Harper may democratize Senate by making it more controversial than ever
As any political thinker who has ventured anywhere near the topic of the Senate knows, Senate reform is an extremely tumultuous topic in Canada.
With Prime Minister Stephen Harper's governing Conservative Party finally taking control of the Senate, it's about to get much worse.
Part of the increased controversy will have to do with Senate committees, and how Harper may intend to use them. Where these committees were once obstacles to Senate reform, for example, they will now become tools of it -- at least according to Tom Flanagan.
"When the two reform bills are reintroduced –- one to limit senatorial terms to eight years, the other to provide for consultative elections –- the government doesn't have to worry about the bills being held up in committees," Flanagan wrote in a recent op/ed in the Globe and Mail.
Flanagan notes that Harper could even appoint four to eight additional Senators (the Constitution actually allows for this) in order to claim an outright majority in the upper chamber, as opposed to a slim plurality.
Flanagan was optimistically cautious about this potential move.
"Invoking Section 26 would be risky, because the opposition would paint it as another tricky power play," Flanagan warned. "But it would also showcase Mr Harper at his strategic best – using power politics not just to confound the opposition but to democratize the Canadian Constitution."
Flanagan's plan also involves something mused about by Chantal Hebert: legislating from the Senate, even on the matter of Senate reform.
Harper could legislate on almost any matter from the Senate -- exempting financial matters.
"In the future, Harper will also have the leisure to use the Senate as a safe launching pad for legislative initiatives that might be dead on arrival with the opposition majority in the Commons," Hebert wrote in a recent op/ed in the Toronto Star. "Both houses would still have to concur for those to become law but it could be good politics to use the more hospitable Senate to showcase them, especially in the lead-up to an election."
Nothing would provoke Harper's critics to declare his use of the Senate to be undemocratic -- using the appointed Senate to legislate, and transforming the elected House of Commons into a chamber of sober second thought.
But Harper's answer to those charges would be simple: if the Senate is undemocratic, then let us democratize it.
After all, in an elected Senate -- even one elected through "consultative" elections -- majorities would prove just as elusive as in the House of Commons.
"A look at the fractured federal political landscape suggests that, far from acquiring more control over the legislative destiny of its agenda, the Conservative government would almost certainly have had to give some up," Hebert wrote. "Sheer logic dictates that achieving a government majority in an elected Senate would be no easier than securing one in the Commons, and certainly harder than crafting one through patronage appointments."
If the amount of power that Harper himself would surrender, as well as the influence that could be lost by Western Canada, is at all dissuasive to Harper, he doesn't seem to be showing it. He continues to promise Senate reform.
Then again, the key part of promising such reforms is delivering on them. If Stephen Harper's Master Senate Plan is anything like that hinted at by Tom Flanagan and Chantal Hebert, the proof will be in the pudding -- and Canadians won't taste it until it's delivered.