More than 20 years ago (keep your eyes open now), I participated in the constitutional process we now know as the Charlottetown Accord. After the failure of Meech, it was an eighteen month effort by the federal government, provinces, territories and aboriginal representatives to fashion a comprehensive package for constitutional reform.
Among other things, we agreed to a new Senate, which would be elected and equal. Disputes between the House and the Senate would be resolved by a joint vote of both chambers.
Preston Manning and Stephen Harper launched an all out assault against Charlottetown, and it went down to defeat in a national referendum.
When Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, he supported legislation which would provide for an elected, unequal Senate with no formula to deal with deadlock between the House and the Senate. Liberals then urged the Prime Minister to refer the bill to the Supreme Court to assess its constitutionality. For six years he resisted this idea, preferring to use the “unelected, unaccountable Senate” as his personal political football. Finally, this spring, he relented.
One day, the matter will be dealt with by the Court, albeit possibly an eight member body because of Mr Harper’s determination to make an appointment he knew would be challenged.
The Senate has now blown up in Mr. Harper’s face. When he referred to it on Tuesday in Question Period as an independent body spontaneous laughter erupted in his face. In a famous expression years ago, Lloyd George called the House of Lords “Mr Balfour’s Poodle.” Given the controlling and autocratic nature of Mr. Harper, he can hardly expect us to see the Tory dominated Senate as anything but his pet.
So too a Prime Minister who has made a point of centralizing power and patronage can hardly complain when it all backfires. Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin were all appointed for Mr Harper’s own partisan reasons. He wanted attack dogs. He got them. Now they’re biting him.
There is a radical, impetuous side to Mr. Harper that he has no doubt tried to restrain, but it comes out. He is no admirer of institutions, and his appointment of Mr. Justice Nadon reflects that: Plucking a hard-edged judge out of semi-retirement from the Federal Court who doesn’t think much of the Charter to fill a Quebec vacancy was bound to create problems.
And the people around the Prime Minister reflect this attitude. Cheques cut, people silenced, others told to fall into line, MP’s and Senators told when to jump and how high, reporters intimidated, bureaucrats berated, scientists told to shut up: This is not a conservative government in the sense of one that respects civility, process, or balance.
We are descending into the brutal world of insult, cover-up and a scandal that is, above all, a mess. The worst wounds in politics are the ones that are self inflicted.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.