by Chantal HÈbert
It’s been almost two years since Prime Minister Stephen Harper last appointed a senator. Since then 16 seats have become vacant with none expected to be filled until after the next election.
Elected Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas was appointed in March 2013, just before the controversy over Mike Duffy’s expenses bloomed into a full-fledged scandal involving the prime minister’s office.
With the next chapter in that saga set to unfold in court in the spring and a potentially embarrassing audit of Senate expenses scheduled for publication over the first half of next year, few Parliament Hill watchers expect Harper to appoint anyone to the upper house before the 2015 campaign.
From the government’s perspective there is little incentive to take a pre-election bite of the poisoned Senate apple. Just last week, Harper opined that there were still enough senators on hand for legislation to pass in a timely fashion.
It is not as if the Conservatives were at risk of losing control of the place. There are currently 53 Conservatives in the upper house against 30 Liberals and six independents. But assuming the prime minister stays the course, his determination to steer clear of the toxic Senate file until after the election means that Conservative control over both houses of Parliament could be in play in the federal vote.
That is actually unusual.
In the ’80s, Brian Mulroney spent six years wrestling control of the Senate from the Liberals.
His first majority government was elected in 1984, but it was not until 1990 that he got to call the shots in both houses and then only because he sped things up by using an obscure constitutional clause to appoint eight extra senators and get the GST passed.
After he became prime minister in 2006, it took Harper four years to appoint enough senators to hold a majority in the upper house. But if he fails to win re-election next year, that Conservative Senate majority could be history very quickly.
At this time next year, the upper house will be about 20 bodies short – almost 20 per cent – of its full complement. That number could be higher if some senators decide to bow out early.
With at least 20 more retirements on the horizon of the next mandate, one of the early decisions that whoever wins the next election could have to take would involve what to do about the Senate.
That’s an issue even NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who has vowed not to appoint any senators, would have to struggle with.
No prime minister, even one who is committed to getting rid of the Senate, can allow it to become so dysfunctional that it can no longer operate, for the outcome of that would be legislative gridlock.
Mulcair would need the unanimous agreement of all provinces to abolish the Senate. In the unlikely scenario that he managed to secure that agreement it could take as long as three years before a constitutional amendment dealing with the upper house comes into force.
Meanwhile Canada’s Constitution would continue to prescribe that every bill be scrutinized and passed by a functioning Senate.
In an ideal world, Mulcair would probably prefer having Harper fill the Senate to capacity before the election rather than face questions as to how an NDP government would handle a depleted upper house.
For his part, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised that the senators appointed on his watch would be selected through an arms-length process and would operate independently from the government.
In theory it would take years for such a change to transform the partisan culture of the Senate. But were a Trudeau-led government to inherit a record amount of vacant seats to fill on arrival, the appointment of a critical mass of unaligned senators would presumably accelerate the transition.
If Harper is re-elected next year and picks off the appointment process where he left off at the time of the spending scandal, there will be little more than an opposition rump in a sea of Conservative appointees left in the Senate at the end of his fourth mandate.
But if he is defeated, his party’s footprint – if it is not reinforced between now and then – is unlikely to be the defining one in the Senate for very long.
Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Torstar Syndication Services