other foot there is no end to their whinning and crying about the Senate being Harpers personal domain. Tough pill to swallow when your not in control. The Liberals have to drop their plans for environmental concerns that will cost Canadians billions of dollars, and start a contructive plan to manage and re-equipe the armed services. Canadians don’t want to hear cut cut cut, they want priorities funded before all else. Healthcare, Seniors/Pensions, Education and value added manufacturing development are the priorities.

    • The issue of abolishing the senate has been around for eons, the trick is getting the provinces to agree with it. 

      • Also, getting the provinces to agree that amending the constitution should be limited only to abolishing the senate. 

        • That’s easily enough done. They’ve done it before. 

    • What Liberals are whining Ray? The only whining I am reading is from you… about the Liberals… even with a majority.

      I couldn’t agree with Geddes more. The current senate – and I do believe we should have a senate – is a democratic abomination. But so is making fundamental changes to our 144 democratic institutions and Constitution without bothering to go directly to the people on the issue and by making the changes with mere legislation.

      If it is important, then it is important enough to change correctly, legally, Constitutionally and democratically, regardless of our fears of opening up the Constitution.

      •  Excellent Ted!
        I was about to write something along these lines, but, fortunately, read these posts first.
        I too believe we need a Senate as an institution that has a much larger time constant compared with the House. The whole idea behind the Senate is that even if the entire House has gone from far left to far right (or vise versa) the Senate stays the same and we as a country don’t do stupid things the day after the Elections that turn up “shocking” results.  Much like a surge suppressor that people use to keep their home theatre electronics safe.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for our country to change with the changing times, but I want it to be an evolution, not a revolution. Only then we can keep our cool and think before burning the bridges behind (or in front of) us.

    • Sweet mother of god. When are we going to learn that “they did it too” is not a defense. 

      Damned fool.  

      • In a way “they did it to” is a reasonable defense. Since, like the common law, Westminster parliament’s rely primarily on precedents as a guide, rather than written rules.

        If we let one party get away with something in the present; its almost guaranteed that another party is going to do the same thing in the future.

        • [dislike (man, I miss those"down" thumbs!)]

          Thing is, back when Harper was in opposition, he made a number of promises. One was that he wouldn’t do what he did today.

          When you promise to behave differently, then turn around and do exactly what you promised you wouldn’t do, “they did it too” is even less acceptable an excuse than it would normally be.

        • Excellent point.  

      • More to the point: when are THEY going to learn that? 

  4. The issue of abolishing the senate has been around for eons, the trick is getting HARPER  to agree with it. 

  5. I couldn’t agree with Geddes more. The current senate – and I do believe we should have a senate – is a democratic abomination. But so is making fundamental changes to our 144 democratic institutions and Constitution without bothering to go directly to the people on the issue and by making the changes with mere legislation.
     
    If it is important, then it is important enough to change correctly, legally, Constitutionally and democratically, regardless of our fears of opening up the Constitution.
     

    • I’m with you & Geddes. An equal and effective (and possibly though not necessarily elected; I’d be okay with fixed-term appointments if the provinces / territories, not the feds, do the appointing) Senate is my preference. The HOC would still hold most of the power as it does now, with the Senate remaining the house of “sober second thought”. The HOC would be Rep By Pop; the Senate Rep By Region to ensure the less populous regions have a voice and aren’t trampled by the high-population regions. 

  6. Looks like Harper is trying to completely discredit whatever relevance the Senate had, perhaps in order to finally convince the provinces that it needs to be either changed or abolished.
     
    I guess that’s one way to do it. 
     
    If you didn’t think it was bad enough to fix before, just wait till I get through with it, you’ll be begging me to kill it. 
     

    • Ha. Good try though. Sorry Ferg, the correct answer is, “Harper has become so much like a Liberal it is now impossible to tell him apart from Chretien, Martin, or Trudeau”

      In other words, sucks to be you.  

      He’s used you like so much cheap wine. 

