By Jim Coyle
Almost from Canada’s beginnings, the Senate and its shortcomings have been topics of national conversation. Yet against all odds, the House of Taskless Thanks abides, in much the same form as it was established. In his new ebook, Housebroken: A Brief, Bemused History of Canada’s Senate, Toronto Star journalist Jim Coyle relates the sorry saga of a political institution that, over 147 years, has co-opted many of its fiercest critics – including past avowed Senate reformer Prime Minister Stephen Harper. With the spending scandal still in the news, Coyle chronicles the many failed attempts to change the Senate and explains why the Red Chamber will likely continue to make Canadians see red for some time to come.
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“It’s a wonderful club. And they pay you well to become a member.”
— Eugene Whelan (with Rich Archbold),
Through almost 150 years of Canadian nation-building, three challenges have remained constant on the blessed but demanding terrain north of the 49th parallel. One is explaining the scoring of a “rouge” to football fans in America. Another is persuading snow-removal crews not to plough windrows back into freshly shovelled driveways. The most daunting of all, it goes almost without saying, is reforming the Senate.
Since Canadian Confederation in 1867, great empires have risen and fallen, world wars have been fought, horrific ideologies have been spawned and vanquished, fortunes have been made and lost, and Toronto has been transformed from an obscure colonial backwater into the focal point of global shock and fascination. Change will have its way.
Yet against all odds, the Senate of Canada abides, much as it was established. It has outlasted the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, the eras of swing, disco and grunge, the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, the Eaton’s catalogue. And of its occupants, lo these 147 years, it might be enviously said that seldom have so few enjoyed so much for doing so little of genuine consequence. Come the heady first decade of the 21st century, however, it seemed that progress, if not on the perennial vexations of rouge and snowplow, was at long last nigh on Senate reform. For in 2006,
elected as the country’s 20th prime minister was Stephen Harper.
Harper, as is now widely known, is a grim economics grad and policy wonk with an unlikely hockey fetish who abandoned a Housebroken youthful Liberal dalliance to become a chief mechanic of the right-wing Reform party, then leader of the unlamented Canadian Alliance, then, after a series of ups and downs that almost saw him leave politics in a great sulk, leader of the reconstituted Conservative Party of Canada. Among his many proposed solutions for what ailed the country — and on this matter even those who mistrusted him and abhorred his agenda could grudgingly nod — was enthusiasm for reforming the Senate of Canada, long considered a plush, expensive rest home for unelected, superannuated hacks.
In fact, it may have been the late esteemed newspaperman Grattan O’Leary who best expressed this national frustration when,typewriter clacking furiously near the end of the 1940s, he fumed: “A senatorship isn’t a job. It’s a title. Also it’s a blessing, a stroke of good fate; something like drawing to a royal straight flush in the biggest pot of the evening.”
Mr. O’Leary might well have added that it’s almost irresistible.In 1962, for his steadfast Conservatism, he was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
No amount of personal ethical contortion or national embarrassment has been sufficient to produce reform of the Red Chamber from an appointed to an elected body. In 1983, then agriculture minister Eugene Whelan, a famously colourful character and
vigorous Senate critic, accompanied visiting Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev, later Soviet leader, on a tour of Canada’s Parliament Buildings. Gorbachev, his own country then slouching toward democracy, found Parliament Hill to be a place of great beauty. He praised the Canadian forefathers who had chosen such an excellent location on a bluff beside the Ottawa River. As to the Senate, however, Gorbachev was puzzled.
Eugene Whelan, left, toasts then Soviet Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev. How was it, he apparently asked Whelan, that citizens of a democratic country like Canada “could put up with legislators who were appointed for life?”
A fair, if awkward, question. As the late, great journalist Charles Lynch once put it, the Senate was the last thing any Canadian abroad wanted to answer for when chatting with a Communist. “Just say it’s a place of honour for our respected sages,” Lynch advised. “It isn’t, of course, but that’s the only explanation that makes the slightest sense. And you’ll get nowhere trying to explain what party bagmen are.
