Every Member of Parliament wants to leave a lasting legacy on the halls of Centre Block for their successors to enjoy. With the recent cabinet shuffle, Pierre Poilievre’s legacy got a helping hand after being appointed Minister of State for Democratic Reform.
For those who aren’t already familiar with the portfolio, it deals with Canada’s current “democracy deficit” in Parliament. This includes vote whipping, the lack of private member’s bills that become law, the power government leaders have over Parliamentary committees, and the Prime Ministers’s role in assigning committee chairs and members, just to name a few.
But none of those challenges listed are at the top of Minister Poilievre’s agenda.
With the Upper Chamber embroiled with Brazeaugate, Duffygate and then Wallingate over the last year, the junior minister has made Senate reform his top priority.
It’s a tall order. So tall that Poilievre admits the Conservatives are ready to call it quits on reform if the Supreme Court – whom they have asked if Parliament can amend the Constitution unilaterally to enact provincial elections and fixed term limits for Senators – rules against them.
“In the event that these reforms are not successful, we believe that the Senate should be abolished,” he told the Prince Arthur Herald while in Montreal.
“The reforms that we seek are a limit on terms to 9 years maximum, rather than an appointment basically for life.”
On how Canadians would vote Senators into office, Poilievre says the Conservative government has their eye set on copying Alberta’s current system.
“The federal government or the provinces should hold democratic votes among their citizens and those votes should recommend to the Prime Minister candidates for Senate. That has happened in Alberta and the Prime Minister has appointed the candidates.”
Truth be told, the people of Alberta do not have the final say on Senate elections. Senate nominee elections, as they’re known to Albertans under provincial law, provide a prime minister with a suggestive list of senators-in-waiting. The list is non-binding and has only ever been given serious consideration by Conservative prime minister’s in Ottawa.
Paul Martin refused to recommend the appointment of three Progressive Conservatives and one independent after they won the 2004 Alberta Senate nominee elections.
Although Stephen Harper won a Conservative minority in 2006, it was only when seats became vacant in the Albertan delegation to the Senate that he could appoint the senators-in-waiting Martin had snubbed.
That finally happened in 2007 when Senator Daniel Hays retired early and PC senator-elect Bert Brown was appointed by the Governor General on the advice of Harper. It was five years later when another seat was vacated and Harper appointed Betty Unger, who was elected by Albertans in the same election as Brown.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach had to extend the original term limit of the senators-elect by three years so that Unger could take her seat. By the next vacancy, it was already too late for the last remaining Senate nominee, Cliff Breitkreuz, who declined to run again in the 2012 Alberta senate election and lost his chance at an appointment.
Link Byfield, the independent candidate who also garnered a nomination in the 2004 Senate election, resigned from his position as a senator-in-waiting in 2010, arguing that taking his seat in the Senate after the extension by Stelmach would be akin to how every other Canadian senator makes it to the Red Chamber: without the consent of the people.
With disgraced senator Pamela Wallin’s expense audit complete and the upcoming hearings in both the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, the time for pushing the Conservatives case on Senate reform couldn’t be better. Poilievre is trying to get ahead of the game.
So is the Leader of the Official Opposition. Tom Mulcair just wrapped up his nationwide “Roll Up the Red Carpet” tour, outplaying the government’s message from the start by promoting the immediate abolition of the Senate, sans any attempt to reform.
The NDP attack campaign argues that of the 59 Canadians appointed to the Senate since Harper took office in 2006, 51 were major contributors to the Conservative Party. Almost a dozen were high-ranking Tory campaign fundraisers and strategists, including the former president of the federal Conservative Party and eight party members who lost their bid for a seat in the House of Commons before being appointed.
The cost of the Senate? $92 million this year alone.
“I think that Thomas Mulcair looks incompetent in lacking credibility,” said Poilievre when asked if the NDP was undercutting the Harper government.
“Canadians instinctively understand that we live in a nation of laws, that no Prime Minister can flip a switch and turn off the lights permanently in the Upper Chamber, that no government can make that decision all by itself and that we need a ‘how to’ guide from the Supreme Court of Canada. I don’t think Thomas Mulcair has any position on any of those important legal questions. He has a sound byte and a slogan.”
On the Commons
Poilievre’s post was first established under the Liberal government of Paul Martin in 2003. During the Liberal leadership convention of that year, Martin campaigned not on the topic du jour of Senate reform, but for greater independence between MPs and the government in the Commons. He promised his base that he would address – as he coined it – the “democracy deficit” facing parliamentarians.
The first holder of the Democratic Reform post, Jacques Saada, did not achieve much with his position. There were no advances on MPs voting their conscience, nothing on the need for greater autonomy among Parliamentary committees, nor was he promoting the further separation of power between the executive and the Commons.
In fact, Saada was also the Government House Leader at the same time, a key player in determining the Martin government’s legislative agenda and ensuring that his backbenchers would vote in lockstep with the leadership. This was a clear conflict of interest.
Private members’ bills
Poilievre notes that there have already been significant advances on the Commons reform front since the Conservatives came into power.
Since 2011, a record number of 19 private members’ bills have received Royal Assent and become law.
According to a Hill Times article, only 18 of the 1,142 private member’s bills tabled from 1993 to 2002 received Royal Assent. That’s less than 2 percent.
Although 19 may seem like a lot for this Parliament, many of the private members’ bills were used to sponsor government legislation, not the initiatives of individual MPs or their constituents. Some examples include prescribing mandatory minimum sentences to the Criminal Code of Canada and removing preferential access to Employment Insurance benefits for convicted criminals.
The prime ministership of Stephen Harper has not been free from charges of tampering with the private members’ bills of backbench MPs. It was only in June when Brent Rathgeber quit the Tory caucus to sit as an independent among his colleagues in the House of Commons.
Rathgeber resigned after several controversial amendments were made to his PMB titled The CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act by a Commons committee.
The bill would have mandated the public disclosure of the salaries of government workers (including CBC officials) earning $188,000 or more per year. The committee in charge of overseeing Rathgeber’s PMB was comprised of seven Tories who voted in favour of amendments that would raise the disclosure threshold to a minimum of $444,661, thereby limiting the release.
The disgruntled MP doesn’t believe that the Conservative committee members voted in the amendments on the basis of any personal objections to the bill, but were in fact ordered by bureaucrats in the PMO to water down the legislation.
“The more popular feeling certainly at PMO and the whip’s office is that caucus members should essentially be cheerleaders for the government and spread the government’s message as opposed to being some sort of legislative check on executive power,” said Rathgeber to members of the media.
Poilievre says the Conservative backbench is the most free of any caucus in the House of Commons when voting on legislation.
“We allow dissenting votes all the time in the House of Commons within the Conservative caucus. It happens so regularly it never even makes the news.”
Back in 2007, Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey was booted from the Tory caucus for voting against a preliminary vote on the Conservative budget. Prior to the vote and Casey’s subsequent expulsion, Peter MacKay told the House that members would not be punished for voting their conscience on the budget.
On that same Conservative budget, former Liberal MP Joe Comuzzi was expelled from his caucus after simply declaring he would vote in favour of it.
“Harper’s not only a great democrat, he’s far more democratic than any of the other party leaders.”
Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press