I remember once reading an amusing theory about the evolution of an idea. I think it came from Hazel Barnes introduction Jean-Paul Sartre's Search for a Method. However, not having that book at hand I cannot be sure. The theory, if my memory serves, goes like this - A significant idea goes through three distinct processes in its evolution. First, its detractors condemn it as absurd or nonsensical, even dangerous. Second, those who once condemned it admit its veracity but suggest that it is obvious and not particularly interesting or important. Third, those who once denied the idea say that it is not only true, but they thought of it first.
I recount this idea because Stephen Harper's attitude toward the Senate has reminded of this funny evolutionary anecdote.
Harper's bizarrely shifting position on the Upper Chamber can be used, I think, as a kind of symbolic stand in for his entire attitude toward the job of Prime Minister. Harper began his political career insisting that if he were Prime Minister he wouldn't appoint any senators and that he would quickly reform the institution in general. This was Harper's first misrepresentation concerning the Upper Chamber. Thomas Mulcair came out of the gate saying that the NDP's ultimate position on the Senate is to work toward abolition, but despite what the other parties would have us believe, he also admitted from the beginning that this is a long term political goal which won't be easy and would require unanimity. Harper, on the other hand, talked in his early years as though he would simply 'reform' the senate, like this could be just an act of his own political will. Of course, when Harper became Prime Minister it became clear that he knew all along (or had been quickly informed by his legal advisors) that any reform of the senate required cooperation from the Premiers. The problem is that Harper's entire political M.O. is predicated on the principle that he is a law unto himself, and as such he would never meet with the Premiers because such a meeting would be a tacit admission that he cannot act as a dictator but that, on certain issues, he must work with other elected officials on a more or less equal basis. Harper has never admitted to himself or the nation that we are a federation and federations don't operate well through centralized political power.
Had Harper really been interested in senate reform he would have convened a first ministers meeting in his first months in office and begun a dialogue toward reform. Agreement would never have been easy, of course, and would have required a skill that Harper does not possess - consensus building.
In the face of his limited powers, Harper broke his promise and began appointing senators at a rate more frenetic than any of this predecessors. Of course, he asked Canadians to believe the rather incredible story that he was appointing these senators ultimately toward the cause of reform because he was choosing people who agreed with his reform agenda. The problem was that this claim was predicated on the assumption that the senate could reform itself. However, no legal mind in the country seemed to believe this claim. We can thus assume that Harper's huge numbers of appointments to the senate were driven by that other part of his political identity; the unquenchable thirst for power. There was absolutely no way that Harper could leave fallow the soil of his extendible power. Thus Harper set himself on the path to being the Prime Minster that made more patronage appointments than any other in our history, a somewhat ironic turn of events seeing that he began his political career with a focus on ending patronage.
The mainstream media, as it always seems to do, let Harper slide on this incredible and unprecedented flip-flop, one of so many dramatic turn arounds in which Harper has engaged during his decade as PM.
After some years however, it became clear even to the monumental ego of Stephen Harper that his lust for patronage and his inaction on senate reform could become a serious electoral liability. So Harper's next step was to request direction from the Supreme Court. Harper hates the very idea of a judiciary. For Harper we shouldn't have three arms of government, but only one - him. The very notion that an independent judiciary could curb his powers and make decisions that trumped his power is deeply disturbing to Harper. But as a typical opportunist, Harper is not adverse to taking advantage of the courts if he can. Thus, even though we all knew (Harper included) what the Supreme Court would say, Harper went forward out of self-interest. As we all predicted, the Court said that Senate reform could not be enacted solely by the Federal Government (let alone by the Prime Minster by himself), but required the agreement of the provinces. Harper was as pleased as a politician could be. He could now attempt to absolve himself his senate reform failures and blame the courts. This was a further extension of Harper's always unbelievable narrative that he is a committed democrat whose plans are continually thwarted by the courts and so-called interest groups.
The problem with this strategy was two-fold. On the one hand, no one who had paid attention ever saw Harper make a singe meaningful effort toward senate reform, and since we all knew from the beginning that reform required provincial cooperation, the entrance of the Supreme Court into the equation was meaningless anyway. The other problem was that Harper has proven himself such a poor judge of character that the Senate, more than any time in its history, became a symbol of corruption. And to make matters worse, not only did Harper appoint incompetent criminals to the Senate, he also showed that he was personally interfering in Senate business, and we now see the tip of the iceberg of this interference and it has becomes clear that his henchmen were involved in attempted cover-ups and other malfeasance. These problems made Harper's strategy of blaming the courts and doing nothing deeply problematic, particularly as an election neared and an increasingly popular NDP was talking abolition, now a fairly popular position.
Thus, in a final, bizarre turn around, Harper added a new moment of hypocrisy to his performance as the Crime Minister, would-be dictator. Comically, Harper reverted to his original position and said that he wouldn't appoint any senators. Only this time he added a twist to his strategy, doing what he does best he blamed someone else. Now Harper tells us that he won't appoint any more senators until the Premiers get their act together and talk senate reform. This is a bit like the director of a film saying his actors are screwing up the movie before he has even started filming. It is not the job of the Premiers to pursue senate reform. Rather it is the job of the Prime Minister to bring the Premiers together and start building a consensus. Leaving aside the question of whether a Prime Minister can actually refuse to appoint senators, and the even more thorny problem that if no senators are appointed the senate will eventually lose quorum and the government will no longer be able to pass laws, why does Harper believe that he can return to a strategy he left behind years ago and still have any credibility on the senate question? The answer is, of course, easy. Because Harper is a supreme egoist who believes that not only that laws don't apply to him but that he is even above political convention itself.
The story of the Senate under Harper is the story of Harper himself; misrepresented facts, half-truths or outright lies, a total unwillingness to work with any other part of government, a reluctance to admit that he can't simply do anything he wants, a tendency to blame others (particularly the courts) for his failures, the habit of appointing criminals and incompetents to positions of power, a continual verbal attack on patronage while continually using patronage to reward allies and extend his power, and a complete disregard for the law and the constitution. As in the evolution of an idea with which I began, Harper now suggests that Senate reform has always relied on the Premiers and he thought of that first. Now if only those pesky Premiers would get their act together and stop defending the status quo.
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