From the House – “The promise of senate reform stood out…”


John Rafferty MPOTTAWA – Over the past five years, many of the promises made by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives during campaigns have gone by the wayside once they assumed their seats in government. There are numerous and dramatic examples of this selective integrity, but few stand out more than their unfulfilled commitment to reform the senate.

The promise of senate reform stood out for a number of reasons for the Harper Conservatives, mostly because Mr. Harper himself and many MPs have campaigned on such reforms for nearly two decades. While sitting on the Opposition benches they railed on and on about the Liberals abuses of the Upper Chamber, and their use of it to reward their friends and supporters. Election after election Mr. Harper promised never to appoint an unelected Senator and to seek democratic reform of that institution. Since coming to power years ago Mr. Harper has become one of the largest abusers of the Red Chamber in recent history. To date, Mr. Harper has personally appointed 36 senators in 5 years, each of them earning a salary of $132,000 until they turn 75.

While having personally appointed a full 36 percent of all Senators currently in the Senate is bad enough, Mr. Harper has chosen to elevate some very unusual people to this most powerful institution. Some of those who have been granted a job for life and a seat in the Red Chamber by Mr. Harper include; his former press secretary (Carolyn Stewart Olsen), the chief fundraiser for the Conservative Party (Irving Gerstein), a former Conservative party president (Donald Plett) and the Quebec Co-Chair for his 2004 Conservative leadership bid (Judith Seidman). There are more. Mr. Harper has also appointed the husband of a cabinet minister (Doug Finley husband of Diane Finley), and a current Conservative candidate in Quebec who will be able to begin his campaign early from his new perch in the Senate (Larry Smith). The Harper appointees also include a whole host of defeated Conservative candidates from the last three elections who were rejected by the electorate in a democratic vote.

What has made these appointments all the worse is that many of these Senators are using their newly-found offices to fund-raise for the Conservatives on the public dime. For example, Senator Gerstein cost Canadians over $341,000 in salary, travel and office costs, yet he is one of the Conservatives most prominent fundraisers and is in high demand by Conservative candidate from around the country. Another prominent Conservative senator Mike Duffy cost Canadians over $386,000 in the same kinds of expenses and he has become known for hop scotching around the country helping to headline fundraisers for Conservative candidates from coast to coast. I think you will agree that there is a better use of our tax dollars than granting jobs for life to past Conservative candidates who run up huge travel bills while fundraising for current Conservative candidates.

New Democrats have always believed that the existence of this unelected and unaccountable body runs counter to our country’s democratic principles and we are committed to abolishing the senate. Abolition of the senate may prove difficult constitutionally, so we also have some practical solutions that can help reform the institution in the meantime. To start with, we want a ban on partisan fundraising by Senators of all parties and a cooling off period for appointments of party insiders and failed candidates. No more travelling hundreds of kilometres on the public dime to speak with 20-30 citizens in the daytime before hosting $150-a-ticket fundraisers for 250 plus partisans in the evening. When we pressed the Harper government on these proposals in Question Period their response was typical – they attacked us for politicizing the Senate and said they were only party committed to true Senate reform. It was surreal.

The Conservatives have always claimed to want an elected senate and committed to never appointing an unelected senator only to appoint 36 of them in just five years. They said taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize political parties, but now have their taxpayer funded senators regularly fan out across country spending hundreds of thousands of our dollars fundraising for new Conservative candidates. For a government that has not kept their promises on so many fronts, it has to be said their position on senate reform and their subsequent abuse of that institution is by far the worst.

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