Justin Trudeau’s recent gambit must have Stephen Harper thinking long and hard about how a tried and true populist target, the Canadian Senate, could have become a self-tied noose around his own neck.
Mr. Harper made several critical errors, fuelled in equal measure by hubris and a mistaken belief that his repeated championing of an elected Senate would bullet-proof him and his government from attacks on his “temporary” appointments to the red chamber. For reasons that are now well documented (and indeed the subject of RCMP investigations), this did not happen.
The mantra of the “Triple E” Senate as the foundation of Reform/Conservative policy dates back many years. Preston Manning made it his cause, and others – notably Clyde Wells of Newfoundland – made the argument during the constitutional talks of the 1980s and 1990s. One of the ironies of life is that the Charlottetown Accord, defeated in a national referendum in 1992, called for an elected, equal Senate, with a mechanism to break a logjam between the Senate and the House. Mr. Harper and Mr. Manning were leaders in the campaign against Charlottetown, and an elected Senate went out the window along with recognition of Quebec as a distinct society and a process to ensure negotiations on aboriginal self government.
When Mr. Harper was elected in 2006, he brought in a law that would have allowed for elected Senators, but under the old formulas that has the western provinces badly under-represented, and no mechanism to avoid a confrontation between two elected chambers. It is not at all clear that such a fundamental change is within his powers, but for seven long years the proposal sat on various order papers, despite suggestions from the opposition that a Supreme Court reference would at least tell us whether such an idea is constitutional.
So that was mistake number one. Mr. Harper finally relented, and the Supreme Court will tell us whether the Harper idea is lawful. But a lot of time has been wasted.
Mistake number two was Mr. Harper’s decision to appoint Conservative Senators whenever vacancies occurred. He could have appointed just enough to secure a working majority in the Senate, but one can only assume that the demand from his Party to use the power of patronage was simply too strong a temptation. Mr. Harper succumbed, and indeed seemed to enjoy the partisan attacks that his appointees launched to applauding Conservative audiences. Money poured in, and all seemed well with the world. His frequently targeted “corrupt, unelected, unaccountable Senate” was now his, but apart from some ironic “that was then, and this is now” he seemed to be getting away with it.
Mr Harper now lives with a very different result, and he is now living through the years of reckoning. He is a tough strategist, but he is also human, and his pride has cometh before his fall. Once he had his working majority in the Senate, he could have simply let the institution stumble along in relative obscurity, saving the taxpayers money, hoping the Court would allow his changes to proceed.
Mistakes three and beyond relate to how he and his office handled the expense mess – a story often told and does not need to be repeated here. Except to say it has not been a pretty picture, and all the facts have not come out.
No doubt there are other shoes to drop, and Mr. Harper is quite capable of a change in course before the next election. But it is a messy affair, and the simplicity of the old Reform narrative has been completely lost. It cannot be resurrected.
Mr. Harper does not look like a man who loses sleep or second guesses. But he might just glance out the window and wonder if there wasn’t a better way to handle an issue that long seemed so simple and so pure.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.