Senate's class of 2009 now haunts Stephen Harper

The 27 senators Prime Minister Stephen Harper named in 2009 were to supposed to have been a different breed, committed to reform and prepared to submit themselves to the will of the electorate, Leslie MacKinnon writes.

Appointed amid promise of reform, heralded senators now weigh heavily on Harper's government

Senator Claude Carignan, the leader of the government in the Senate, was one of 27 senators named by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take his seat in 2009. Carignan is now overseeing a motion to suspend three of his peers from that class of 2009 appointments. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In 2009, 27 brand-new senators were sworn in as members of the red chamber.

It was a vintage year, for, with two exceptions, these were the first senators Prime Minister Stephen Harper had named in three years of government.

These freshmen were to be a different breed, committed to sit for shortened terms and then bow out or actually submit themselves to the will of the electorate by running for office.

Twenty-seven senators named by Stephen Harper took their seat in the upper chamber in 2009. (Senate of Canada/CBC)

They were Harper's picks, loyal Conservatives to be sure, but disciples of Senate reform, dedicated to changing the status quo.

But if the class of '09 was meant to represent Harper's vision of Senate reform, it's been a dismal showing. Four years later, the Senate is unchanged and more than a few of that aspirational class have brought the august chamber into disrepute.

Class of 2009

Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power vowing to send only elected nominees to the Senate. But faced with a hostile Liberal Senate majority and the prospect of a Liberal-NDP coalition stacking the Senate for a generation, Harper named 27 new senators in eight months. View our yearbook for the Senate's class of 2009.

"He had an opportunity with those appointments to really make an enormous change to the Senate, or make an enormous positive contribution. That's a third, virtually, of the senators," said David E. Smith, a constitutional expert now at Toronto's Ryerson University. "It was an enormous opportunity lost."

Most damaging to the hopes for the class of '09 was the spectacular fall of the class stars, chosen for their celebrity and ability to attract media attention.

Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau now face making the kind of history Harper surely did not have in mind, by being the first in 150 years to be suspended from the upper chamber over their expense claims.

Liberal precedents

Of course, Liberal prime ministers have had their share of choices who wreaked havoc, including one senator who didn't even show up for work, and a few who were charged criminally.

Senator Raymond Lavigne, selected by former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, is currently in jail for defrauding the Senate and having staffers work on his estate.

The spectacle of Liberal senators gone bad was one reason Harper deeply despised the Senate, and vowed to change it.

Out of necessity, he made a senator of Montreal businessman Michael Fortier, whom he also made a cabinet minister to give his government Quebec representation. 

But he was committed to wait for senators to be elected by their provinces before recommending them for Senate appointments.

It was a slow process. Bert Brown, elected in Alberta, became a senator, but the chamber remained dominated by Liberals for Harper's first three years in government. Vacant seats were spreading around the red-carpeted room.

The coalition crisis of 2008 changed that. Faced with the Liberals and NDP, supported by the Bloc Québécois, threatening to vote him out of office, Harper prorogued Parliament.

Days before Christmas, he named 18 new senators, fearing a coalition government would stuff the chamber with their own appointees if he didn't start plugging in some holes.

The 18 took their seats in January 2009, and Harper named nine more in August. But the expansive new class of ’09 didn't live up to expectations.

'A way station'

One senator, Fabian Manning, was meant to show his democratic reform pedigree by running as an MP in the 2011 federal election. He quit his secure Senate sinecure, ran, lost, and was immediately reinstalled in the red chamber.

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to suspend former Conservative senators, from left, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy without pay. (Canadian Press)

"There's a first," said Smith. "Talk about a way station. It is so disrespectful, it seems to me."

Senators Irving Gerstein and the late Doug Finley were charged under the Canada Elections Act for exceeding campaign spending limits in the 2006 election.

Finley had been Harper's campaign manager and Gerstein was, and still is, head of the Conservative Fund, the party's war chest.

Charges against the two were dropped when it was agreed the Conservative Party and the fund would plead guilty and pay a $52,000 fine.

Gerstein is now implicated in the incident of the $90,000 cheque given to Duffy to repay his disallowed housing claims by the prime minister's former chief of staff Nigel Wright.

Gerstein told supporters at the weekend Conservative convention in Calgary he refused to free up Conservative Fund money to help out Duffy. But his story clashes with the version Wright's lawyers told the RCMP, about how Gerstein initially approved paying $32,000 of Duffy's expenses, but drew the line at $90,000.

Senator Leo Housakos has been named at the Charbonneau inquiry, a Quebec anti-corruption probe, as having illegally solicited campaign funds for a Quebec provincial party. He has denied the allegations.

The problems of these seven senators means a quarter of the class of 2009 has been under some kind of cloud.

And the woes of Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin have galvanized the public in such a way that Senate abolition will be a major issue in the next election.

Harper has asked the Supreme Court for an opinion on how he can constitutionally reform or even get rid of the Senate.

In the meantime, although there are currently six new vacancies in the Senate, he has said he won't be naming any more senators.


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