OTTAWA — Eight years ago, 18 senators were appointed to the upper chamber after promising Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper they would support his Senate reform agenda — including eight-year term limits.
On Tuesday, New Brunswick Senator John Wallace became the first person to say he feels bound by that pledge and will step down.
The Conservative-turned-independent senator issued a short statement indicating his resignation:
“As January 26, 2017, will mark the completion of my eighth year of service as a Member of the Senate of Canada, I have advised the Governor General of my intention to resign from the Senate, effective February 1, 2017.”
- Senator John Wallace
Harper never passed any Senate reform bills and those 18 who pledged to support his agenda were never explicitly requested to step down after eight years.
At the time, however, Harper announced that each appointee had promised to support eight-year term limits and that each would be expected to resign and run for their seat if the government introduced Senate elections.
In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Wallace, 67, said Harper asked for his opinion on eight-year term limits, rather than the status quo of mandatory retirement at age 75.
“At the time, I said I had no problem with that, because I felt this way. I agreed with that. I believed a Senate term equal to two elected terms by members of Parliament seemed reasonable,” Wallace said. “Having new people, new ideas, on a fairly regular basis is a good thing.
“I certainly didn’t sign on any dotted line. It’s just that for me, that was the expectation that I had from day one, and so I’m going to follow through with it,” he added. “Others may look at it differently. Maybe they had a different conversation. There is nothing that I am aware of that would compel anyone to do that, but for me, I’m just following through on the original discussion I had back in 2009.”
“Having new people, new ideas, on a fairly regular basis is a good thing."
HuffPost asked the sitting senators who were nominated along with Wallace on Dec. 22, 2008, whether they to planned to live up to that commitment.
Those appointed the time included:
- Former CTV host Mike Duffy;
- former CTV and CBC journalist and Canadian consul in New York City Pamela Wallin;
- Olympic alpine skier Nancy Greene Raine;
- National chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Patrick Brazeau;
- Nova Scotia lawyer Fred Dickson;
- defeated Conservative candidate and Nova Scotia businessman Michael MacDonald;
- former New Brunswick cabinet minister Percy Mockler;
- former Yukon MLA Daniel Lang,
- B.C. teacher and failed Tory candidate Yonah Martin;
- Progressive Conservative party staffer Stephen Greene,
- Eaton family member Nicole Eaton;
- Montreal businessman Leo Housakos;
- defeated Newfoundland MP Fabian Manning;
- former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Richard Neufeld;
- Quebec former Progressive Conservative MP Suzanne Fortin-Duplessis;
- former Parti Québécois MNA Michel Rivard;
- self-declared Conservative “bagman” Irving Gerstein.
Fortin-Duplessis, Rivard and Gerstein are no longer in the Senate, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. Dickson died in 2012, at age 74.
Wallin, who returned to the Senate last year after a two-year suspension, said she may retire before her eight years are up.
“Even though there was never a formal request regarding limiting length of service at the time of my appointment, I am a firm believer in the concept of term limits,” she wrote HuffPost in an email. “In several years, when I have completed at least eight years of service, I will assess the progress toward an independent Senate to which I am firmly committed and at that time will consider how I can best serve my province and my country.”
Duffy and Brazeau both suggested that they have no plans to resign — they also have just returned to the Senate.
Neufeld told HuffPost he isn’t sure he is going to stay until age 75 but said he has no plans to resign “right now, that’s for sure.”
“In any event, I’m not long for the dustbin anyhow,” the 72-year-old said. “There is not much left of me.”
MacDonald said Harper asked him only whether he would support elected term limits for senators — if the government could accomplish it. “I said that I would, and would respond accordingly if that change was enacted,” MacDonald wrote HuffPost in an email.
But the Supreme Court made it “very clear,” he said, that the Conservative government’s approach was unconstitutional. “I was never asked to arbitrarily resign after 8 years in the absence of such legislation,” he wrote. “Therefore, I will continue to serve my province of Nova Scotia in the Senate of Canada in accordance with the Constitution.”
Al Fleming, Eaton’s director of parliamentary affairs, said his senator isn’t planning on resigning either.
“[S]he was not asked about term limits when she was named, only whether she supported Senate reform,” he said.
The seven other senators did not respond to HuffPost’s inquiries.
Harper’s first Senate reform bill, S-4, limited future senators to a fixed term of eight years. After the Liberals in the Senate called on the government to refer the matter to the Supreme Court, Harper’s interest in the legislation waned. It wasn’t until 2013, five years later, that he finally agreed to let the country’s top court pass judgment on the constitutionality of moving unilaterally on term limits and “consultative elections” for nominees to the upper chamber.
In 2014, eight Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled the federal government could not proceed without the approval of both houses of Parliament and seven of 10 provincial legislatures. Harper threw in the towel.
Instead of Senate reform, the prime minister became known for appointing 59 people to the Senate and watching over — while his office fuelled — the biggest scandal in the red chamber since at least the start of the 21st century.
It is that scandal, and specifically the Conservative leadership’s response in the Senate to the alleged misbehaviour of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau that saw Wallace become increasingly at odds with the Tory caucus.
