Published Feb. 11, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.
A case can be made that the prime minister of Canada, when armed with a majority, is more powerful politically than the president of the United States.
As long as he keeps his caucus on side, he can do pretty much anything he wants. He can amend laws and suspend regulations. Unlike the president, he does not have to beg and wheedle for the support of legislators. He can force the adoption of unpopular measures, as Brian Mulroney did with free trade and the goods and services tax. If he feels like it, he can use his power of prorogation to send MPs home until he feels like calling them back.
Being prime minister is not a bad gig — until it comes to doing something about the Senate. Ah yes, the Senate.
The Senate is Stephen Harper’s personal bugbear. He has wanted to do something, something meaningful, about the Senate since his Reform party days. He has tried. My, how he’s tried! Since becoming prime minister in 2006, he has made four or, depending on how you count these things, five attempts to reform the upper house. All to no avail.
His frustration became apparent early in his tenure. “This party’s preference is to see a reformed and elected Senate, but the Senate must change,” he told the Commons in 2007. “If the Senate cannot be elected, then it should be abolished. Those are the choices.”
Six years on, the Senate has not been reformed. It is not elected. It has not changed. It has not been abolished. It still stands, an irksome reminder that even great power is not absolute.
Early on, Harper refused to replace retiring senators. Perhaps he thought if he ignored the place and let the numbers run down, the Senate would come to embrace his passion for reform.
When that didn’t happen, he reversed course, stuffing the red chamber with every living, breathing Conservative he could find (58 at last count). He asked two things of his appointees. First, they agree to serve for a limit of eight years (keeping alive his hope of eventually overhauling the place). Second, they agree to pass anything the Tories put before them (so much for a chamber of sober second thought). Not surprisingly perhaps, some of the Harper 58 — comfy in their $132,300-a-year sinecures — are balking at retiring prematurely or doing whatever they are told with no questions asked.
Also not surprisingly, in his haste to pack the place with compliant Tories, Harper made a few gaffes due to poor staff work or to misjudgment on his own part. Senators are required to legally reside in the province they represent. Mike Duffy hasn’t been a Prince Edward Island resident in decades; he keeps a summer place there, but to my knowledge he’s lived in Ottawa for roughly 40 years.
And anyone who pays attention to aboriginal politics could have warned Harper that Patrick Brazeau was trouble even before Harper hand-picked him in 2008. He was facing an allegation of sexual harassment at the time and now is charged with sexual assault and is being investigated for spending irregularities. Prime ministers can’t fire senators; all Harper could do was to suspend Brazeau from the Tory caucus. Some punishment!
The Brazeau and Duffy episodes are distractions to a prime minister who still wants to do something about the Senate. His Senate Reform Act is still technically before Parliament, but is going nowhere. There’s resistance in the Senate, opposition among the provinces, and impediments created by the Constitution.
Parliament, acting alone, may set term limits for senators, but more fundamental changes — such as the powers of senators and the number and distribution of seats — would require constitutional amendments. The government has asked the Supreme Court for its advice, referring six questions to it. One asks the court to tell it what hoops the government would have to jump through to abolish the Senate.
Don’t expect an early or easy answer.