      And no, he’s not going to call tomorrow morning. 

      •  I don’t think he has become more like the Liberals per se, he is a party man and so are they. Nothing will change until the corrupting influence of the party system is punted into touch.

        • Ooooh I think I found a new friend! 

    • More proof? Defeated Liberals posted to the Senate include Francis Fox, David Smith, Serge Joyal. I could go on. 

    • Thing is, people are likely to be more pi$$ed at Harper for promise-breaking and heavy-handed patronage than at the institution of the Senate itself. So if by chance you’re right about his intent, I think he’ll find it backfired.

  7.  Both senate reform and abolition would be bad moves that would weaken the country. First, senate reform, as envisioned by most Reformers/Tories (ie. a triple E senate) would impose gridlock on parliament. If you thought minority government was bad, imagine the implications of a double-minority (ie. one in the senate and another in the house) – simply nothing would be able to get through. Moreover, senators would be explicitly beholden to a regional electorate (since they would presumably be elected at the provincial level), and unlikely to take a national view on critical issues. Worse, they would have every reason to play on Canada’s inter-regional rivalries to shore up support back home. 

    Senate abolition is probably a better plan, but it too is problematic. The senate actually does serve a worthwhile purpose: First, senate commissions have done good work in the past. Since no senators are beholden to an electorate, or to the Prime Minister (once they’re in, they’re in), they can explore the issues in a more flexible way. 

    Secondly, the delay imposed on bills by the senate is useful, because it is driven by contemplation, rather than contention. If the senate ever tries to abuse this power, it tends to lose out because there are few workarounds, and because it is less legitimate than parliament (something that is essential to its purpose as a chamber of second sober thought, rather than a brake). 

    Thirdly, the staggered manner of senate appointments are beneficial in that they limit the power of any one party at a given point in time. Elections are a snapshot of public opinion, while the senate is more like a timeline – capturing not only where public opinion is, but where it was. In many respects this may be a MORE accurate reflection of Canadian opinion than the house. 
     
    Fourthly, while there are lots of patronage appointments in the senate there are some good ones as well – Romeo D’allaire comes to mind. Senate appointments are one route by which accomplished individuals in the private sector can play a public role, without the difficulties of winning an election. Having a mechanism to bring talented people into government is not a bad thing. So let me state my support for a senate that is unelected, unequal and ineffective as a vital part of our democracy. If there is one thing I would reform, it would be the appointment process. Rather than concentrating the power of appointment in the hands of the Prime Minister, I would prefer having a non-partisan (or cross-party) board appoint the senate. This would reduce the number of patronage appointments, and open the door for talented Canadians and relevant experts to contribute to our public life. 

    • Excellent summation, and excellent points.

      Perhaps then the only thing we really need to do is have a vetting process for senate appointments?

      I say get the power to appoint out of the PMs hands and place it in the hands of a citizen’s committee.

      Then you’ll have all the benefits of which you speak, minus the partisan crap.

      Watcha think of that?

    • You are missing the point of democracy. Parliament represents the will of the electorate and is supposed to beholden to the electorate. The senate is stacked to do the bidding of the party in power which makes it redundant and delays the passage of legislation that the electorate wants. To say the senate is contemplative is laughable at best. If the party in power passes legislation that angers the electorate enough the public will be sure to let the MPs know. The senate is not a timeline it is just a layer of bureaucracy that thwarts the will of the electorate.   

  8. Beyond discusting. This type of activity should be looked at as the illegal spending of taxpayer funds, and as such should be looked at as criminal activity.

    And this from the guy who wanted an elected senate!!! What a croc !!!

  9. I am already tired of hearing from the socialist party of Canada. Jack, shut up! is going to be the ’in’ phrase of 2011. 

    • I am already tired of hearing from the Socialist Party of Canada. Jack, shut up! is going to be the in phrase of 2011.

      • LOL! Nice & subtle… 

  10. ok ! Ok!  Let me get this straight !! Fabian Manning loses the last election and gets appointed to the senate , so he can stay in politics.

