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1990: Mulroney stacks Senate to pass the GST

The Story

Liberal Senators have vowed to kill the Conservative government's bill to establish a goods and services tax. But they are caught off-guard when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney uses an obscure power to make eight appointments, creating an instant Conservative majority in the Senate. The unprecedented move, made with the consent of the Queen, has the Opposition fuming with outrage. But Mulroney is defiant. He accuses the Liberal senators of trying to subvert democracy.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 27, 1990
Guests: Eric Berntson, David Dingwall, Herb Gray, Michael Meighen, Brian Mulroney
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: David Halton
Duration: 3:33

Did You know?

• Faced with a Liberal-dominated Senate refusing to pass the goods and services tax, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney invoked Section 26 of the 1867 Constitution Act. The section allows for the addition of four or eight Senate seats upon the direction of the Queen.
• Mulroney's appointments brought the total number of senators to 112, up from 104.

• Before the move, there were 52 Liberals, 46 Tories, one Reform party member and five independents. The appointments gave the Tories an instant majority with 54 senators.
• The swelling of the Senate was never intended to be permanent; through retirements it eventually shrank back to the normal complement of 105.

• The Senate appointments were the latest of many for Mulroney. When he took office in 1984, Liberal senators outnumbered Conservatives by almost three to one.

• Mulroney's daring bid worked. The federal Liberals and some provinces fought the move in the courts but failed to convince them the appointments were unconstitutional. After a long, noisy filibuster by Liberal senators, the Conservative majority passed the seven-per-cent goods and services tax. The national sales tax came into effect in January 1991.

• However, widespread dislike of the GST helped sink public approval ratings for Mulroney and his party. Mulroney retired from office before the 1993 election that saw the party decimated under his successor, Kim Campbell.

• No prime minister had previously used the Section 26 provision but one -- Alexander Mackenzie, a Liberal -- had tried. In 1873, Mackenzie asked Queen Victoria to allow for the appointment of six additional senators, saying it was "desirable in the public interest." She refused.

• Liberal leader Jean Chrétien chided Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and Queen Elizabeth II for acquiescing to Mulroney's request for more senators. "We think there is doubt about the discretion that should have been used by the Queen or by the Governor-General -- apparently there was none," Chrétien told reporters in October 1990.
• Three years later, Chrétien was elected prime minister after promising to replace the GST, a pledge that was never fulfilled.

• The eight Conservative senators appointed by Brian Mulroney on Sept. 27, 1990 were:
- Wilbert Keon, an Ottawa heart surgeon
- Michael Meighen, a Toronto lawyer
- Normand Grimard, a Trois-Rivières, Que., lawyer
- Thérèse Lavoie-Roux, a former cabinet minister in the Quebec Liberal party
- James Ross, a New Brunswick lawyer and businessman
- Michael Forrestall, a former Nova Scotia MP
- Janis Johnson, a Winnipegger and former federal Tory party director
- Eric Berntson, a former deputy premier of Saskatchewan

• As of September 2014, just one of Mulroney's precedent-setting appointees, Johnson, was still a senator. One of the others, Berntson, resigned his seat in 1991 after being convicted of filing bogus expense claims while he was a cabinet minister in the government of Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine.

• Mulroney named a ninth senator on Sept. 27, 1990 -- Alberta chief Walter Twinn -- who replaced a retired senator and was not part of the Senate expansion.


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