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Why Harper is now right to appoint unelected senators Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Thursday, 18 December 2008
Link Byfield

As everyone now knows, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make 18 appointments to the Senate before Parliament resumes on January 26, and probably before the New Year.

It has prompted news media and critics to charge that Harper has “broken another promise,” that his appointments will be unconstitutional, and that he has abandoned Senate reform.

In fact Harper has never promised never to appoint unelected senators. He has said he will name senators only when necessary. The threat now posed by the opposition coalition to his government makes it necessary. He did it once before, you’ll recall, to get a Montrealer in his first cabinet (who, by the way, has since resigned, as promised).

Better to have unelected conservatives who are committed to Senate reform than unelected separatists, liberals and socialists who aren’t.

Nor will his appointments be unconstitutional, as alleged by 10 academics from five Ontario and Quebec universities. In a letter in yesterday’s National Post ( they claimed that until Harper can demonstrate he has the confidence of the Commons, he has no business recommending nominees to the Governor General, and the GG has no business appointing them.

What rubbish. This is a rule they just invented. Senate appointments are a matter of executive routine, not of parliamentary confidence. The GG by convention appoints those whom the PM recommends. Period. That’s the system. If these professors don’t like it, they should get on board with Senate reform, not try to make up new rules for the old game.

Finally, it need not mean that Senate reform is dead, or even (as they say of Latin) resting. There are numerous ways in which reform-minded appointees can push the cause ahead, and I’ll be very surprised if they don’t.

By refusing to appoint senators for three years, Harper has made Upper House reform a national issue – despite academic cant, media mockery, opposition and senatorial stonewalling, Quebec histrionics, and provincial inertia.

His own party could not forgive him if he left those 18 seats at risk of being filled by friends of the opposition Grand Misalliance (on the off chance it still exists).

We have reached the point where the virtue of justice (senators should be elected) makes room for the virtue of prudence (don’t be stupid).

In next week’s column I’ll propose how I think Harper can secure Senate reform once and for all. We are very close, I believe, to victory.

Personal update: No job for me in Ottawa yet

Because I am one of three remaining Alberta senators-elect, many people have been congratulating me that I will now be summoned to the Senate. I appreciate their good wishes, but regret to say it can’t happen.

None of the 18 Senate vacancies Prime Minister Harper is about to fill belongs to Alberta.

Thank Paul Martin for that, who plugged Alberta’s three vacancies with patronage porkers in 2005, after Albertans elected nominees for those positions in November, 2004.

The earliest Alberta vacancy will probably come three years from today, when Chretien appointee Tommy Banks turns 75. So, notwithstanding 238,000 Alberta votes in 2004, there will be no Senator Byfield. Our elective mandate expires in Nov. 2010.

Some have asked if Harper could appoint elected Albertans to sit pro-tem for other provinces.

No, it would be grossly improper.

A senator’s job, according to the constitution, is to represent his or her province in Parliament. I have lived in Alberta for thirty years. My fellow senators-elect, Betty Unger and Cliff Breitkreuz (both of whom outrank me in votes), have lived in Alberta all their lives. None of us could represent the interests and attitudes of, say, British Columbians or Ontarians, even if we bought property there (as the constitution also requires).

Turn it around. How would we Albertans feel if a maritimer were appointed to represent us on the sole basis that 238,000 Prince Edward Islanders had voted for him or her to represent them. (I know, 238,000 votes is almost twice the population of PEI, but you get the point.)

The only way we can go to the Senate is for the Martin appointees to do the right thing and resign, the way Harper appointee Michael Fortier of Montreal did this year as promised. Unfortunately, however, that would require a respect for democracy they obviously don’t possess, or they would not be there now.

First in line to leave should be Grant Mitchell, former VP of a crooked Edmonton trust company and the provincial Liberal leader whose entire party received fewer votes in 1997 than senator-elect Betty Unger did in 2004. But don’t hold your breath. Mitchell’s securely and comfortably ensconced until 2026.

The other two Martin appointees for Alberta are Elaine McCoy of Calgary, who may serve until 2021, and Claudette Tardif of Edmonton, who’s fixed until 2022.

It’s perfectly disgusting when you think about it.

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.

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