Harper’s Senate Appointments

Blame the provincial premiers.

They were expected to set up the machinery for Senate elections, and didn’t. Remember the plan: the Prime Minister would recommend for appointment to the Upper Chamber persons elected by the provinces or regions, regardless of party affiliation.

But the premiers have fudged and stalled – Alberta is the exception – and to prevent depopulation of the Senate, Mr. Harper has resorted to the old method, making 18 appointments in December, 2008, and another five last week.

Why are the premiers avoiding the issue?

I’d say it’s because in the present set-up they have come to enjoy unprecedented prominence in national affairs. They have emerged as the representatives of their province – or as they sometimes say when they’re feeling their oats – representatives of an entire region. Remember that opposition parties are not invited to First Ministers’ Meetings. Thus Mr. McGuinty – to take my province as the example – becomes Mr. Ontario himself, the very embodiment of the province, speaking for us, Ontario’s citizens, with more freedom than he can in the provincial legislature.

In fact, those federal-provincial meetings resemble nothing so much as a gaggle of oligarchs. And if I know anything about politics it is that to a politician oligarchy is a compellingly attractive forbidden fruit. You will not find one to admit it; but it’s true. “Oh, to be rid of that clinging, complaining political opposition that hinders me in my appointed task – getting things done.”

The Fathers of Confederation envisaged no such jumped-up role for the provincial first ministers. The Senators were to speak for us on provincial matters in the national legislature. Or rather, it was the senators’ business to query the intrusion of provincial matters into the national legislature.

They gave the Senate three tasks. 1. It was to be an arena of national deliberation on the matters that affect everyone in the country equally. 2. It was to use its status as deliberative arena to resist attempts by the majority in the House of Commons to trespass on the rights of the provinces under the constitutional division of legislative powers. 3. It was to it was to assist in upholding the right of the political opposition to be heard in national debates.

We can’t return to the Fathers’ vision in toto. But adopting Mr. Harper’s plan would take us part way. Let me remind you that the Fathers were not opposed to the idea of an elective senate. Macdonald, certainly, favoured the elective Upper Chamber.

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8 Responses to “Harper’s Senate Appointments”


  1. 1 Stephen MacLean February 2, 2010 at 5:22 am

    With great respect to Professor Ajzenstat, who has a vast understanding of Canadian political history, and no doubt an equally vast library of sources to substantiate her argument, your recent posting on Senate reform has puzzled this supporter of our appointed Red Chamber with its emphasis on provincial representation. So I’ll go out on a limb and present a counter-argument, with my apologies.

    You abhor the fact that premiers see themselves as representatives of their provinces; granted they are not the sole representatives, but may they not be considered the principal provincial representatives within this federal system? MPs represent constituencies, and senators, well, more on that below.

    You also write that senators were to ‘query the intrusion of provincial matters into the national legislature’; I embrace the concept if not the terminology. From my perspective, I’m always a bit leery of using the term ‘Province’ when the Constitution speaks of ‘Divisions’—especially here in the East where Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were lumped into an Atlantic division. Either we were provinces in the eyes of the Fathers of Confederation or we weren’t, and as the details of the British North America Act must have been uppermost in their minds, I’ll assume that we were and that provincial representation in Ottawa (under any guise) wasn’t a priority. After all, that was the raison d’être of federation in the first place.

    You conclude by saying that even Macdonald supported an elective Upper Chamber; true or no, he also supported a unitary legislative union which, like an elective Senate, didn’t come to pass, but you don’t hear anyone making the case for that bit of Sir John’s wisdom. (My point simply being that ideas must stand on their own merit, regardless if our heroes held them or not.) And, as Sir Joseph Pope, his early biographer and confidant, noted in his Memoirs of Macdonald:

    ‘It is true that, at an early period of his career, he favoured an elective Upper House, but eight years’ experience of this system was sufficient to change his views, and to convert him into a firm upholder of the nominative principle … To his mind the chief among the objections to a Senate chosen by the popular vote, was the ever-present danger of its members claiming the right to deal with money Bills, and the consequent possibility of disputes with the House of Commons. The proposal that the provincial legislatures, whose members are elected for purely local purposes, should choose the senators to legislate on matters of general concern, was also objectionable, being opposed to the spirit of the constitution, which confined the local assemblies to a strictly limited sphere of action.’

    To return to the main argument in favour of an elected Senate: I agree that ‘we can’t return to the Fathers’ vision in toto’, and even more so with your three stated reasons for a Canadian Upper House (national deliberation, jurisdictional defence, and minority rights). But while I do not agree that the present configuration is perfect, I do believe it is better than what most reformers have suggested. It works rather well, and has the benefit of over 140 years of proven ability.

    At the very least, without further constitutional reform to alter the roles of the Upper Chamber, these elected senators will have power on a par with their House of Commons counterparts—save for money bills—and anyone who doesn’t think they will wield their newfound popular legitimacy, and frustrate/deadlock the legislative ambitions of the Lower Chamber, hasn’t read their Acton. Or their Moore.

  2. 2 Charles Blattberg February 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Why “Fathers” with a capital “F”? After all, we’re not Americans; we don’t consider our constitutional documents to be sacred texts, their writers inspired lawgivers. They were all-too-human politicians who participated in a series of wonderful negotiations, nothing more. As MacDonald said in his speech endorsing the resolutions that would become the BNA act, “The whole scheme of Confederation, as propounded by the Conference, as agreed to and sanctioned by the Canadian Government, and as now presented for the consideration of the people, and the Legislature, bears upon its face the marks of compromise.”

  3. 3 John von Heyking February 3, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    The “Fathers” symbol has been around for a long while.

    Aren’t fathers those who compromise to conjoin, and thus to beget?

  4. 5 john von Heyking February 4, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    That may be, but I was talking about fatherhood.

  5. 6 Charles Blattberg February 4, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Fathers can do better than that.

  6. 7 David Stern February 22, 2010 at 12:35 am

    I quickly scanned your comments re Senatorial appointments and I agree that the provincial governments do NOT want elected senators that speak for their geographical area. This would undercut much of their power. I believe an elected senate might help to rationalize our federal state. A Senator elected from a province would force a change in party politics and would provide a very different impact on federal affairs. Provincial politicians are parochial, elected federal senators, the result of term elections, would bring a larger view to our federal affairs. David Stern


  1. 1 2010 in review « The Idea File Trackback on January 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

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