The Conservative government’s latest attempt to reform the Senate is mere political pandering – an attempt to shore up Canada’s conservative base, not to improve our democracy.
In the latest sign that the Harper Conservatives are bracing themselves for a potentially impending election, last week the government introduced a bill that would impose an eight-year term limit on senators – this despite failing to rally sufficient support on a similar bill they proposed earlier in 2006. But even if the bill fails for a second time, the government will have achieved its intended purpose: solidifying the conservative base in the lead-up to an election.
The Harper government is well aware that few other issues excite conservatives more than Senate reform. By taking another jab at the Senate, the Conservative government is hoping to prove its fidelity to the cause at a time when its conservative bona fides have come into doubt in the face of a distinctly, and indistinctively, unconservative record: prolific government spending, careless fiscal projections, skyrocketing deficits, and a ballooning national debt.
When viewed in this light, the renewed effort of the Harper government to establish senatorial term limits is part of a broader canvass of old strategies redeployed in recent months – namely, to abolish the gun registry, to compel harsher sentences on criminals, and to inflict tougher penalties on young offenders – all intended to reassure its conservative base that it need not look elsewhere for sustenance.
Setting its sights on the Senate – the long-standing *bête noir* of the conservative movement – is undeniably smart politics for the Tories. This is especially true today, when the political climate of chronic minority governments means that the next election will in all likelihood be decided by voter turnout in twenty or so ridings. But smart politics do not necessarily make good government.
Begin with the eight-year term limit proposed by the government. Even if the bill passes – which it will not, largely because the opposition Senate Liberals hold a majority – term limits alone would not improve the legislative capacity of the Senate. It would take a menu of other changes to transform the Red Chamber into the institution of sober and effective second thought it was intended to be. From more powerful committees, to a more invigorated membership, and to a more equitable allocation of seats among provinces – all of these are ingredients integral to meaningful Senate reform.
The eight-year term limit moreover does nothing to breathe democratic legitimacy into the Senate. Quite the contrary, it continues to concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister, a lamentable trend we have seen only accelerate over the last three decades. Under the law proposed by the Harper government, the prime minister will retain the unreviewable authority to name whomever he chooses to the Senate. Former fundraisers, campaign organizers, leadership operatives, backroom dealers, family friends and others – these have traditionally been the lucky ones summoned to the Senate, and the latest Conservative bill will not change that.
To be fair, no one can blame the Harper Conservatives for their latest machinations. After all, the Conservative government will fill enough Senate vacancies within the next two years to finally return to majority power in the upper house – something that has eluded the party since the days of Brian Mulroney. Who could resist the temptation to seize this formidable power when it is within such close reach?
The larger point, though, is that the term limits bill will do more harm than good. Instead of using Senate reform as a vehicle to diffuse power away from Ottawa and into the hands of the provinces and their citizens, the Harper government has cleverly cloaked the eight-year term limit as a critical step toward democratizing the Senate. But all it will really do is further entrench federal control over the institution that was meant to give voice to provincial concerns.
If the Conservatives really were serious about Senate reform, they would work with the other parties to strike an all-partisan plan for new rules regulating the election, eligibility, and function of senators. But they have not chosen this course. Their current approach – an ill-fated plan purporting to proceed piecemeal by incremental legislative unilateralism, though comprehensive institutional multilateralism is necessary – exposes just how far they have elevated political expedience over the larger national interest.