“There was a lack of fairness and reasonableness."
“One of the major issues I had was how the suspensions were handled,” he told HuffPost. “The fact that the suspension motions were even placed before the Senate chamber — it’s not to say there were not issues to be looked at — but the process that unfolded in the Senate chamber, as far as I’m concerned, was a debacle…. No due process, statements being made to the effect that the Senate is a Charter-free zone, I mean, there was a lack of fairness and reasonableness,” he said.
“It’s not to excuse inexcusable behaviour,” Wallace added. But the process the Senate used — voting to kick out the senators involved without giving them a chance to defend themselves against accusations of “gross negligence” — was inexcusable, he said. “I couldn’t then, and even today, I don’t support the way that was dealt with.”
On Tuesday, Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau — the three who were unceremoniously kicked out and stripped of their stipends but vindicated in many ways after Duffy’s trial concluded and an Ontario judge cleared him of all 31 charges — all had kind words to say about Wallace.
“No one has worked harder than John Wallace to reform the Senate of Canada and make it an institution in which Canadians can be proud,” Duffy wrote Huffpost in an email.
“Due process, the rule of law, the equality of Senators, the Charter of Rights. Sen. Wallace was fearless in standing up for those Canadian values in the face of deeply entrenched partisan interests. [He] has made a significant and lasting contribution to the Senate reform process,” Duffy added. “The institution will be a lesser place with his departure.”
Wallin called Wallace “a man of principle. He is wise and thoughtful and always does his homework!,” she wrote. His heart guides his astute legal mind, she said. “The Senate will miss him, and I will miss a true friend and colleague.”
Brazeau praised Wallace for being a great colleague, a friend and a defender of due process. “All I have to say is that it's a sad day to see such an intelligent and principled man leave the Senate.”
Wallace quit Conservative caucus last year
Last fall, citing “irreconcilable differences,” Wallace left the Tory caucus. He regretted having to do it, he said. He liked being part of a team and bonding with his teammates, but he clashed with the Conservative leadership in the Senate.
“I had a different view of the individual roles and responsibilities of senators and the extent to which partisanship was expected to play in the decisions of senators,” he explained.
“The Senate will miss him, and I will miss a true friend and colleague.”
As time went on, Wallace said he was reminded of John A. MacDonald’s words that the upper chamber would be valuable only if it were independent and charged with calmly considering legislation from the popular branch rather than replicating the actions of it.
“Over the years, I think to large extent the Senate came to mirror the House of Commons in far too many ways. It is to be a check and a balance not just on the House but on cabinet as well, and that requires an objective unbiased non-partisan view of the matters before the Senate.”
Some of Wallace’s “very troubling” preoccupations were laid bare in Justice Charles Vaillancourt’s ruling on Duffy this spring. “[He] expressed serious concerns on the manner in which some of the Senate leadership conducted themselves and the basis on which decisions were made,” Wallace said.
Vaillancourt found Duffy to be a “credible witness” who was being threatened and pressed by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative Senate leadership to repay living expenses he believed he was entitled to collect.
“I find based on all of the evidence that Senator Duffy was forced into accepting [Harper’s chief of staff] Nigel Wright’s funds so that the government could rid itself of an embarrassing political fiasco that was just not going away,” the judge wrote in a 308-page decision.
“The political, covert and relentless, unfolding of events is mind-boggling and shocking,” Vaillancourt also added.
Since his departure from the Tory caucus, Wallace has focused on making the Senate a less partisan, more independent chamber. He fought successfully to have independent senators included as permanent members on Senate committees and hopes they will be treated equally to their more partisan counterparts.
“It’s hard to imagine that that type of thing would be novel in today’s Canadian democracy, but it seemed to be,” he said of the institutional resistance he and other independents encountered.
Wallace believes things in the chamber are starting to get better. He credits Justin Trudeau — then the opposition Liberal leader — for helping move reform along by kicking the Grit senators out of the party’s national caucus.
“It’s hard to imagine that that type of thing would be novel in today’s Canadian democracy, but it seemed to be.”
Trudeau’s new arm's-length merit-based appointment process has been a “major, major change,” he said. His new colleagues are all “outstanding individuals” who have tremendous experience are motivated to do the right thing, he added.
“[The appointment process] has not just changed how senators arrived here. but I think it has dramatically reduced the influence of excess partisanship in the chamber.”
Even with a new government, Wallace said, he thinks it would be extremely difficult to reverse the changes that have occurred in the chamber.
“We are not reinventing the wheel; we are simply implementing the Senate that I would say was envisaged in 1867 — that decisions would be based upon their merits [and] partisan considerations would not rule the way,” he said.
Wallace, who said he is eager to focus on local community development projects in the Saint John area, is optimistic about the Senate’s current direction.
“The institution is only as good as the people that occupy the positions. And it is very capable, strong, enthusiastic people that are there.”
And as for him, Wallace said, it’s time for him to follow his belief that his eight years are up and free up space for someone else.
“There is no shortage of qualified people who could pick the baton up from John Wallace and run with it.”
Also on HuffPost