The illusion – and delusion – of controlling the Senate

The Senate Chamber.

It has become the stuff of derisive laughter from the NDP benches in QP, and David McGuinty’s example of the demise of anything arm’s length under the Harper government.  Senate independence?  What’s that?  Everybody knows that everything is run out of the PMO these days, right?

Well, not really.  The level of control that the PMO has tried to exert over a body whose institutional independence is one of its defining features has been certainly the stuff of wagging tongues in recent months, but it should come with some pretty hefty caveats.

For one, there really isn’t a lot of control that the PMO can exert over the Senate – something that readers of the RCMP’s Information to Obtain documents would have noticed, as Nigel Wright complained that they lacked the kinds of levers that they have over the Commons.  What little control the PMO actually exerts extends little further than the personal loyalty to the Prime Minister that some senators exhibit.  And even that is starting to falter.

For the PMO to have real control, they would need actual means of keeping Senators in line – and they don’t.  There’s very little that they can do beyond suggesting to Senate leadership that certain senators who aren’t falling into step lose their committee duties, but even that threat can only go so far and can’t really be used beyond one or two errant Senators lest it become a problem.  Can you imagine the media attention that a handful of Senators be removed from committees because they wouldn’t follow orders?  For a PMO that is obsessed with communications and messaging – the root of why the Duffy-Wright scandal blew up – this would be a disaster, especially because those punished Senators would have no compunction against calling a press conference to denounce the leadership that punished them for their independence.  Remember, that they have nothing to lose.

This is partially what led to Marjory LeBreton’s resignation as Leader of the Government in the Senate back in the summer – her attempts to threaten her caucus over Bill C-377 (the “union transparency” bill) included the threat of removing senators from the committee that was studying the bill if they didn’t vote to pass it.  When several of those senators pushed back, LeBreton didn’t have anywhere to go or anything to back up her threats, especially as the media was watching this bill’s progress.  In the end, the threats didn’t work, and members of her caucus lined up behind Hugh Segal’s amendments that effectively killed the bill.  LeBreton was out a few weeks later.

What happened with the Wright-Duffy was far more complicated than just the PMO giving orders.  Much of what happened relied as much on persuasion than it did the fear of consequences.

“You want to protect the prime minister, don’t you?” is usually the line given to most government senators when the leadership wants them to accomplish something.  In this case, it was trying to control the damage caused by Senators Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin to the institution’s reputation, while the Senate had no coherent communications plan of their own.  Instead, they relied on the PMO to assist them with that, to their detriment.

As the ham-handed manner in which the PMO and the new Senate leadership carried on around the suspension motions – another genius move designed to blunt the impact of the scandal which only further blew up in the faces of the PMO strategists who devised it – Conservative senators themselves have decided that enough is enough.  That was one of the motivating factors for them to hold a special caucus meeting at the end of the sitting, to talk about their independence and ways in which they should be protecting it, from more coherent messaging to potentially eschewing national caucus on Wednesday mornings.

Which isn’t, of course, to suggest that the PMO isn’t taking these threats lightly either.  Apparently Ray Novak, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, showed up at the Conservative Senate Caucus Christmas party as a not-so-subtle way of showing that he was keeping an eye on them, but that kind of threat can only go so far.  Not only does he not possess any levers with which to control these senators, but it also forgets that senators are not fans of taking orders from staffers younger than their own children.

Remember that these are people who have had successful careers of their own before they were appointed.  Most of them took a pay cut to sit in the Upper Chamber, but did so out of a sense of public service.  Remember also that Senators get more independent with time, and the more they learn about their roles and responsibilities.  It’s well and good for the leadership to provide them with a lot more direction when they first arrive, and for them to feel a sense of loyalty and obligation to the prime minister that appointed them, but that fades with time.  Lines especially get drawn when it comes to the point of Senators compromising their personal beliefs.

That the Harper PMO has decided to use the Senate as a punching bag has not helped their persuasive abilities over the chamber.  More and more Conservative senators have been turned off by the way that they have been treated, not to mention the way in which Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were unceremoniously turfed without due process or even a sense of fair play.  And as we saw, a number of their long-time loyalists bristled at this, and voted against the measures.

If anyone thinks that this kind of PMO control over the Senate is real and permanent, they may find themselves in for a surprise – most of all, the PMO.  Personal loyalty to the PM only goes so far, especially if he’s not expressing any loyalty in return.  Harper may soon find that those Senators he was counting on to do his bidding won’t be quite so willing in the future, and there won’t be a thing that he can do about it.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Vacant senate seats breaking Confederation’s promises
A bashful Speaker Scheer helps no one
Rent-a-Tories, Liberal Supporters, and the death of accountability
The “Reform Act’s” missing link

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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