”Doubtless, the Parliament Hill tour guides of the day hustled the inquisitive Mr. Gorbachev briskly along to his next engagement. Until 1965, a Senate appointment in Canada was, indeed, for life. Which actually produced the uncommon wonder of a Canadian senator toiling away, such as it were, beyond his 100th birthday. No other country in the world has had a centenarian member of Parliament. But Canada has. Twice. As an old newspaperman wryly put it, while reflecting on such extraordinary stamina, “a Senate seat is a great aid to longevity.”
So gently and unremarkably do the seasons typically pass inthe place of “taskless thanks” that, save for ceremonial occasions such as a speech from the throne or installation of a governor general, the Senate was rarely even covered by the parliamentary press gallery. Let circumstances thrust the Upper Chamber periodically into the news and reporters often had to ask for directions. But into the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Dr. moved Stephen Harper in 2006, and it seemed fair to conclude, if his Reform party background meant anything, that a Senate which had snoozed its impervious way through almost a century and a half was in for a shattering wake-up call. It is said, alas, that if one wishes to bring a smile to whatever Great Cosmic Authority presides over the affairs of mere mortals, simply mention your plans. And Harper’s good intentions were no different.
Upon winning his minority government in 2006, he found himself, while cobbling together a cabinet, short on MPs from Canada’s largest cities. And, as PMs before him had discovered, Parliament’s Upper Chamber was not entirely without its uses. Michel Fortier, the Montreal lawyer who had been national co-chair of the Conservative campaign but had not seen fit to place his name on an election ballot so his fellows might judge his merits, was promptly appointed to the Senate by Harper and made minister of public works. Shock of all shocks, a PM who had decried the Senate as anabomination on the memory of all the old Greeks who had invented democracy had, with the echoes of his swearing-in still audible, appointed a political crony to a seat therein. Just like all the PMs who had gone before.
The nation could again but roll its weary eyes, reminded once more that political promises are rather like pie crusts — made merely to be broken. Still, Prime Minister Harper did seem somewhat abashed by his execution of a policy reversal so abrupt, it filled Canadian emergency wards with patients complaining of whiplash. Senate
vacancies continued to mount as occupants of the Upper Chamber reached the retirement age of 75. But Harper opted not to fill them by appointment, hoping against hope that his proposals for Senate reform might first come to pass. After his second minority government victory in 2008, things changed. That year end, on the run in the House, Harper arranged to have Parliament prorogued. A triumvirate of outraged opposition leaders — the late Jack Layton of the NDP, Liberal leader twice removed Stéphane Dion and the resoundingly deposed Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois — proposed a coalition to unhorse him.
On Dec. 18, 2008, fearing such an un-Tory trinity could stuff the Senate with his opponents, Stephen Harper made the pre-emptive strike of appointing 18 new senators. Among the lottery winners were a certain Quebec aboriginal leader named Patrick Brazeau and former TV journalists/personalities Michael Duffy and Pamela Wallin.
In promising Senate reform as though it could be easily delivered in his lifetime, Stephen Harper had failed to heed a fundamental lesson of Canadian history. He had ignored the iron law that little in the way of constitutional affairs gets done quickly in this country. It had taken Canada almost 115 years, after all, to correct the embarrassing fact that its Constitution was a piece of British legislation amendable only on say-so from abroad. Since getting around to patriating said Constitution in 1982, efforts to amend it — with provisions for Senate reform — have been failures so spectacular that mere participation in such divisive debacles were career-enders for numbers of provincial premiers. Having jumped into the Senate swamp with his appointments,
Harper discovered a place fraught with unsuspected muck, peril and ghastly creatures which — though to all appearances tame and friendly — could be at one’s throat on a moment’s notice. The spending scandal that befouled the Senate in 2013 — and more particularly the hapless attempts by Harper’s office to make the whole unseemly mess go away — seriously wounded the prime minister’s by-then majority government.
Still, it would seem that Harper had only himself, and his strikingly poor judgment of character, to blame. In naming to the Senate the erratic and dubious Brazeau, the generously egoed and feisty Wallin, and the pompous and perennially self-promoting Duffy (all of whom would be ignominiously suspended from the place in 2013), the prime minister was much like the accommodating frog of fable who decided, to its inevitable woe, to give a scorpion a ride across the river on its back.He really should have known what he was dealing with when he picked them up.