Few politicians are thought to have Senate reform in their blood like Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Having campaigned for it beginning in the late 1980s and winning two general elections with it as a significant part of his platform, it is time for the prime minister to invest the political capital necessary to reform Canada’s upper house of Parliament.
By some accounts of legend, around 40 AD Roman Emperor Caligula attempted to appoint his favourite horse to a senior government position in the Senate as a way of showing contempt for the office. While Caligula may have been a mad tyrant, one would be hard pressed to find many Canadians with a more positive view of their own appointed Senate.
One hardly needs to make the case as to why it should be reformed anymore, but rather how it should be. As a young MP serving as the Reform Party’s constitutional affairs critic, Prime Minister Harper passionately championed a wholesale makeover in the form of a “triple-e” Senate. Pushing his more modest, but still hugely positive proposals during the last Parliament, he became the first sitting prime minister to appear before a Senate committee. Few then doubted the prime minister’s sincerity about finally bringing the needed change he had promised.
With the expected appointment of an additional five senators to the red chamber prior to March 3rd, the Conservatives will hold 51 seats to the Liberals 49. For all intents and purposes, they will have the numbers required to pass legislation without major impediments.
To this point, unelected Liberal senators have blocked the prime minister’s reform package – modest proposals for elections and eight-year term limits – to avoid the embarrassment of retaining their own seats while the chamber slowly filled with democratically elected representatives. The pressure to resign in such circumstances would be inconvenient for those eying a maximum $100,000 per year pension upon their second retirement.
With the exception of Michael Fortier, the prime minister justified his two rounds of Senate appointments following the coalition crisis as a necessary evil to balance the numbers in order to eventually reform the institution, presumably now. With the Senate roadblock seemingly out of the way, there are only three circumstances in which the soon to be re-introduced legislation can fail: 1. an election, 2. opposition parties in the House of Commons defeating it, or 3. the prime minister not pushing it whole-heartedly.
Stephen Harper has proven that when he is serious about passing legislation that his opponents have reservations about – such as stiffening the criminal code – he has little trouble bending them to his will. It is doubtful that when push comes to shove that enough opposition members would stand-up and be counted as voting against such legislation, especially if it were deemed a government priority and therefore ‘confidence.’
No doubt, many opposition members will attempt to tie-up and stop such reforms from ever coming to a vote, as did Liberal senators during the last Parliament. Therefore, the prime minister should ante-up and declare his reform legislation both to elect senators and limit their terms, a vote of confidence and a government priority.
While fault will lie with the prime minister if reform legislation fails to pass before the next election, success in passing it may prove to be one of this government’s greatest achievement yet.
Canadians should hope that the prime minister’s word is still solid on this issue and that the post-coalition Senate appointments are not a resumption of older times. Say, 40 AD.