Little has changed

It’s a case of deja vu. One hundred years ago, The House of Commons was debating a motion to reform the Canadian Senate. Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his own plan to reform the Senate, including the imposition of term limits of eight years. Senators presently do not have to retire until age 75 and on average spend 12 years in the Senate. 

The term limits would be unilaterally imposed by Parliament. The term limits would only apply to future appointments (or possible elections) to the chamber, as those now in the Senate would be allowed to serve until the retirement age of 75.

Harper earlier said he will not be making any Senate appointments during his term in office, seemingly a recognition that he has little respect for how it’s now formed. But, wait! Hasn’t he made an appointment to the Senate? Indeed. He appointed Montrealer Michael Fortier, a key party organizer in Quebec, to the Senate and made him the government’s minister of public works. Evidently, there are exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps he follows the philosophy of former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who said: “When I come to the moment of selecting (for a vacant Senate seat), if I have to settle between a Tory and a Liberal, I feel I can serve the country better by appointing a Liberal than a Conservative, and I am very much afraid any man who occupies the position I occupy today will feel the same ...”

In 1906, the Winnipeg Morning Telegram called the senate “a refuge for men who could not win a seat in the Commons.”

On April 30, 1906, The House of Commons debated the very issue of Senate reform. Perth, Ontario, MP G.H. McIntyre put forward a resolution in the House to limit the tenure of senatorial appointments to 15 years and compulsory retirement at age 80. At the time, a Senate appointment was for life.

The Morning Telegram said the debate went on for several hours, and that Prime Minister Laurier said there had been from time to time outbreaks of popular sentiment for Senate reform, but no one could really agree upon a set of changes.

Laurier said a second chamber was necessary, first as a check upon hasty legislation; and secondly, it provided a safeguard to the smaller provinces against the infringements of their rights. (Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, called the Senate, the chamber of “sober second thought” against the vagaries of the democratically-elected House.) Today’s Senate can delay, refuse or amend the passage of legislation from the House of Commons, but by convention it rarely does. The Senate can introduce legislation, but cannot introduce financial legislation which is the solely the role of the House of Commons.

Harper also said that he wants to see senators elected in the next federal election.

“As to an election to the senate — by whom should it be elected?” asked Laurier as reported in the Morning Telegram.

Laurier said he would not support an elective or a provincial system of appointments, although he was well aware of the imperfections of the present system.

Harper’s Senate election promise is strongly desired by many members of the old guard former Reform Party members. Remember Reform’s call for a triple-E Senate: Equal, Elected and Effective. 

In addition, his home province of Alberta is solidly in favour of an elected Senate. It was Alberta that elected the first senator-in-waiting, Stan Waters, who was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990. Of course, Mulroney had already put the role of the Senate into disrepute by making a spat of eight new appointments to overcome the Liberal majority in the Red Chamber in order to pass the controversial GST bill. In an orgy of new patronage appointments during his last months of office, Mulroney also appointed 15 new senators.

One study by the late Senator Gildas Molgat, a  Liberal from Manitoba, did recommend the creation of term limits. This would be a hard sell today in the chamber, since senators would essentially be voting to limit their own terms.

“For ten years the Liberals (under Laurier) had been in power,” the Morning Telegram paraphrased Opposition  Leader (Conservative) Robert Borden as saying, “yet except on occasions when the senate threw out a bill Sir Wilfrid Laurier had made no attempt to reform the senate. On that occasion he had endeavoured to have passed in all the provincial legislatures calling for the abolition of the senate.”

This is the long-time position taken by the federal New Democrat Party. It’s also a position occasionally articulated by Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Doer when asked about the issue of Senate reform.

Since the Liberals controlled the House of Commons in 1906, the resolution came to naught. Senate reform was once again on the backburner, and only raises its head when a politician sees some political advantage. And, this is the case today — Harper is courting his Western base and rural Ontario, although only with partial measures. He cannot go further because in the areas where House of Commons seats are the most numerous — urban Ontario and Quebec — there is little support for Senate reform.

Although Harper said term limits (and later elections for senators) would be imposed unilaterally by Parliament, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1980 that any changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate would require the approval of seven provinces, representing 50 per cent of the Canadian population. Yet, there had been a precedent set to support Harper’s proposal — Parliament unilaterally in 1965 approved the retirement age of 75.

Harper’s reform package is only partial, although by setting term limits could possibly lay the groundwork for future elections for Senate seats.

The small step Harper has taken reflects Laurier’s warning “that  so long as the appointing is as it is today, in the hands practically of the First Minister (prime minister), I am afraid we stand little chance of reform.”