Sir Robert Walpole boils my blood. And so does the Canadian Senate.
The 1st Earl of Orford is considered Britain’s first Prime Minister, unofficially assuming this position in the early 18th century. Since then, no Prime Minister has out patronized, pork-barrelled or ponied up taxpayer dollars for the purposes of rewarding loyalty. However, the current government is coming close. Since taking office, the Conservatives have appointed 58 Senators, almost as many as the Liberals in the 90s and early 2000s.
The Canadian Senate has long been a bone of contention for many Canadians, but especially for democratic reformists in the West, for whom Senate reform became a seething source of resentment against Ottawa in the 1980s and 90s. Members of the Reform Party, many of whom now sit in the Conservative caucus, were vociferous critics of the then Liberal government’s appointment of former MPs, strategists and cronies to sit in a publicly funded, glorified retirement home. “Blood runs thicker than water!” they cried.
The argument has been made, mostly by Liberals, that the Senate performs good work. It presents meaningful and, in some cases, landmark reports on issues such as mental health, nuclear disarmament and most recently on import taxation. Fair enough. Senatorial appointments, however, are not made on the basis of issue expertise or policy qualification, but rather on party loyalty to the government in power. This is no House of Technocrats. If the government wants “sober-second thought” on issues outside the political melee of the House of Commons, there are numerous, external, private bodies which could provide the same service, with more expertise, oversight and less cost. That should sound appealing to conservatives in my view.
Having Blue Blood is no rationale for prestigious appointments and it by no means confers expertise in the realm of public policy. The United Kingdom has taken giant leaps toward the reform of its Upper Chamber in the last two decades, but Canada has been mired in a syrupy mix of constitutional and jurisdictional roadblocks, and political expediency.
I believe the Conservative government wants to reform the Senate, but the sweet taste of patronage is a hard bottle to grow out of.
Among Canadians in every part of the country there is a broad and solid consensus for reform – no matter how painful the treatment may be to Canada’s two old parties.
Blood-letting was a common, but ill-advised remedy in Walpole’s time. But in the case of Canada’s Red Chamber, it’s one method that might cure all.