It fell to Stephane Dion to stand and earnestly suggest that perhaps the Conservatives might imitate Justin Trudeau’s approach to Senate reform. There were chuckles from the Conservative benches.
“Mr. Speaker, now that the Prime Minister understands that he can not unilaterally change the character of the Senate, will he leave the Senate to play its constitutional role as the Supreme once again recognized to be a chamber of sober second thought?” the former Liberal leader wondered, apparently hopelessly. “Will he follow the Liberal leader and sever ties between senators and the Conservative caucus, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister himself, so that Canadians have a less partisan and more independent Senate?”
That the Conservatives might find this funny is perhaps not surprising. But that the Conservatives have now officially accomplished nothing on Senate reform after eight years in office would seem to leave them little ground to laugh at anyone else.
That phrase “sober second thought” was used some 14 times in the Court’s 59-page decision, a phrase attributed to no less than John A. Macdonald, taken from the parliamentary debates on “Confederation of the British North American Provinces” on February 6, 1865. And it is Madonald who the Court quotes as saying that “there is . . . a greater danger of an irreconcilable difference of opinion between the two branches of the legislature, if the upper be elective, than if it holds its commission from the Crown” and that an appointed upper house would be responsible for “calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, and preventing any hasty or ill considered legislation which may come from that body, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.” (In full, Macdonald described the Senate then as “an independent House, having a free action of its own.”)
That the Harper government, if it is unwilling to even attempt the sort of effort that is now known to be necessary to entirely reimagine the upper chamber, might decide, as a second option, to embrace their dearly celebrated forefather’s ideal would demonstrate a certain nobility. As Justin Trudeau has offered of the Liberal side, Conservative senators could be separated from the party’s official parliamentary caucus and a non-partisan appointment process could be explored. Pierre Poilievre could even dress up in period costume to make the announcement.
That would be something. Which is to say it might be better than nothing.
Conversely, the Conservatives could continue to ridicule the Liberal leader while attempting to find cover in a new slogan.
“Mr. Speaker the problem with the proposal by the Liberal leader is that he wants not only that senators are not elected, but those who appoint the senators are not elected,” Mr. Poilievre attempted to explain in response to Mr. Dion. “He wants a committee of people who are not chosen by Canadians. It takes two steps outside of democracy instead of simply one. So we will work to minimize the costs associated with the Senate, at the same time maximizing accountability and responsibility.”
We might debate here how Mr. Trudeau’s theoretical appointment process for the Senate differs from the committee Mr. Harper created to consider vice-regal appointments or the process that exists for the appointment of federal judges. But there is something to be said for direct lines of accountability. It is useful, for instance, to know that the only person responsible for appointing Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, among various failed candidates, is Stephen Harper.
All the same, we are left, for now, with the possibility that only Mr. Trudeau has a proposal that offers anything like an immediate chance to change to the way the Senate does it business, a proposal that could be said to be in line with John A’s original intent (and the idealized Senate of original intent), or at least a change that might limit the chances that future Senate reports will be written by the Prime Minister’s Office.
After Mr. Poilievre had dismissed Mr. Dion, Liberal MP Judy Foote was up to report that Conservative Senator Hugh Segal had also mused of reforming the appointment process for the upper chamber. “Will the government embrace this non-partisan consultative approach when filling the current vacancies, or will it be business as usual?” she wondered.
Mr. Poilievre again mocked. “Mr. Speaker, the first part of the Liberal proposal is to change Liberal senators into Senate Liberals,” he chided, drawing guffaws from his teammates. “The second proposal that the leader has come up with is to put in place a group of non-elected elites to choose who should represent Canadians in the Senate … That is the triple E Senate: for the elites, by the elites, of the elites.”
A few Conservatives stood to applaud this quip.
You’ll understand that Mr. Poilievre’s aversion to elite opinion is at least fairly consistent: up to and including not bothering to meaningfully consult with the chief electoral officer, the commissioner of elections or various other experienced observers before drafting a bill to comprehensively reform election laws.
In the next moment, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote was up yelling and pointing and shouting out the names of various Conservative senators as he attempted to convey the depths of his indignation for it all. The Speaker was compelled to intervene as the House descended into noise and then finally Mr. Valeriote was able to cry out, “Cut them loose Prime Minister and make them independent!”
Mr. Poilievre stood with a slight smirk on his face to report that he’d been at the last Liberal convention and had seen various senators in attendance. “Everywhere I turned was another Senate Liberal and they had undergone a major change. Of course, a week earlier they had been called ‘Liberal senators’ but they flipped it on its head and they became ‘Senate Liberals.’ They were raising money and helping out with the Liberal convention.”
Say this much for the Conservatives: when they appoint a party fundraiser to the Senate, they are at least quite unabashed about that fundraiser’s presence at their convention.