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Recent Senate appointments reek of patronage

The idea of a Canadian senate – an upper chamber modelled on the British House of Lords that offers sober second thought to decisions of the elected House of Commons – was a good one, in its time. Stephen Harper built his political reputation in part on his call for an elected Senate that would modernize the institution and make it directly representative. Not a bad idea, but one that would never succeed without provincial agreement and a nod from the senators themselves.

The Liberals stacked the Senate with partisans while they were in power, including the usual assortment of hacks and bagmen, and as they compulsorily retire at age 75, or die, Harper is replacing them with his own loyal crew. Some will call it hypocrisy, as the Liberals are doing, while others will see it as realpolitik. But there is no doubt, our prime minister has shown, in his last two rounds of appointments, including one last month, that he is not prepared to show leadership by appointing independent women and men who have bipartisan stature and can be counted on to vote with their good sense and conscience, including on the future shape of the Senate.

Let us remember that what we are talking about is a most lucrative patronage appointment. Senators receive a base salary of $132,000, plus extras for positions such as committee chairs. They are eligible at age 55 for pensions worth 75 per cent of their best five years salary after serving six years in the Senate; the pension is indexed to the cost of living after age 60. Like the 18 senators appointed in December, all have been asked to relinquish their seats after eight years, but nothing obliges them to do so.

Senators get 64 return trips per calendar year anywhere in Canada by plane or train. They can designate someone else to travel. Senators can claim up to $20,000 per year in travel and living expenses if they live 100 kilometres from Ottawa. Senators receive $149,400 to set up an office on Parliament Hill, hire staff and conduct research, and nothing prevents them from appointing a family member to their staff.

Harper’s nine appointments last month brings the tally there to 53 Liberals, 43 Conservatives and six independents and progressive conservatives. Harper is nearing a majority in the Senate, though his party is in a minority in the House of Commons. Among those appointed in Quebec:

• Jacques Demers, 65, the former Montreal Canadiens hockey coach and RDS commentator, who courageously admitted in his 2005 biography that he was illiterate. We salute Demers for his honesty and subsequent efforts to learn to read and write. As a hockey hero, he will be an asset to Harper come election time. However, a man who hasn’t read a book for almost his entire adult life is hardly ideal to review legislation. The other Quebec Senators are straight from the patronage book:

• Judith Seidman, co-chairwoman for Harper’s leadership bid in 2003 and a former educator, health and social sciences researcher.

• Claude Carignan, 44, mayor of Saint-Eustache, a lawyer, vice-president of the Quebec Union of Municipalities, and a failed Tory candidate.

Less obvious but equally calculated is the appointment of Linda Frum Sokolowski, the Toronto-based conservative journalist. She’s praised Harper for his steadfast support of Israel, a key to his drive to make continuing inroads among Jewish voters. She’s 46.

Unless and until there is reform, Carignan’s got the job for the 31 years, Frum Sokolowski for the next 29 years.

To soften the sting, Harper named NDP premier Gary Doer to the plum diplomatic appointment as ambassador to Washington, much as Brian Mulroney named former New Democrat Stephen Lewis ambassador to the United Nations.

This latest round makes it a record 18 appointments to the Senate in less than a year – a blunt reminder that the Senate as it is now constituted is an aberration that must be reformed, and that it takes real courage to carry this out. Now that he’s in power, Prime Minister Harper has not shown that he is much different from his predecessors, or that he has the stuff to carry out his own laudable call for Senate reform.



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