The Santa Claus senators

PM missed his majority because of Quebec and almost caused Charest to miss his

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The Gazette, Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eighteen appointments to the Senate, three days before Christmas. That sounds about right, in terms of how these things have always been done. Except that the guy doing them, Stephen Harper, is a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of an elected Senate, one of the core principles of the Reform Party movement from which he came.

Even as prime minister, he has pressed forward with an agenda for an elected Senate, both in the previous and present Parliaments, only to be thwarted by the Constitution - it takes a constitutional amendment to change the composition of the Senate, the manner in which senators are chosen, and the number of seats allocated to each province.

There were provinces, including Quebec, lined up to take Ottawa to court if Harper proceeded unilaterally with Senate reform. And there is impressive constitutional jurisprudence to support this view, notably a Supreme Court decision after Pierre Trudeau proposed a House of the Provinces in 1978.

That's what Harper was up against in pushing for an elected Senate. But what he was really up against this month was the attempted opposition coup to replace his government with an opposition coalition led by StÚphane Dion, which would have seen the Conservatives ousted from office with all those vacancies to be filled by the Liberals, who already enjoy a huge advantage in the Senate. The Conservative Party would never have forgiven Harper for that, and he knew it.

The abortive coup gave Harper the political cover he needed to make yesterday's appointments, filling a backlog that has been growing since he took office nearly three years ago.

"If Senate vacancies are to be filled," Harper declared in yesterday's appointment notice, "they should be filled by the government that Canadians elected rather than by a coalition that no one voted for."

Uh-huh. There's more: "While I look forward to welcoming elected senators ... these current vacancies must be filled in order to transact legitimate government business."

Well, he's right about that. Until yesterday, there were 58 Liberals in the Senate, only 20 Conservatives, three Progressive Conservatives (a rump group led by Lowell Murray), five independents and, of all things, one independent New Democrat. Then, poof, the 18 vacancies were filled, and the Conservatives have 38 members. There are now no vacancies in the 105-seat Senate.

This means that, for the first time since Harper took office, the government leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, will have enough bodies to fill seats on committees for the very real work the Senate is called upon to do. While there is great mirth about the Senate being a reward for party stalwarts, its work is much more than a taskless thanks for hacks who have performed thankless tasks. For example, the Senate Banking Committee has long been regarded as the best on either side of Parliament Hill. Its work under Liberal Leo Kolber on large bank mergers and corporate governance in 2002 and 2003 were templates of common sense.

Let there be no doubt - Harper was acting within his constitutional prerogative in making these appointments. A very strong case can be made that he was finally filling a constitutional requirement to give the provinces in question their full complement of senators in the Upper House, as well as doing his duty in assuring that the Senate does not descend into dysfunctional chaos for want of members.

The argument that Harper was overreaching by making appointments when the government does not enjoy the confidence of the House is intellectual nonsense. The House prorogued before confidence was tested, so there is no absence of it.

As for the appointments, some are of a traditional nature - Irv Gerstein is the fundraiser for the government party. Sir John A. Macdonald would approve, even if a younger Stephen Harper might not. And the two journalists, Pam Wallin from Saskatchewan and Mike Duffy from Prince Edward Island, are interesting choices. (Full disclosure: They are both old friends as well as colleagues and I'm very happy for them). Duffy has been nicknamed "Senator" for years. Both are gifted communicators who will make a strong representational case for Harper out on the banquet circuit.

With our former Gazette colleague Joan Fraser, and Jim Munson from the Liberals, that makes at least four journalists in the Senate, almost a caucus. Munson, Wallin and Duffy all come from one network, CTV. The Senate score, CTV 3, CBC 0, Global, O

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