    At a payment by the taxpayer of 132,000 a year plus expenses, he then resigns after 2 years to run again for parliamnet, |He again loseses and guess what he gets appointed agin at a cost to us of

    ok ! Ok! Let me get this straight !! Fabian Manning loses the last election and gets appointed to the senate , so he can stay in politics.

    At a payment by the taxpayer of 132,000 a year plus expenses, he then resigns after 2 years to run again for parliament, He again loses and guess what he gets appointed again at a cost to us of another 132,000 a year.How do we get rid of these carrer polititians. We can’t get rid of them by just defeating them at the polls !!!

    • A Citizen’s committee appointment process would solve the whole problem in my opinion.

      • That opens up the can of worms of “who gets to be on the committee?” You will get the same thing as we have now, party hacks and failures, only they will be chosen by other party hacks and failures. IMO. 

        • Not at all. Citizen’s committees are used all the time. They were used in BC and Ontario to generate options for alternative voting systems.

          They are selected in a similar manner to juries.

          Random, but balanced by demographic. 

  11. To the victor the spoils.

    • Right, because a tribal warfare perspective is the best one to have in a 21st century democracy eh?

      Sheesh.

  12.  Where is MYL on this one?  

    I’m busting a gut laughing, right now.  I told you so!  Too funny!

  13. I can’t say I’m thrilled with the Prime Minister’s selections for Senate positions, but one can’t deny that having a majority in the Senate is essential to getting the Government’s legislative agenda passed (which includes, hopefully, Senate reform).

    I used to be in favour of a Triple E Senate, but having done some research into the political deadlock that can occur with such structures, I’m no longer convinced it is the best model. One possible model I’ve considered is a Senate that makes a minimum of 20 years of exceptional public service a qualification.  Public service could be defined as any number of things, such as careers in the military, medicine, teaching, policing, charity work, etc. (I’m not sure about allowing former municipal, provincial, or federal elected servants to sit in the Senate, but if someone came up with a good argument I could be persuaded).

    The idea would be to make the Senate chamber a sort of “House of Experts”, where individuals with lengthy records of practical public service can “weigh-in” on legislation proposed by the government, and put forward amendments or recommendations where appropriate.

    •  ”one can’t deny that having a majority in the Senate is essential to getting the Government’s legislative agenda passed”  Chretien seemed to manage in 1993-7.  Heck, Harper himself would brag about his legislative achievements at the same time as complaining about his inability to pass legislation.

      • Heck, Harper himself would brag about his legislative achievements at
        the same time as complaining about his inability to pass legislation.

        Hell, the Tories used to blame the Senate for delaying legislation that they HADN’T EVEN PUT BEFORE THE SENATE YET. 

  14. Scrapping the Senate is childish.  We have a bicameral Parliament for a reason: a ‘sober second thought’.  Experience and history have taught us the need for this.

    Parliaments that have no upper house tend to pass legislation that is riddled with bugs, cost overruns, unintended consequences, and rights violations, often requiring years of costly court proceedings ultimately leading to being overturned anyway, leaving behind a trail of chaos and harm.

    We need an intelligent redesign of the Senate that still provides a check on the power of the Commons, and offers a sober 2nd thought, while still being democratic.

    The US model, where Senators are elected every 6 years, has shown to be too vulnerable to the ‘silly season’ of electioneering.

    I don’t know what the solution is — it’s a real dilemma: how to design a senate that is answerable to the electorate, while at the same time being answerable to reason and careful deliberation.  How do you build honourable intentions into a system that depends on gladhanding and shameless marketing?

    • Start electing leaders who respect the institutions.

      Or to be more specific, stop electing those who see them as mere games to play.

  15.  Newsflash to to every one including Macleans: Senate appointments have been a source of criticism and discontent under EVERY administration. Blame the game, not the player.  None of this is new or unprecedented. The bar is set high enough for real constitutional change for Senate reform, you know it’ll never happen. So get ready to bitch and complain every time there are appointments, especially right after an election.

