MEDIA WATCH

Patronage and a journalistic sin

GEORGE BAIN March 22 1993
MEDIA WATCH

Patronage and a journalistic sin

GEORGE BAIN March 22 1993

Patronage and a journalistic sin

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

This column is about wilful ignorance, defined as the journalistic sin of putting out of sight and mind facts known or readily knowable because keeping them in sight and in mind would diminish the story. Of all the institutions of government that attract wilfully ignorant reporting, the Senate of Canada comes high on the list. It does so for a roundabout reason. Appointments to the Senate are made by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister, which is how the Constitution says they are to be made. But all prime ministerial appointments represent patronage, and all patronage by media definition is indiscriminately wicked, so, hey, what’s so wrong with a little obscurantism in a good cause?

After the Prime Minister, in September, 1990, invoked a “little-known” section of the Constitution to appoint eight extra senators—“little known” is journalese meaning the writer using the term had not heard of it before—a panel on the usually commonsensical Peter Gzowski’s Morningside on CBC Radio discussed the proposition that Section 26 might have atrophied from lack of use.

In all the years since 1867 when it was written into the British North America Act, on the strong advice of the government in London, no prime minister had ever called upon it, although three had considered doing so. However, the notion that sections of a Constitution might have an unacknowledged “useby” date attached to them, like a jar of cheese spread, was being promoted by a few Liberal senators in Ottawa. That was warrant enough for several sane people to stoop to wilful ignorance to discuss the proposition seriously on radio. (The question of Section 26’s viability was disposed of when two court decisions found its vital life signs remained positive.)

Of course, the reason that the government in London thought Canada should have a Section 26 in its Constitution was that it believed the elected House of Commons, in the event of deadlock, should be able to prevail

A government has no choice but to appoint party members when it comes to office knowing that there is a hostile Senate down the hall

over the appointed Senate. That was the position that Brian Mulroney’s government was in, with Pierre Trudeau’s legacy of a fat Liberal majority in the Senate ready to reject the Goods and Services Tax, a major item in the government’s economic program. The Liberal senators’ justification was that they better reflected the wishes of the public—as represented by public opinion polls, which have no standing in Parliament. The larger matter they ignored was that in the raising and spending of money, the primacy of the House of Commons is clear.

In effect, then, what they were saying was that a majority of unelected senators representative of a government six years out of office should be able to thwart a government twice elected since, with a clear majority each time, in its effort to replace a tax on production with a tax on consumption. It is against that background that the media practice of applying the term “patronage” as a dirty word in describing the appointment of not just extra senators but all senators, ever, becomes wilful ignorance. For a start, a new government in the House of Commons has no choice but to appoint persons of its own party when it comes to office knowing, as the

Conservatives did in the fall of 1984, that there was a hostile Senate down the hall. There were then 74 Liberals to 23 Conservatives, leaving aside a few Independents and vacancies. Eight-and-a-half years later, Independents and vacancies again out, the spread is much less, 49 Conservatives to 41 Liberals.

However, the vacancies in the 104-seat chamber are now a significant nine, and speculation has begun about Brian Mulroney’s intentions. A plot line is developing to the effect that appointing nine Tories would be a repetition of what Pierre Trudeau did—which Mulroney used to advantage in the 1984 election. The comparison is not exact in that Trudeau created not only a slather of senators, but also judges, ambassadors and whatnots, and even reached beyond his term by foisting them on his successor, John Turner. Still, with just a little wilful ignorance, that can be skipped over and the comparison can— and, count on it, will—be made. Consequently, as we are not now about to have an elected Senate, this would be an excellent time for Brian Mulroney, as a gift to the nation, to make a change in the way senators are bom.

It would leave the power of appointment where it is, but put conditions on it. The first would continue the prime minister’s unrestricted right to fill vacancies as they occurred—but only up to the point that the representation of his or her party in the Senate became equal in proportion to its representation in the House of Commons. Thereafter, all nominations for the Senate would go to an all-party review committee, which would test publicly the nominees’ qualifications. (There is no necessity of this throughout; the Senate is a political body, never more so than in recent years, and the quality of appointees up to the point of proportionate equality with the government’s strength in the Commons can be left as solely the government’s responsibility. A vigilant media—what else?—would tell the public if they all turned out to be deadbeats, layabouts and dopes.)

The Americanized advise-and-consent inquiry of further nominees would have the double effect of ensuring that the Senate was not loaded down with persons whose only claim to be there rested on past loyalty to the party, and of providing a check against a long-governing party’s stacking the deck for years to come. With the same objective in mind, the suggested legislation would forbid a prime minister in the last year of the government’s mandate to make any Senate appointments at all. That would put an end to the degrading business of last-minute waves of appointments, which, however honest of purpose, inevitably must smell a little of payoffs. So, now, the Prime Minister makes, say, three more appointments after last week’s two, and simultaneously announces the new Senate appointments bill. He leaves on a high note. The new leader comes in with nothing hanging over her/his head, as Turner did. Wilful ignorance is deprived of an outlet. All is serene.

Look, Brian, don’t give it a second thought. I gave up bucking for the Senate years ago.