Another Senate Scandal is Happening and Nobody Cares

The Senate, a favorite fundraising punching bag for both the NDP and the Conservatives, is back in the news. This time, rather than an expense scandal or an unearned patronage or just general senatorial bad behaviour, the Senate is in the news for what seems like a rather innocuous reason: it’s starting to empty out. The debate now is whether Harper is constitutionally required to appoint Senators since, according to Rosemary Barton, the PMO has said “that as long as the Senate continues to be able to deal with government legislation there is no plan to fill any of those seats”. While most would consider an arcane constitutional discussion relatively mild in comparison to the drama that has played out in the Upper House until recently, I would argue that this is in fact much worse. Rather than our Government showing us that a lesson has been learned from their last mess, all of the conditions that lead to the Senate Scandal are being repeated, almost exactly, despite the benefit of hindsight.

Aside from a cavalier attitude towards public monies and what one assumes is a fraternal bond among criminals, what Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau have in common is that they were all appointed to the Senate at the beginning of January 2009. If we recall, at that point, the opposition parties were in the process of organizing themselves into a coalition to bring down the Government. As many people have pointed out since then, Harper was in real danger of losing his status as Prime Minister and, as a consequence, his ability to appoint Senators. Even though this democratically legitimate coalition did not come to govern, the possibility at the time was very real. At the same time, Harper was playing the same game he is now, letting vacancies in the Senate accumulate showing off his Reform roots to pander to a specific segment of his base. The problem became, that if he lost Government, the next PM would likely be able to take back the Senate quickly by filling those vacancies. According to Mark Kennedy, “Harper feared a Liberal-NDP coalition would stack dozens of vacant Senate seats with his political foes.” As a result, Harper appointed a whole slate of Senators to prevent a hypothetical Prime Minister Dion from doing so after assuming the PM’s mantle. Skip ahead a few years and you have the main players in the Senate scandal. It is not a stretch to argue that in the rush to have them appointed, these incoming Senators faced less than adequate vetting.

All of these conditions – Senate vacancies, the possibility of the balance of power changing, rushed appointments – are being repeated. Even if the Liberals weren’t out-polling the Tories, the results of an election are never preordained. There is a real possibility Harper will not be our Prime Minister within the next year and a half, give or take. If that is to happen and the Senate vacuum still exists, we’re left with two possibilities: either Harper will leave dozens of empty Senate seats for his successor to fill or we’ll see a repeat of January 2009. Because we’re in what could be a constitutionally untenable situation, we have only Harper’s past behaviour to go on to evaluate which situation seems more likely.

There are good, honest, hardworking, and intelligent people in the Conservative Party of Canada. Harper has the time, the resources, and the mandate to empower them to serve their country in the Senate. As experts much more qualified than I have argued, he probably has the responsibility to do so as well. But on a practical level, Senate appointments are a tangible and visible part of the legacy of a Prime Minister’s time in office. The Senate scandal has been a glimpse into what Harper’s legacy could have been if he had stepped down in 2009. These new vacancies will be filled and, in all likelihood, they will be filled by Harper. It is not a matter of “if” it is a matter of “how”. And that “how” will be, for better or worse, a part of the legacy of Harper’s time in office.

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