The Canadian Senate is unelected; its members are appointed by the party in power. The ruling Conservative Party's commitment to Senate reform has been stymied by provinces and in parliament, leaving Prime Minister Stephen Harper to begin filling seats on his own. Even so, it is improper for senators to assume an active legislative role as long as it is filled with apolitical celebrities and partisan hacks. The Canadian Senate's members should compete for a popular mandate in order to govern.
For two years, Stephen Harper pressed the provinces to hold elections so that he could appoint democratically selected senators. They ignored him.
For two years, Harper minimized prime ministerial powers of patronage in the Senate. Again: Nobody responded.
Harper's principles exposed him to political danger. The partisan balance in the Senate has deteriorated to the point where the Liberals outnumber Conservatives by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 (58 to 20).
The very last kind of person you want in the Canadian Senate is someone with a large conception of the role and prerogatives of a senator. If a Canadian wants to legislate, that Canadian should run for legislative office.
Fears that the Liberals would abuse this unelected advantage are well grounded in history. John Turner used his base in the Senate to thwart the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Treaty in 1988, forcing an election. (Turner misjudged the election's outcome--but his misjudgment of the result does not beautify the ugliness of his manoeuvre.)
Following Stephane Dion's attempt to take power via a clandestine deal, Harper and the Conservatives had every reason to fear that their two years of principled self-denial would profit only their opponents. Senate-watchers expect another 11 vacancies to open in the next 12 month. How would Dion have filled those 29 seats total-- that is, after paying his debt to Elizabeth May?
So Harper acted. He acted as almost every prime minister before him has acted, following some of the most ancient traditions of Canadian politics. If we don't like those actions (and I suspect that few like them less than Harper himself ), blame the traditions --not the man who was thwarted in his every attempt to repair and improve the traditions.
Some have tut-tutted that while Harper's actions were reasonable, he ought to have sought more distinguished appointments. The Globe & Mail, for instance, editorialized:
Mr. Harper attempted to focus attention on a small number of high-profile appointments--in this instance, broadcasters Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, and Olympic gold medalist Nancy Greene Raine. Behind that veil came a flurry of pure patronage appointments; in some cases, the main qualification seems to have been to have raised money for the Conservative Party.
This seems seriously wrong, and on two counts.
The very last kind of person you want in the Senate is someone with a large conception of the role and prerogatives of a senator. If a Canadian wants to legislate, that Canadian should run for legislative office. If a Canadian does not want to run for legislative office, that Canadian should refrain from legislating.
Second, Harper's senatorial appointments do seem to have met the single most important qualification for the job: They have all agreed to serve a fixed term and to co-operate when the time comes for reform.
This is no small qualification. Robert Fulford once quipped to me (I'm quoting from memory here, so I may mangle the Fulfordian wit): "The Senate is the most transformative institution in the country. An appointment to the Senate completely transforms ... your opinion of the Senate!" (In view of the editorial quoted above, it might be relevant to note that the occasion for the quip was the appointment to the Senate of a former editor of the Globe & Mail.)
You cannot redeem the Canadian House of Lords by appointing a higher class of lord. The Senate can be redeemed only by reorganizing it as some kind of elected body -- as in Australia, as in Poland, as in France, as in Japan, as in virtually every other advanced democracy. Embarrassingly enough, it now looks probable that even the United Kingdom will elect its Upper House before Canada does.
One of Harper's senatorial choices, Pamela Wallin, has already pledged to step down and run for re-election if her province, Saskatchewan, will organize an election for her to run in. Bravo, Pam. Just think of the impact it would have if the senators themselves were to call for their own election and reelection. Once any appreciable number of senators is elected, the pressure on the others can only grow.
With this week's announcement, Harper has delivered one more reminder of what is most at stake in Canada's next federal election. On one side are the parties of privilege and prerogative. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc tried to take power by connivance, not election. They finance themselves by extracting forced payments from the taxpayer, not by voluntary contribution. They are content to see half of Parliament chosen by the prime minister at his sole whim -- and to see that prime minister himself stealthily selected in a mysterious backroom negotiation.
On the other side is Canada's only fully democratic party: a party with a leader chosen at an open convention, that governs because it won the most votes, that believes that parties should be financed by small but voluntary donations, and that wants all officeholders to owe their offices to the people. Seems like an easy choice to me.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.