When the Reform Party dissolved to become the Canadian Alliance Party, and subsequently merged with the Progressive Conservative Party (dropping the “Progressive” part while doing so), senate reform was still a major policy plank. When Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, he kept senate reform on the table. At a news conference in mid-October 2008, Harper said “we don't believe an unelected body should in any way be blocking an elected body.” Earlier this year, during the extended winter break that came about because of prorogation, Harper again promised to bring senate reform back onto the legislative agenda.
With this in mind, the death of Bill C-311 (the Climate Change Accountability Act) in the senate last week amounts to one of the most serious and hypocritical affronts to Canadian democratic institutions in recent history. The bill did not reach the committee stage in the senate, where it would have been debated and discussed, but was voted on suddenly and defeated by 43 votes to 32.
Leaving aside the environmental impacts and the damage this will do to Canada's international reputation (which are both severe), the most shocking aspect of this negative senate vote is that it isn't really all that shocking. It is just the latest in what is becoming a catalogue of brazen attacks on political debate in Canada.
Harper has made much of how the previously Liberal-dominated senate was a hindrance to Conservative legislation. But this kind of outright rejection, without anything resembling a debate on the bill, is unprecedented. Harper, with a minority government, has appointed 35 senators (more appointments than Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, or Brian Mulroney) out of the 105 currently serving, giving the Conservative Party a majority in the upper house. Never before has the senate been used to so flagrantly bock legislation with which the government in power disagrees. While Harper supports reducing senate terms to 8 years, the issue of elected senators has conspicuously fallen off the map.
It would be presumptuous to attribute this senate vote to a Harper strategy, if it was an isolated incident, but Harper's disdain for political debate and informed, bipartisan discussion has been made clear. Canada's Afghan mission has been extended without a parliamentary vote; the mandatory long-form census has been abandoned; parliament has been prorogued, twice, both times under very questionable circumstances; all Conservative MPs must have public appearances and statements approved by the Prime Minister's Office; veteran diplomat Richard Colvin faced a public defamation campaign when he alleged that Canadian troops were complicit in torture in Afghanistan, with calls for a public inquiry completely ignored; in 2007, former Chief Justice Antonio Lamer accused Harper of trying to interfere with judicial independence. The list could go on.
Where other leaders have faced severe consequences for similar actions, Harper has somehow managed to shrug off each of these as routine, of little consequence, or simply within the executive's mandate. Side-stepping democratic institutions on a regular basis has not changed Harper's polling numbers. We can perhaps put some blame on an anemic and ineffective opposition, but some blame must also fall on the dangerously short memories of the Canadian electorate. Whether or not voters hold the current government accountable for moves like the rejection of Bill C-311 will bear heavily on the future of a vibrant democracy in Canada.