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Canadian Senate

Senate Reform: The Big Charade

"We don't think as a party that patronage has any place in the Parliament of Canada."

Stephen Harper, Calgary Herald, March 22, 1995

"We don't support any Senate appointments."

Stephen Harper, Winnipeg Free Press, January 29, 1996


For decades, Stephen Harper lectured Canadians about all that was wrong with their Senate and promised, if elected, to fix it. Once in office, he made it all much worse.

First as a zealous member of the Reform Party and then as leader of its successor Canadian Alliance, Stephen Harper would hurl righteous invective in Parliament’s general direction at every opportunity, with some of his choicest criticism reserved for what he decried as its undemocratic and patronage-tainted Senate.

He was rewarded with notoriety and media coverage on the issue, persuading many voters in his region of both the need for Senate reform and his commitment to pursuing it. In fact, in 2004, it was a prominent plank in his platform when he campaigned for the leadership of the Alliance-Progressive Conservative entity that ultimately came to be called the Conservative Party of Canada.

For a time thereafter, Mr. Harper appeared to be holding to his own line, going as far – upon winning his first minority – to submit a bill, S-4, calling for arguably the most minor of his highly publicized array of ambitious reforms, limiting Senate terms to just eight years. However, that was left to die on the order paper as he opted, instead, to loophole his way around his own fixed-date-election law (see Breaking the Fixed Election Date Law and Prorogation 2008), pressing for an early return to the polls and a bid for a majority that never materialized.

What did materialize when Mr. Harper resumed his status as leader of a minority government, however, was a complete about-face on the issue of the Senate – if not in word, then most certainly in deed. In fact, his unique contribution to the practices that he had gained a lot of mileage out of criticizing was to engage in them with unprecedented brazenness and intensity. His orgy of patronage-laden appointments took only 24 months to complete; and, at its end, a single human being – Stephen Joseph Harper – operating in stealth and on his own recognizance, had recreated 35%* of one of the peoples’ two houses of government and had seized effective control of it.

Indeed, by at least one opponent’s account, the results were more pernicious, still:

“What has made these appointments all the worse is that many of these Senators are using their newly-found offices to fund-raise for the Conservatives on the public dime. For example, Senator Gerstein cost Canadians over $341,000 in salary, travel and office costs, yet he is one of the Conservatives most prominent fundraisers and is in high demand by Conservative candidate from around the country. Another prominent Conservative senator Mike Duffy cost Canadians over $386,000 in the same kinds of expenses and he has become known for hop scotching around the country helping to headline fundraisers for Conservative candidates from coast to coast.”

(John Rafferty, MP Thunder Bay Rainy River)

And how have those unelected Senators—who were appointed despite the fact that Mr. Harper said he wasn’t going to appoint unelected Senators—been spending their time? Well, for one thing they have been acting to thwart the will of our only democratically elected body of Parliament, the House of Commons. For example, they killed a climate change bill that had been duly passed by our elected Members of Parliament. And, to add insult to injury, they killed it without a debate. According to a Toronto Star article published on November 17, 2010, that was “the first time in at least 70 years that the Senate has killed legislation from the Commons without a hearing, according to parliamentary experts.

The contrasting-headline sequence that follows speaks for itself in exposing as crass a trail of opportunistic, anti-democratic and self-promoting abuses greater than any Mr. Harper had ever attributed to those he had energetically denounced in the past.

What Stephen Harper said:

"Stephen Harper will cease patronage appointments to the Senate. Only candidates elected by the people will be named to the Upper House."

(Stephen Harper Leadership Website, January 15, 2004)

"… the Upper House remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the Prime Minister."

(Stephen Harper Leadership Website, January 15, 2004)

What he did:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing to reward some of his longest-serving and most loyal political operatives with Senate appointments

(Canwest News, August 26, 2009)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has named a Canadian Football League team owner who gave thousands to his 2004 leadership campaign as the latest Conservative senator.

(CBC News Canada, May 20, 2010)


What Stephen Harper said:

"I don't plan to appoint senators; that's not my intention."

(Stephen Harper, Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, January 14, 2006)

What he did:

Harper Appoints 18 Senators

(, December 22, 2008)

Harper appoints 9 to Senate

(Toronto Star, August 27, 2009)

Ontario’s Runciman among 5 new senators

(Toronto Star, January 29, 2010)

Harper appoints BC Lions owner David Braley to senate

(680 News, May 20, 2010)

Harper a hypocrite for appointing senators, say most Canadians

(Angus Reid poll, July 24, 2010):

Harper takes control of Senate with 2 appointments

(, December 20, 2010)

To suit his own political purposes, Stephen Harper has stacked the unelected Senate to an unprecedented degree, in direct contradiction to his election platform; and he has politicized the Senate to an extent never seen before.  Steven Harper’s promises to make the Senate more democratic are a charade, and his actions have greatly diminished the neutrality of our house of “sober second thought”.

* To date, Stephen Harper has appointed 38 unelected Senators to the 105-seat Senate.