Harper puts moratorium on Senate appointments, pushes provinces for reform
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, July 24, 2015 6:57AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 24, 2015 10:10PM EDT
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Friday that his party will move ahead with a moratorium on further Senate appointments.
“This has two advantages,” Harper said at a press conference in Regina alongside Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
“The first and obvious advantage is that it saves costs. The second advantage is that I think it will force the provinces, over time … to either come up with a plan for comprehensive reform or to conclude that the only way to deal with the status quo is abolition.”
Harper pointed out that he had not made any appointments to the Senate in more than two years.
“We have 22 vacancies now and how many people are noticing?” he said.
The move, he said, will put pressure on provinces who have been “resistant to any reforms in most cases,” pointing out that when he offered to appoint whoever voters chose in provincial senate elections, only Alberta and Saskatchewan allowed such elections.
“The ball is in their court,” he said.
“In the meantime, the membership in the Senate is going to continue to shrink,” he added. “And Canadians are going to ask the question, ‘If you don’t have a program for reform and we’re not missing the senators, why don’t you just abolish it?’”
Saskatchewan Premier Wall, meanwhile, told reporters he supports the new policy, and that it should cause Canadians to “apply a bit more pressure to their respective provincial governments.”
Wall said he prefers a “triple E” senate that would be “elected, effective and equal,” as opposed to the “triple U” Senate that is “unelected, unaccountable and under investigation.”
Harper’s new policy comes roughly a year after Canada's top court rebuked reforms he proposed, including Senate elections and term limits.
The Supreme Court decided such reforms would require the approval of at least seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population.
The top court also ruled that outright abolition could occur only if all 10 provinces agreed.
Getting all provinces to agree to abolition may be difficult, in part because the Senate gives less populous provinces more seats than their populations allow for in the House of Commons, which is based on representation by population.
Harper addressed the concerns of smaller provinces on Friday by saying that the number of senators those provinces have affords them “no real weight in Parliament,” anyway, in part because, “decisions are made for all practical purposes in the House of Commons.”
Liberal and NDP leaders react
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was quick to point out that Harper had appointed 59 Senators after promising during the 2006 election not to appoint any.
“Mr. Harper is trying to distract people from his inability to deal with the economy,” Trudeau told reporters at a press conference in Richmond, B.C.
Trudeau said Canadians are not interested in “constitutional haranguing” and that the Liberal Party is the only one that has “taken action on Senate reform.”
“Over a year ago, we removed all Senators from the caucus of the Liberal Party of Canada, making them independent of the political aspects of the different parties in the house, so that they can truly be strong voices for their regions,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau promised an “independent, non-partisan” appointments process, if elected.
“Canadians want a reformed, transparent, responsible Senate and that’s what we’re offering -- not fairy tales,” Trudeau said.
Harper is among those who have said abolition is unrealistic. In fact, he chided NDP Leader Tom Mulcair for his long-held pro-abolition position in March.
“(Mulair) knows full well the provinces are not going to abolish the Senate,” the prime minister said in question period.
“I do not know why he would not be honest with the Canadian people,” he added.
Mulcair said last month that he believes the provinces could be persuaded.
“I’m convinced that with good faith, open approaches, we’re going to be able to get to solutions that will allow us to get rid of this archaic system, which is called the Senate,” Mulcair told CTV’s Question Period.
Mulcair reiterated Friday that he plans to negotiate with the provinces to abolish the Senate if he becomes prime minister.
Mulcair also told reporters in Waterloo, Ont., that an NDP government would not appoint any senators.
Can PM allow Senate to ‘wither and die’?
University of Ottawa Law Professor Carissima Mathen said the prime minister’s new policy “is going to potentially be a difficult position for him to defend should it be challenged in court.”
“The prime minister’s duty to appoint under the constitution … doesn’t include the ability to simply refuse to make appointments and eventually allow the Senate to wither and die,” she told CTV News Channel.
Mathen said she expects provinces to ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether or not Harper’s position is valid.
“Legally, it’s hard to see how this strategy can be sustained over the long term,” she added.
Senate could factor in fall election
Harper’s new policy comes just as the war for voters is intensifying, ahead of an election expected to happen on or before October 19.
It also comes just weeks after Auditor General Michael Ferguson called for “transformational change” in the Senate, following a spate of spending scandals that have served as ammunition in NDP attack ads.
Ferguson found 30 former and sitting senators – both Liberals and Conservatives – had expense claims deemed “not in accordance” with Senate rules or that did not fit the definition of “parliamentary business.” Nine of those senators’ expense claims were referred to the RCMP.
That audit followed the retirement of Liberal appointee Mac Harb and suspensions of Conservative-appointees Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau.
Supporters of all three political parties appear divided on whether they prefer reform or abolition of the Senate.
An online survey taken by Angus Reid Institute in the spring suggested self-described Conservative voters were almost evenly split on whether they favoured abolition (44 per cent) or reform (45 per cent).
Self-described NDP voters, meanwhile, were somewhat more likely to favour abolition (49 per cent) than reform (40 per cent).
Self-described Liberals favoured reform (52 per cent) more often than abolition (35 per cent), according to the survey.
With files from The Canadian Press