41st Canadian Parliament
2 min

In praise of a Senate revolt

News of a revolt among Conservative senators over Harper’s unconstitutional (and frankly asinine) reform bills should actually be welcome news. But of course, that’s not how everyone is reacting. Senator Bert Brown, Harper’s champion of Senate reform, by virtue of his status as an “elected” senator (which he is not – he was appointed, and his “election” in Alberta was a sham process), reacted by sending a finger-wagging letter to his colleagues. In it Brown said, “Our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt Hon Stephen Harper.” Various news pundits got their tongues wagging about Harper “losing control” of his Senate caucus. Brown, or any pundit who uses this line, deserves a smack upside the head.

In case it has escaped Brown or the pundit class, the whole point of the Senate, in its role as an appointed body of sober second thought, is to actually give some scrutiny to bills from the House of Commons and not simply act as a rubber stamp. Demands that senators be “loyal” to the prime minister who appointed them, or that a Senate caucus can be whipped by the party leader in the Commons, are frankly antithetical to the very notion of the upper chamber’s existence. One bit of Senate reform that needs to happen immediately is that senators should stop taking caucus with their elected counterparts to allow them to maintain their distance and independence. And independence is really what this is all about. Senators are supposed to be independent, not beholden to the prime minister or the electorate. It’s vital to the design and nature of the Senate. Anyone who says otherwise clearly needs a lesson in remedial civics. And anyone who thinks that Senate elections will mean anything other than simply creating 105 new backbenchers for the party leaders to push around also needs to wake up.

Which brings me back to my point about this “revolt” being a good thing. It means that senators are finally starting to shake off the absurd notion, which they’ve been labouring under, that Harper can whip them. He can’t, and he has little recourse when senators don’t want to play his game. It means they’re becoming less of the rubber stamps he wants them to be and are actually starting to give serious consideration to these bills, which are actually bad bills that have good reason to be stopped.

Not that the media will see it that way. No, they’re already spinning senators' putting their foot down to mean that they’re fighting for their entitlements, which is not necessarily the case. But hey, when was knowledge of the way that parliamentary democracy works a prerequisite for most journalists or the pundit class?

As for Harper, he’s simply decided to roll two bad bills into one, introduce it in the Commons (where he can whip his MPs) and pass it so that he can trigger all manner of constitutional challenges from provinces such as Quebec. Harper knows the bills are bad, and despite his democratic reform minister and talking heads assuring us that their lawyers have said these bills pass the constitutional smell test (which they don’t), he’s continuing to play the game out. The next step of said game is putting the onus on the provinces to hold these sham “consultative elections” at their own cost and with their own rules and timelines. Chaos will ensue, and he can continue to use it as a partisan whipping horse.

At least a few of his senators are seeing through this shell game. Let’s hope that the awareness will catch on.
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