    • The player in question promised he would play the game differently. So get ready to have a better rationalization on hand if you want to be taken seriously. 

    • Actually, it *is* new and unprecedented to appoint people to the senate who resign to run in an election, and then once rejected by the public, re-appoint them.

  16.  In a
    federation, it is perfectly legitimate to have a second subordinate chamber to
    account for minorities, regions, and sober thoughts.  Germany and Australia are perfect examples.  However, if we were true to ourselves, we were
    having a reform of the selection process, since the actual process being remnants
    of a distant past when entire ruling elite did not truss commoners to rule over
    the land.

     

    This Prime
    Minister, as his predecessors, just demonstrated that the incentive is too high
    for the governing party to stack up the red benches compare to the real benefits
    of a democratic reform, and whatever how much reformer a particular politician
    is.

  17. Right now the Senate has been used in an unprecedented way – to kill legislation already passed by the House of Commons.  This is not how Parliament or the Senate (no matter how stacked it is) is meant to work in the parliamentary process.  The Senate, as ‘sober second thought’ can return H of C passed bills to be reviewed or suggest amendments.  If the bill is returned to the Senate, as is, they are required to pass it.  What part of that isn’t clear?  How are ministers, like Clement, allowed to orchestrate the killing of legislation within the Senate.  Who the … is looking out for our rights?  Where is the GG in all of this?

  18. Interesting discussion, but let’s be frank.

    The provinces simply DO NOT WANT a reformed senate.

    If given any kind of regional democratic mandate, the senate would in effect undermine the power of the provinces.

    The only kind of reformation I can imagine the provinces going for is one in which THEY get to choose the members for their regions, ie the provincial premier of the day.

    That said, can you EVER imagine the feds going for that? Having provinces with a veto over federal bills?

    ROTFLMAO

    They won’t stand for abolishment either. They’re perfectly happy watching that clusterfck take attention off them.

    From my perspective, the only real answer is to reform the appointment process. I prefer a citizen’s committee, but I’m sure there are other decent ways to do it too.

    • A ”citizen” committee is a non-starter. Unless, of course, you mean pick names to be on the committee in the same way that juries are chosen. That I could get on board with. 

      • That’s precisely how citizen’s commitees are chosen.

        Random, but balanced demographically to properly represent the breakdown of the populace.

        They’ve been used for decades in cases of highly sensitive policy making, especially when the government doesn’t want to assume the risk of the result, or where it is believed they are too biased to participate.

        The BC and Ontario alternative voting referendum choices were selected this way, for one.

        Cheers.

  19. Canada’s parliamentray system needs the Senate, and indeed, it should be the “house of sober second thought”. The problem is not with the Senate; the problem is with the prime ministers who appoint the members to the Senate. We need very strict rules and protocol for Senate appointments, so they are not made as reward for supporting political parties. If Canada has an elected senate, very soon after that we will also have elected judges, police officials etc – a very bad road to go down.

  20. These nominations are an insult to the electors; I Harper is for elected Senators why as he got the nerve to appoint people that lost their election and were not the choice of the people. Surely there is other deserving people even if they had to be conservative which could have been a temporary choice until the senators get elected or the senate abolished altogether.  I was a conservative before from now on I’ll support the NDP and so will a lot of my family and friends.  It could be a long four years…   

  21. Canada’s cabinet includes 13% of Canada’s MPs, and 13% of Ontario’s MPs, but only 5% of Quebec’s MPs. Yet 16.5% of Quebec voters voted Conservative, including 209,000 voters in metropolitan Montreal. Still, Canada’s second city has no voice in its cabinet, once again. When Stephen Harper was a Reformer, he favoured proportional representation, which would have let Quebec Conservative voters elect 12 MPs, not just five. Instead, he appoints them Senators. Wasn’t he right the first time?

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