Let’s have a permanent moratorium

July 29, 2015   ·   0 Comments

HAVING APPOINTED NONE since the Senate spending scandal erupted, Prime Minister Stephen Harper now says he’ll appoint no more senators and is leaving it to the provinces to agree on senate reform or abolition.

Some observers say what’s in store is death of the Upper Chamber by attrition. That may or may not be true, but assuming the Conservatives will win another majority in the October election (now a virtual certainty because of the absence of any willingness of the opposition parties to cooperate), one thing that’s sure is that before long all surviving senators will be Tories.

As we see it, what’s really needed is a permanent moratorium on the sort of appointments that led to the spending scandal – a total of 59 appointees, nearly all of whom had a single claim to fame: support for the governing Tories.

Interestingly, the prime minister says he’s leaving the matter in the hands of the provinces, without suggesting what it is within their power to do.

Having been told by the Supreme Court of Canada that a constitutional change would be required to abolish the Senate or even to impose elections or term limits, Mr. Harper seems to be creating the impression that there’s nothing else he could do in the way of reform.

That’s surely not the case.

As we see it, there’s nothing in the constitution that limits the process to be followed in creating what we should have had all along – a chamber of “sober second thought” that could delay legislation and/or recommend changes that would improve it.

The process followed by Mr. Harper and most (but not all) of his predecessors has been to appoint party faithful – backroom boys and girls or failed candidates – without any form of public consultation.

As for the opposition leaders, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has seemingly no interest in any type of reform, promising to abolish it without saying how this could be accomplished.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he wants an “open, transparent, non-partisan process,” with senators, once appointed, sitting independent from the political parties in the House of Commons. Again he doesn’t say how even that might be accomplished.

Well, we maintain that there’s at least another option that would accomplish most, but not all, of what Mr. Trudeau seems to have in mind.

What we want to see is an appointment process based on what we used to have in the federal judicial system in the days of both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments – appointments by Ottawa from short lists quietly prepared by the provinces.

In the case of Senate appointments, Mr. Harper and his successors would only notionally make the appointments. Each province could choose a process leading to submission publicly of a list of “nominees” – a list that could be limited to the number of Senate vacancies in the province.

Among the many benefits of such a process would be the elimination of the fictitious residency of some of the Harper appointees, among them Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, who had long lived in Ontario but were appointed as representatives of Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, respectively.

Such a reform might even find grudging support from Mr. Mulcair, since it would involve selections by current NDP governments in Alberta and Manitoba and the likelihood of future NDP regimes in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Since the senate appointments would still be by Order-in-Council (notionally by the Crown) there would be no need for constitutional amendments, and provinces like Quebec that would be implacably opposed to senate abolition would presumably welcome the change.

Hopefully, at least some of the provinces would devise an electoral process using the Internet as a fast, inexpensive means of involving the public in selecting good appointees.

As we see it, the changes we recommend, along with tough new rules on spending, would give us an Upper Chamber that would quickly become more popular than our fractious House of Commons.

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