Stephen Harper has often called for the abolition of the Senate but once in power he found himself stymied by a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that the unanimous consent of all 10 provinces would be required to take this step. His response was to make the best of a bad situation by embracing the time-honoured tradition of appointing party faithful to the Senate. Harper carried this to a new extreme, even appointing some members (notably Pamela Wallin and especially the infamous Mike Duffy) for the primary purpose of campaigning and fundraising on behalf of the Conservative Party. Other Prime Ministerial appointments have been equally embarrassing in their own way – such as those of Patrick Brazeau and Don Meredith.
While some commentary has attempted to distinguish the value of the Senate from the misbehaviour of some of its members (as I did in a blog In Defence of the Senate, not the Senators), the Canadian public is increasingly disillusioned with this institution. Its image is unlikely to improve with the Duffy trial resuming on August 12. The Prime Minister’s response has been to announce that is the fault of the provinces that the Senate cannot be abolished (or reformed in any substantial way) and that he will no longer appoint any Senators until the provinces come up with some solution.
Exhibit 2: Stamping a Foot – Harper and the Supreme Court
The very recent appointment of Justice Russell Brown to the Supreme Court has generated considerable discussion and some controversy. Much of it centered on the fact that Justice Brown has had only two years experience as a judge and had over the years expressed quite strong views as a self-declared conservative libertarian. It is difficult, however, to evaluate this appointment because the government has offered virtually no explanation for the selection of Justice Brown, nor have they provided any process by which an appointee could be questioned by parliamentarians.
This was not always the case. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin had established a process for parliamentarians to ask questions of an appointee and Prime Minister Harper continued with this process with five of his first six appointees to the Supreme Court. Then came the Justice Nadon debacle, in which the Prime Minister’s attempt to appoint someone who did not appear to fit within the accepted qualifications and requirements was rejected by the Supreme Court when the issue was referred to it. A story in the Globe and Mail about the secret short list from which Nadon was chosen added fuel to the fire and the Prime Minister’s response was to stamp his foot (at least metaphorically) and cancel the parliamentary screening committee.
The greater secrecy surrounding the appointment of Supreme Court judges has not obscured the fact that the government has stepped up efforts to load the court with judges of an ideological background sympathetic to the primacy of Parliament. The Prime Minister has been increasingly frustrated and angered by the audacity of the Supreme Court in upholding the Canadian constitution and rejecting a number of laws the Conservative majority passed even when their constitutionality was dubious. It is clear that the Conservative strategy is to try and create a Supreme Court that will be less concerned with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and more deferential to the decisions of Parliament.
Exhibit 3: Covering the Ears – Don’t Confuse Me with Facts
One of the defining characteristics of the Harper Government of the past decade is a disdain for evidence, especially of a scientific nature, and an aggressive and wide-ranging campaign to discourage or suppress information that might not support the government’s stance. The anti-scientist bias of the Conservative Government is legendary. More than 2000 researchers and scientists have lost their jobs. Scientists who work for the government are not allowed to speak about their own published papers in scholarly journals except on the basis of talking points provided by the staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The government has taken many other steps to restrict the availability of information that is pertinent for evidence-based decision making. These include the scrapping of the mandatory long form census document and the disbanding of the National Council and its statistics on healthy, poverty, and wellbeing. Libraries in various government institutions have been closed or reduced in scale, with reports of documents just being thrown in the trash. Various organizations and agencies that have been a source of information and analysis about the impact of government policies (or proposed policies) have been suppressed by the threat of a Revenue Canada audit of their operations that could remove their eligibility for charitable donations. Overall, the image that comes to mind is that of the small boy holding his hands over his ears and chanting, so as to avoid hearing any unpleasant truths.
Closing Note: Not Just Petulant but Breathtakingly Hypocritical
As I was drafting this blog, there were media reports that Prime Minister Harper had chastised President Obama for ignoring public opinion and the advice of his own officials with respect to the Keystone pipeline issue. This is rich, coming from a Prime Minister who accepts no advice from anyone unless it fits with his preconceived view of what is appropriate.