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Tory Senators divided over whether they really agreed to term limits

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Idea that they promised to leave after eight years a ‘great mythology,’ says Sen. Linda Frum. But Sen. Bob Runciman says ‘it’s the right thing to do’ and Senators will have to ‘answer to their own consciences.’

Conservative Senators Linda Frum, Bob Runciman, and Kelvin Ogilvie offer different accounts of their conversation with former prime minister Stephen Harper on term limits. While many Conservative Senators feel the question to resign after a set time was never posed, at least two feel obligated to follow the spirit of their support for reform. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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As several Conservative Senators reach their eight-year service mark this August, some say the idea that they had pledged to only stay that long is a myth, because former prime minister Stephen Harper had only asked for their support to pass a bill. But two Tory Senators don’t see it that way, with one saying leaving after eight years is the “right thing to do,” regardless.

Mr. Harper first proposed in 2007 to change the current Senate rules demanding retirement at 75; his legislation would have imposed eight-year term limits. By the time a later version of the bill, the Senate Reform Act, made it to the floor of the House, it had expanded to legislate a non-renewable nine-year term limit on all Senators appointed after Oct. 14, 2008—affecting the vast majority of his 59 appointments.

For many Conservative Senators, the conversation started and ended with the legislation, and when the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the change as unconstitutional in 2014 and Mr. Harper put aside his dreams of Senate reform, it ended any commitment to a set term.

While Conservative Senator Linda Frum, appointed in 2009, believes terms are a good idea, she said it’s a “great mythology” that the former prime minister asked term commitments of his Senate picks, and the commitment to support the legislation was voided by the court decision.

Term limits cannot apply unilaterally to only one caucus and one political group, she added, saying it’s not “a realistic scenario nor is it a desirable one” now that the Liberal government has decided to pursue its own version of Senate reform by setting up what it sees as a merit-based, independent appointment process and not having a Liberal Senate caucus affiliated with the government. Term limits are off the table.

“I can believe it would be a better institution if everybody sat somewhere between eight and 12 years, but it has to apply to one and all,” said Sen. Frum, who can stay until 2038 but echoed her previous position that she’ll likely retire within the eight-to-12-year frame and stressed the decision is a personal choice and not one of obligation. If she were to leave eight years after her nomination date, she would be on her way out in August.

That sentiment was echoed by Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, who is retiring Nov. 5, just as he hits mandatory retirement age, 75. He was nominated in August 2009, so he intends to stay a few months after his eight-year anniversary. 

“The only way term limits work is if it’s applied across the board,” said the Nova Scotia Senator, who noted that he believes in term limits and a similar range as Sen. Frum.

He called the controversy over whether Conservative Senators will leave after eight or nine years a “fiction of the press” pursued aggressively “almost to point of accusation.”

“I was never asked. It was never brought up in the PMO,” he said, adding it would be different if the question had been posed: will you agree to step down regardless of the formal law?

“Then yes, I believe they have a personal obligation,” he said. “I suspect the question was never put like that.”

That’s the distinction many Senators told The Hill Times, which reached out to 44 appointed by Mr. Harper. All such announcements made after October 2008 included at least a line stating that the appointee had committed to support the government’s Senate reform initiative. Mr. Harper stopped appointing Senators in 2013 amid growing scandals in the Upper Chamber. 

The current Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), wasn’t available for an interview on Senate reform and term limits this week and did not respond to questions by email. Mr. Scheer has said he will not appoint Independent Senators, as Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has done, but instead name Conservative Senators. 

‘They can justify it to themselves if no one else’

For many, the key to the conversation was how the question was asked by Mr. Harper: did they support legislation, or would they agree to a set eight- or nine-year term regardless? Many said the latter question was never asked, and while they agreed to the former it was made moot by the Supreme Court decision.

‘I felt that the spirit of what I agreed to…that I should follow through with that,’ says former New Brunswick Senator John Wallace. Photograph courtesy of Library of Parliament

“I’ve seen people express that distinction; technically that’s true. There’s nothing that compels Senators,” said former Conservative-turned-Independent Senator John Wallace, who announced in December he would resign, and left in February, making him the first to do so of the first 18 appointees who agreed to support Mr. Harper’s Senate reform agenda. Three left as they neared mandatory retirement, as will Sen. Ogilvie; Nova Scotia’s Fred Dickson died in 2012 at age 74 and Yukon Senator Daniel Lang will retire this summer, six years earlier than required. But several others say they have no similar plans.

In 2014, eight Supreme Court justices said the government must proceed through constitutional amendment, with support from seven provinces and half the country’s population.

“For me, technically, it didn’t fly. But the idea is absolutely right. Having Senators sit for 20, 25, 30, 35 years can’t be the right answer,” said Mr. Wallace, adding his conversation with Mr. Harper made it clear agreeing to a term was “fundamental” to his post in the Upper Chamber. “For that reason, I felt that the spirit of what I agreed to—and it was a very significant issue at the time of my appointment—that I should follow through with that.”

Conservative Senator Bob Runciman also has a different recollection of that conversation and believes leaving after eight or nine years is the right thing to do.

“Obviously, circumstances have changed. It’s an individual decision. I know the question was posed to me and I certainly agreed with the conditions that were put to us as part of the agreement to accept the appointment,” said Sen. Runciman, who turns 75 this year and is retiring in August after seven years in the Upper Chamber.

He would have retired within the proposed eight-year term regardless, he said, because “it’s the right thing to do.”

He wouldn’t speak for others or be critical of their choices, adding Senators will have to “answer to their own consciences.”

“I don’t see in terms of that commitment how the Supreme Court decision would impact the commitment that was made,” he said. “If they can justify it, they can justify it to themselves if no one else.”

