Prime Minister Stephen Harper tipped the Senate’s balance of power on Friday in a bid to expedite a series of justice bills and launch what he depicted as an era of change.
But Harper was immediately lambasted by opposition MPs who said he was doing the very thing he promised to stop by stocking the unelected chamber with partisan appointees directed to do his bidding.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office called the appointments “another step toward implementing the government’s tackling-crime agenda and respecting the will of the democratically-elected House of Commons.”
Veteran Ontario Tory MPP Bob Runciman headed the list of five new senators, giving the Conservative government a plurality of seats in the upper house.
Also named are Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu from Quebec, Vim Kochhar from Ontario, Elizabeth Marshall from Newfoundland and Labrador, and Rose-May Poirier from New Brunswick.
“Our government is serious about getting tough on crime,” Harper said in the statement. “Since we were first elected, we have made it one of our highest priorities.”
Opposition parties wasted no time in condemning the move.
The Liberals criticized the appointments as nothing more than hypocritical, partisan, patronage plums – direct contradictions to Harper’s own undertakings to reform the upper house.
“He simply does not respect promises to his political base,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said outside a darkened Commons chamber, which Harper has shut down until March.
The prime minister cites a need for speedy passage of his crime bills, Ignatieff noted, but “then he prorogues Parliament and all 26 of them go down the drain.”
“He’s going to have to bring back the crime bills and we’re going to have to start all over again. I think it says quite a lot about his attitudes to public safety and I think it says a lot about his respect for our institutions.”
Ignatieff said a Liberal government would proceed with Senate reform on things like term limits, after consulting the provinces.
Runciman is a politician from eastern Ontario who has served at Queen’s Park for almost 30 years. He’s held a variety of provincial cabinet posts, including solicitor general and public safety minister.
He also sponsored a provincial private member’s bill in 2008 proposing Senate elections. Ironically, under its provisions, no sitting member of the legislature would be eligible to run for a Senate seat.
“For too long, the Ignatieff Liberals have abused their majority in the Senate by obstructing law-and-order bills that are urgently needed and strongly supported by Canadians,” Runciman said Friday, reading from a prepared text.
“Today, this abuse comes to an end.”
Boisvenu, whose daughter was murdered in 2002, is a champion of crime victims’ rights. Kochhar is an India-born businessman and chair of the Canadian Paralympic Association.
Marshall is former auditor general of Newfoundland and a member of the legislature since 2003. Poirier is a businesswoman and former New Brunswick cabinet minister. Both are Progressive Conservatives.
The newly appointed senators, Harper said, are “committed to community safety and justice for the victims of crime.”
All have pledged to support Harper’s minority government in its “efforts to make the Senate more democratic and accountable, including legislation to limit Senate terms to eight years,” said Harper.
The appointments are effective immediately, with the exception of Poirier’s, which is effective Feb. 28.
They end years of Liberal domination in the upper chamber and leave the Tories just two seats shy of a Senate majority. The power shift could help clear the way for Harper to reform the Senate itself.
Filling Senate vacancies and reconstituting Senate committees to reflect the new Conservative numbers were among the driving forces behind Harper’s controversial decision to prorogue Parliament.
Friday’s appointments bring to 32 the number of Senate appointments the prime minister has made in the last year – a record, said the opposition.
Control of the Senate floor as well as bulked-up numbers on Senate committees should mean a smoother ride for government bills through the legislative process.
New Democrat MP David Christopherson launched a blistering attack against Harper – “a minority prime minister who feels that somehow he’s entitled to majority control in the Senate.”
“As long as the Senate does his bidding, the Senate’s working the way it ought to,” said Christopherson. “It’s only a problem for him when it doesn’t do what he wants.”
He called the unelected chamber a “farce,” a “joke,” and “the wart on the Canadian body politic.” He said it should be abolished.
“What a disgrace, what an absolute disgrace that any prime minister who said he wants to reform the Senate is now breaking records in terms of the number of people that he’s appointing.”
“This is about the political character of this man,” he said. “When the Senate’s in his way, he bullies the Senate.”