When you're in the midst of a mess, it's easy to look back at past decisions and assume they were bad ones. You feel like you must have done something very wrong to land yourself in your current predicament. And often times this hindsight judgment is unduly harsh -- you really couldn't have known how things would turn out when you made the choices you did.
That is not, however, the case when it comes to Stephen Harper and the Senate. If the Prime Minister is now looking back and having second thoughts about his Senate appointments -- in particular at his choices of high-profile journalists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, who are now embroiled in spending scandals -- he is quite right to do so. And to kick himself for the opportunity he missed.
You see, Harper was always critical of the Senate status quo. He was all about elections and term limits. After entering office as PM in 2006, he let 16 Senate vacancies accrue in the ensuing months rather than appoint an unelected Senator. (He made an exception for Michael Fortier, who promised to step down to run in the next general election -- which he did, promptly losing spectacularly to a Bloc Quebecois incumbent in 2008.)
Eventually, though, Harper relented. Within a few months of the 2008 election, with the looming spectre of a possible Liberal-NDP coalition, Harper announced that he'd be quickly filling all the Senate vacancies, which by that point had reached 18.
My feeling is that this was Harper's opportunity to make a strong, principled statement. Ok, so there wasn't a possibility to get 18 elected senators in there at that point in time. And waiting for 18 senators to be elected by provinces that were largely uninterested in holding such elections would have been petulant and unproductive. But there was still the possibility to do something no prime minister had ever done before: Choosing a full slate of completely normal, average Canadians with no ties to the ruling party, the Prime Minister himself, or the country's elite and powerful institutions. People who could offer not fundraising opportunities for the Conservatives, but perspective for an institution sorely lacking a connection with real life. Heck, it would have been a refreshing departure just to choose a full contingent of people who could actually use and appreciate the $135,000 a year. People whose names none of us would have heard of, and who would not be rushing off to board meetings or speaking engagements or fundraising dinners across the country, but simply doing their jobs.
Instead, Harper chose Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, high-profile journalists, insiders, cognoscente, people accustomed to healthy six-digit salaries, attention, and comfortable lives. He rounded out those appointments with a bunch of long-time party loyalists and fundraisers, former and current politicians, lawyers, and super-rich folks. Now, he is reaping what he sowed.
I'm not saying it's impossible a "normal," no-name Canadian could have engaged in the sort of inappropriate spending and taxpayer-bilking of which Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin stand accused. It's just that both the sense of entitlement and the tendency to be focusing on any number of ways to boost one's own profile -- travelling around to pop up for board meetings or run consulting gigs -- that facilitate such improper acts would have been a lot less likely in ordinary people. Had Harper chosen, over his time in power, to appoint 59 complete nobodies to the senate, I suspect that the attitude in the red chamber would by now have changed considerably, gravitating toward gratitude for the opportunity and, in the best case scenario, a genuine desire to get a job done. In the worst case scenario, we'd still see apathy, and pay a price for the senators' inexperience, but there would be far less likelihood of a pervasive sense that senators are inherently deserving of privilege and special treatment -- entitled to claim as much as they can get away with without being scrutinized by the great unwashed.
And it's that attitude, more than anything else having to do with the Senate, that so desperately needs reforming. Which is sad, because it's a reform that could have been made so easily, without any legislation or constitutional amendments or Supreme Court references.
It's a reform that Stephen Harper could have made about five years ago, simply by making the bold choice of tapping normal, everyday folks to sit in the country's upper house.
If that's not a regret the Prime Minister harbours, it should be.
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