This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no business stacking the Senate with his cronies! Governor General Michaëlle Jean should use her powers to stop him.
Let me explain. As of right now, Mr. Harper does not have the confidence of the House of Commons. In our Canadian system of Parliamentary democracy, this means he simply does not have the right to make appointments to the Senate or the courts.
It really is that simple. Nevertheless, true to his authoritarian form, Mr. Harper has announced that over the next few days he intends to pack 18 vacancies in Canada’s appointed Upper House with his political pals.
This would be fair enough in normal times – but these are not normal times, at least for the moment. For while Canadians may have elected enough Conservatives in the Oct. 14 federal general election for Mr. Harper to form a minority government, that government has now lost the confidence of the House of Commons.
It was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s highly partisan economic statement on Nov. 27 that did the seemingly impossible and brought three disparate and divided opposition parties together in a makeshift coalition to defeat the government.
Quite a lot has happened since then, of course, not least Ms. Jean’s unprecedented decision to allow Mr. Harper to continue to play until Jan. 26 while Canadian democracy sits in the penalty box and the swift departure of the hapless Opposition leader who cobbled together the ramshackle coalition of the barely willing.
Nevertheless, literally the last word on this sorry affair is that Mr. Harper’s government does not have the confidence of the House – without which it should fall. That word: The agreement signed Dec. 1 by the three opposition party leaders stating they had lost confidence in the government and had reached an accommodation to form an uneasy governing alliance.
Whether or not Ms. Jean followed sound constitutional practice in allowing Mr. Harper to avoid a vote by proroguing a House that had done no business, at least she had the excuse that there were no precedents to guide her. In the matter of a prime minister without the confidence of the House trying to appoint cronies to the Senate, however, there is a clear Canadian precedent.
The year: 1896. The prime minister: Charles Tupper. The circumstances: Quite similar.
Prime minister Tupper [pictured at left], at any rate, having lost his majority in a close election, tried to use his last hours in office to pack the Senate with his Conservative buddies before the movers turned up.
One of Ms. Jean’s predecessors as Governor General, His Excellency the Earl of Aberdeen [pictured at right], did what a dutiful head of state must do when a prime minister insists on making appointments he lacks Parliamentary authority to make. To wit: He just said “No!”
Remember, in the Canadian Constitution, the Governor General not only has the right to make appointments on the advice of the prime minister, she (or he) has the right to refuse them.
Lord Aberdeen refused to make the appointments on the solid ground that Tupper no longer enjoyed the confidence of the House and therefore had no right to advise the Governor General to make appointments to the Senate.
Mr. Harper may soon be able to regain the confidence of the House. He can do his Senate stuffing with a clear conscience then. In the mean time, however, any appointment he makes while facing the possibility of a non-confidence vote the moment Parliament reconvenes obviously lacks democratic legitimacy.
Ms. Jean not only has the right to refuse Mr. Harper’s improper appointments to the Senate, she has a duty to do so.