Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Promoted to the Senate on principle, not patronage

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent appointments to the Senate have provoked unyielding indignation from all corners of the Canadian political landscape. The prime minister is perhaps justifiably a target of criticism in this case. After all, having long taken a hostile posture toward the Red Chamber, he has in recent years dramatically changed course, letting political expedience get the best of him. But the prime minister's Senate appointees, on the other hand, deserve our thanks, not our castigation.

That is not how the prime minister's latest Senate picks were greeted. Quite the contrary, three in particular -- Doug Finley, Carolyn Stewart Olsen and Don Plett -- bore the brunt of harsh attacks as soon as the Prime Minister's Office made the announcement. Given that each of them had played a pivotal role over the years in the Conservative party's political apparatus -- Finley as national campaign manager, Stewart Olsen as Harper's director of communications, and Plett as party president -- critics argued that they were unfit to serve in the Senate. What an odd argument to make, particularly since the Senate currently counts among its members the Liberal party's current campaign co-chair, former national director and former director of communication in the PMO.

That the prime minister chose to reward party stalwarts should come as no surprise. If ever there were an immutable law of political leadership, there it is, in full bloom. Patronage, neither a good thing nor a bad thing, is the lifeblood of politics, a simple fact of conventional political practice. But what critics failed to appreciate is that Harper's choice of Finley, Olsen and Plett reflects principle, not patronage.

Consider that citizens are moved to become engaged politically for one or more of five reasons: power, proximity, profile, privilege and principle. Those are the five Ps of politics. It was one of those reasons in particular, principle, that motivated Finley, Olsen and Plett to devote much of their lives to help build the Conservative Party into the reigning political force it is today.

Sure, the Harper troika exercised immense power in their respective roles as advisers to the Conservative Party and PMO. True, they were each proximate to the centre of the political universe. And it is certainly undeniable that they now take pride and pleasure in serving in the august Senate, one of the greatest privileges in Canadian politics. Yet none of those four motivations, neither power, proximity, profile nor privilege, was the impetus that spurred them to action years ago when the Conservative Party had not yet even been reunited, conservatives remained divided, and a return to 24 Sussex seemed virtually impossible.

Largely due to the tireless work of Finley, Olsen and Plett in rebuilding what had once been a dispirited party beset by bickering and seemingly doomed to deadlock, the Conservative party was reborn and is now thought by a plurality of Canadians to be the right team to lead the country through these tumultuous economic times. Guided by their convictions, beliefs and aspirations for Canada, the Harper troika made it their mission to right the balance in Canadian politics.

What is most significant about the work of Finley, Olsen and Plett is not that they brought the Conservative party back to power. It is rather that they helped give Canada what it had lacked for so long: a true democracy where a viable alternative to the governing party always stands at the ready. And whether you support the Liberal or Conservative party, or you are fiercely non-partisan like me, that is something for which Harper's troika deserves our thanks.

Richard Albert is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Council for Democracy and an assistant professor at Boston College Law School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2009 A11

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