In yesterday’s Hill Times, the question of promised term-limits for Harper appointees in the Senate was discussed, with a variety of responses in return. Some confirmed that they had agreed to an eight-year limit and would try to hew to it, while others said that it was some great myth that they agreed to such a limit when they were appointed, and expressed bafflement as to where the media got such an idea. (Hint: A bunch of senators said that they agreed to it, including Senators Wallin and Duffy). And while some of those senators noted that things changed, and that it wasn’t a realistic promise to keep if it wasn’t applied evenly, I would also add that it would have been an unconstitutional promise (if indeed they had made it).
While there is some fairly clichéd grumbling about how terrible it is that some senators are appointed for thirty-some year terms, the concept of term limits in the Senate is generally a bad one for a number of reasons. First of all, most terms that have been bandied about are too short to be effective. The Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament, given that we have a fairly low rate of incumbency and a high rate of turnover in the House of Commons. Eight year terms are not only too low for much in the way of memory (twelve being better), the bigger problem with eight-year terms is that it would allow a prime minister with two majority mandates to completely turn over the composition of the Chamber, which is a Very Bad Thing when much of the raison d’être of the Senate is to be a check on a majority PM.
The other, bigger point, about having a Senate where they are appointed to age 75 and are difficult to remove is that the tenure allows for institutional independence. If you have term limits – especially shorter ones – it means that you stand a greater likelihood that senators start trying to curry favour with the government toward the end of their term so that they can get some kind of post-senatorial appointment, whether it’s a diplomatic posting or heading a tribunal. By ensuring that they stay until the mandatory retirement age, it means that they aren’t going to be trying to leverage their position for post-senatorial employment because they will beyond the age by which any federally appointed positions will have them. That’s an important consideration that often gets overlooked.
While this debate around whether these senators did or didn’t agree to such a term limit, there is no enforcement mechanism, and as stated earlier, it was an unconstitutional promise so it should be considered moot. As to the point as about senators with very long tenures, that remains something that the government that did the appointing can be held to account for (and indeed should be) if they consistently appoint young senators.