Harper’s refusal to appoint senators threatens Parliament’s viability

For years he’s been known as the prime minister who’s made a record number of appointments to the Senate: 56 since 2006.

In recent weeks, though, prime minister Stephen Harper has been chastised by politicians and political scribes alike for his refusal to fill the ballooning number of vacancies in Parliament’s upper chamber.

Eleven of the 105 Senate seats are vacant, with that number expected to soar to 17 by the end of the year, thanks to pending retirements. Senators must quit the chamber when they turn 75.

Do the math and right now nearly 10 percent of Senate seats are sitting empty.

The prime minister’s leeriness in appointing senators is understandable. Last year’s Senate expense scandal has tarnished the prime minister’s reputation within the party base.

With an election looming, Harper has attempted to distance himself from the ongoing scandal by throwing anyone and their dogs under the bus.

Even so, the prime minister hasn’t been able to avoid the fact he appointed all three disgraced senators (Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy) in the first place, a piece of ammunition the opposition has gleefully wielded.

And while it may have appeared for a while that the Senate scandal had disappeared from the political radar, charges laid by the RCMP against Duffy last week have pushed the scandal back into the spotlight.

Duffy now faces 31 counts of bribery, fraud and breech of trust in connection with alleged misuse of taxpayer’s funds.

As for Harper, his nightmare of a year is about to start all over again.

The charges have set the stage for a high-profile court case with a witness list that could include his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, several Conservative senators and even the prime minister himself.

Harper’s refusal to appoint new senators also risks serious consequences for Parliament today.

The Senate was designed to be a chamber of sober second thought, an institution where minority groups who might not be well represented in the House of Commons are given a chance to have their voices heard.

Those minorities include smaller provinces such as Prince Edward Island. By the end of July, only two of the province’s four seats will be filled. Senator Catharine Callbeck is retiring and Duffy is suspended.

It’s a similar story for Manitoba, where three of the province’s seats will be empty by the end of the summer.

For rural Canada, the lack of representation is even more disconcerting.

The recent resignation of longtime agriculture advocate JoAnne Buth, who is returning home to Winnipeg to work for the Canadian International Grains Institute, means there is currently no sitting senator with a detailed background in agriculture.

No farmers, no former heads of agriculture groups and no former employees of the food processing industry grace the Senate floor.

The vacancies aren’t only skewing provincial representation. Fewer appointments means more senators are asked to sit on multiple committees, which is a scheduling nightmare.

While most senators will tell you they don’t mind the extra work, the lack of options means individuals are being named to committees they know little to nothing about.

Finding replacements is also becoming harder by the day, which is concerning particularly given the degree of importance committee work holds in Parliament’s day-to-day function.

Take the Senate’s agriculture and forestry committee, for example. In recent months, the committee has undertaken an in-depth investigation into bee health, released a two-year report on innovation in Canada’s agriculture industry and held several emergency meetings on last winter’s grain transportation crisis.

The panel has also shepherded several pieces of agriculture legislation through the chamber, with more expected in the fall. Among them is Bill C-18, which would see Canada sign onto UPOV 91.

Harper’s petty avoidance of the Senate risks undermining both the Red Chamber — and Parliament’s — ability to function.

Like it or not, Canadian prime ministers make appointments to the Senate, and bills cannot become law in this country unless the Senate approves them.

By avoiding this responsibility, Harper risks being accused of standing in the way of a province’s — and by extension Canadians’ — right to be represented. A right to representation, one might add, that is protected under the Constitution.

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