No law, ‘another story’

Harper appointees represent four of the five youngest Senators who can potentially serve the longest terms. Trudeau appointee Chantal Petitclerc can stay until 2044, just behind Harper appointees Patrick Brazeau in 2049, a Quebec Senator who now sits as an Independent, and Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters in 2045.

Four years into her appointment, Sen. Batters said she has “no idea” when she’ll retire but will re-evaluate every so often. Conservative perspectives for certain regions of the country aren’t well represented in the House of Commons opposition, she said.

“They don’t have potentially as many difficult questions getting asked from those particular regions, so I think that’s why it’s important to have meaningful opposition as well in the Senate.”

As one of the few elected Senators, Alberta’s Scott Tannas has made it clear he will stay no longer than a decade.

“And I’m still there,” said the Western Financial Group founder, appointed in 2013. “For me and only me…I think hanging around longer than 10 years, I’m not going to add any more value.”

But at least one Senator thinks that’s exactly what some of the longer-serving Parliamentarians can offer. Pointing to 24-year Conservative veterans Raynell Andreychuk and David Tkachuk, 2013 Conservative appointee David Wells said the contributions are “immeasurable” and serve a strong purpose when the House operates on short four-year election cycles.

“The Senate is more of the long memory of Canada’s Parliament and in many ways has become the institutional memory,” said the Newfoundland and Labrador representative.

‘When that law wasn’t changed then it became another story,’ says Senator Dennis Patterson. He’s planning to stick around after eight years on the job. Photograph courtesy of Sen. Patterson’s office

Several 2009 appointees have already made their opinions known. Senator Dennis Patterson’s director of parliamentary affairs Claudine Santos echoed his past position, adding “isn’t planning on [retiring] any time soon.”

“When that law wasn’t changed then it became another story,” Sen. Patterson told the CBC in March. “I’ve got projects that I’m involved with that I want to see through.”

Senator Pamela Wallin, who can serve until 2028 and now sits with the Independent Senators Group, referred to previous responses to media. In December she told CBC News and Huffington Post she may retire before her eight years are up and while a “firm believer” in term limits there was “never a formal request regarding limiting length of service.”  

Conservative Senators Judith Seidman and Leo Housakos, also appointed in 2009, said they never discussed term limits.

“I never understood where this story was invented from,” said Sen. Housakos by email, adding when it was covered previously “it was baseless then and I suspect it still is.”

The office of Senator Jacques Demers, who sits now as an Independent, said he wasn’t available for interview or comment while still recuperating from a stroke. Senator Vern White, who can serve until 2034, said when appointed 2012 he would step down after nine years even if related legislation didn’t pass.

Sen. Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu was at the democratic reform minister’s announcement in 2010, when CTV reported him pledging to remain in the post for just four years. Sen. Boisvenu’s office said he was not available for an interview and that it was difficult to comment “on such a short quote without the context” and that “things have evolved” since he came to the Senate.

Other offices echoed that assessment, including 2009-appointee Donald Plett, noting he was never asked to retire after eight years and “ therefore never made any such commitment.” Senator Salma Ataullahjan’s office said the 2010 appointee didn’t recall term limits being discussed, but like others, was committed to supporting Mr. Harper’s reform efforts.

Elizabeth Marshall, who was appointed in 2010 and can remain until 2026, said she doesn’t have any “definitive plans” to retire after eight years because she made no commitment to do so.

“My commitment was that I support Senate reform which was the election of Senators, which was the eight-year term,” said Sen. Marshall. “I supported it but the legislation never went through.”

—with files from Laura Ryckewaert


The Hill Times

Harper appointees still in the Senate

Senator Year of appointment Retirement date
Salma Ataullahjan 2010 2027
Denise Batters 2013 2045
Diane Bellemare (now Independent) 2012 2024
Lynn Beyak 2013 2024
Douglas Black (now part of the Independent Senators Group) 2013 2027
Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu 2010 2024
Patrick Brazeau (now part of the Independent Senators Group) 2009 2049
Claude Carignan 2009 2039
Jean-Guy Dagenais 2012 2025
Jacques Demers (now part of the Independent Senators Group) 2009 2019
Norman E. Doyle 2012 2020
Mike Duffy (now part of the Independent Senators Group) 2009 2021
Nicole Eaton 2009 2020
Tobias C. Enverga Jr. 2012 2030
Linda Frum 2009 2038
Stephen Greene (now Independent) 2009 2024
Leo Housakos 2009 2043
Daniel Lang 2009 2023
Michael MacDonald 2009 2030
Ghislain Maltais 2012 2019
Fabian Manning 2011 2039
Elizabeth Marshall 2010 2026
Yonah Martin 2009 2040
Thomas McInnis 2012 2020
Paul McIntyre 2012 2019
Percy Mockler 2009 2024
Richard Neufeld 2009 2019
Thanh Hai Ngo 2012 2022
Kenneth Ogilvie 2009 2017
Victor Oh 2013 2024
Dennis Patterson 2009 2023
Don Plett 2009 2025
Rose-May Poirier 2010 2029
Nancy Greene Raine 2009 2018
Bob Runciman 2010 2017
Judith Seidman 2009 2025
Larry Smith 2011 2026
Carolyn Stewart Olsen 2009 2021
Scott Tannas 2013 2037
Betty Unger 2012 2018
Josée Verner (now Independent) 2011 2034
Pamela Wallin (now part of the Independent Senators Group) 2009 2028
David Wells 2013 2037
Vernon White 2012 2034

Correction: This story has been updated to correct a quotation of Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who said Senators will have to “answer to their own consciences,” not “consciousness.”

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