Friday, September 4, 2009

Canadian Senate Appointments

The Canadian Prime Minister has lately been the subject of harsh criticism, not only because he appears in the view of some to have contradicted himself on his Senate appointment policy but moreover because his most recent appointees to the Senate are thought by others to be unworthy of the office.

Without getting my hands dirty with the first charge, I take issue with the latter. In my latest op-ed, published in today's edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, I argue that the Prime Minister's recent appointees deserve thanks, not castigation.


  1. Rich,

    Did you think I'd let this one get by without a comment? :)

    The issue, I think, is not whether Finley, Olsen and Plett did a good job in re-building the Conservative party and its disparate coalition; but whether installing the three into the Senate until aged 75 is good for Canadian democracy. It isn't.

    Sure, the fact that Harper is in power -- and has been since 2006 -- shows their "tireless work" (as you say) has borne fruit. And maybe Canadians *should* be thankful for a much more competitive federal electoral system; a one-party default parliamentary system is neither democratic nor parliamentary.

    But Harper is still a hypocrite about it-- he used to criticize Liberals for putting Liberal friends and fundraisers in the Senate. Now's he's doing it. It may be the lifeblood of politics, but then Harper shouldn't have spent so much time harping on it (pun not intended) in opposition (I'm not sure I agree with your relativist take that it is neither "good nor bad" but that is an aside).

    Moreover, and while we're speaking about "democracy", isn't this one step forward, two steps back? Perhaps we can praise the trio for their contributions to democracy in rebuilding the Conservative Party, but the force of this point is seriously weakened by what you're defending: lifetime appointments to an un-elected body. Want to reward the Trio for their hard work? How about high praise in public from the PM? Honorary degrees? Maybe a couple reference letters? Heck, even patronage appointments to some federal tribunal, board or commission for a few years, why not? But patronage appointment party stalwarts to the Senate for life is undemocratic. And nothing these three accomplished in their life changes that.

  2. I have to say I'm with Jon on this one. These appointments are pure patronage. That doesn't make Harper worse than previous Canadian PMs of different parties, but it also doesn't make him (or the appointments) praiseworthy.

  3. Both of you--Jon and Josh--make important points that are the most compelling ones that could be made in response to my op-ed.

    Let's begin, though, from the proposition that the Senate will remain in its current form for the near term, meaning that Senators will continue to serve until 75 and prime ministers will continue to have the unreviewable authority to appoint whomever they please.

    This, I don't think, is a stretch of an assumption. After all, political change--transformative change, as former prime minister Paul Martin called it--does not come either dramatically or quickly in Canada. If structural changes ever do come, they come incrementally.

    Without conceding that transformative change is not possible in Canada, I don't expect that it will come with the current crop of party leaders.

    Given that, what kind of Senate appointees do we want?

    I say we want leaders in all fields of Canadian life, including party-builders--just like Liberal Senators David Smith, Jim Munson, Terry Mercer and Percy Downe and Conservative Senators Hugh Segal, Don Plett, Carolyn Stewart Olsen and Doug Finley.

  4. Fair enough, but let's look at whom Harper has actually appointed. Including this new trio, he's made 26 appointments to the senate. (I haven't counted Bert Brown, who was elected from Alberta.) Of those, exactly half are former elected politicians or party leaders for the conservative party (in one case, mainly for the Reform Party before it merged with the Tories). Several others were active in Conservative politics in more informal ways, such as a former cabinet member of the BC Liberal party (far more right-wing than the federal Libs) who campaigned nationally for the Conservatives.

    Of course, Harper should be free to pick senators who share his politics, and a few of the other Harper appointees are accomplished in fields other than politics (primarily business, science, journalism, and sports). However, it's not like Harper has been picking the best from "all fields of Canadian Life." And to appoint three party apparatchiks (I use that as a descriptive term, not an insult.) as a group certainly doesn't help.

  5. I think Josh has hit this one on the head -- the whole problem with patronage is precisely this: you *don't* get "leaders in all fields of Canadian life"; rather, you get people who are partisans and loyalists, because that is what patronage aims: it encourages future partisanship and loyalty by rewarding past partisanship and loyalty. Put very simply: all of Harper's appointees come from within and among Conservative ranks. Can it be that all "leaders in Canadian life" happen to be Conservative party members or organizers?

  6. A particularly effective rhetorical point, Jon, but not quite fair.

    I didn't say, nor even suggest, that all leaders in Canadian life wear blue. Not at all. Many of them wear red, and some even wear BQ teal, others NDP orange and still others green.

    Setting aside for a moment that the prime minister appears to have backtracked on his views about the Senate, what do you say about Senate appointments by the prime minister's immediate predecessors?

    To be consistent, your position should be the same as it is on the most recent slate of Senate appointees.

    If you accept that, then I'll be thrilled to lay down my arms on this point, if only because I don't support any party, and could not be any less concerned than I am about who holds a majority in the Senate.

    I am interested only in improving the quality of our public policy and public discourse. I happen to think that partisanship--as long as it is not blind and rabid--is a good thing and actually serves useful purposes in the project of building a culture of participatory democracy.

  7. Rich,

    All good points. First off -- I know you're an Independent in the true political meaning of the word (ie: capitalized and often described in polls near election time) so I did not mean to suggest that *you* thought that all "leaders" wear blue, only that Harper's practice of appointments can't possibly be getting the best, otherwise he would be choosing Senators among all the parties, and no doubt beyond political parties too.

    Neither party -- Liberal or Conservative -- has done a great job at Senate appointments, which is not to say there aren't great Canadians in the Senate-- there are, I'm just not convinced the practice by both parties of appointing party stalwarts and loyalists is going to improve democratic deliberation and policy formation in the upper chamber.

  8. Rich- I'm with (I think) both of you on the overall point: when it comes to senate appointments, there should be a pox on the Ls and the Cs. I think I can speak for Jon as well when I say that we don't have any specific criticisms of Harper's picks. (We both agree that his appointees are no less qualified and no more the beneficiaries of patronage than the appointees of previous PMs.) We were merely reacting to your call for "thanks" for the recent appointments, which you characterized as being made on "principle." I think you may have put yourself on a limb there....

    Perhaps all this just goes to show that, if we are going to have a bicameral legislature (which, as you all know, isn't necessary but does have real advantages), we should have a proper bicameral legislature, not this vestigial appendage.

  9. I think we're there, gentlemen. We've managed, I think, to find some fields of agreement on this thorny question. At least as a matter of broad principles we'd apply to modernize the Senate.

    I wonder, though, whether any real steps are possible as a practical matter given the poisoned (and poisonous?) political environment in Ottawa.

    Setting aside the structural difficulties involved in navigating the constitutional terrain across provinces (I suspect that the kind of Senate tinkering most envision would trigger either the 7/10/50 rule or the unanimity requirement for constitutional amendments), the very possibility of reaching agreement on Senate renewal among political parties in Ottawa seems unlikely, at least with the current crop of party leaders.


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