Toronto Star

Why the Senate shortened PM’s vacation

Moratorium on appointmen­ts designed to help distance Tories from upper chamber


OTTAWA— When the Calgary Stampede ends and the last pancakes are flipped, the white cowboy hats put away in their boxes, Stephen Harper usually heads to the official prime minister’s summer residence at Harrington Lake.

There, like many a prime minister before him, he spends the waning days of July and early August on semi-vacation.

Things start booting up again in mid-August and Harper’s official return to the spotlight comes with the annual Arctic tour. But this is no usual year. As NDP Leader Tom Mulcair continues his tour of the country and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau begins his own political circuit, Harper also came out of his lakefront comfort zone earlier than expected.

The issue that took him there was the Senate.

Since the Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform in 2014, there’s been pressure in the Conservati­ve caucus to find a new way forward on overhaulin­g the upper chamber, consistent­ly bogged down in scandal for the past three years.

The ruling tied the government’s hands to act unilateral­ly. It declared reform would require a constituti­onal amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population. Abolition would require unanimous provincial consent.

But caucus didn’t want to let the issue rest. When canvassed late last year as part of the process of building the campaign platform, several caucus members put forward ideas about how changes could be effected.

That stemmed from the old days of the Reform party, when Senate reform was a hallmark of party policy. Many of the old guard weren’t prepared to let it drop. Retiring Edmonton MP Peter Goldring, who was first elected as a Reform MP, is among them.

He issued a statement on Friday laying out one of his ideas — that the Governor General alone do the appointmen­ts:

“Senators should be selected by the Governor General, as our Constituti­on presently describes, based possibly additional­ly on the recommenda­tion of the provincial lieutenant governors such that the partisan aspect that is at the heart of the current scandal will greatly diminish,” the statement said.

Consensus for a proposal to go forward wasn’t reached and the divergent views were merely noted and handed off.

Initially, Friday’s announceme­nt — a formal moratorium on appointing new senators — was meant to be timed for close to the official campaign call, an event that could be as late as Sept. 13, or as early as within the next 10 days, as some are speculatin­g now.

Part of it was designed to thwart the NDP’s policy for Senate abolition by emphasizin­g the matter really rests with the provinces, as Harper did Friday by saying he’ll no longer appoint new senators until the provinc- es figure out reform or agree to abolish.

Harper had been hearing from those around him that he should get the announceme­nt out ahead of the campaign as a way to keep it out of the campaign. One piece of advice on his desk argued that, since there’s little the federal government can do, there’s no need to make it a platform issue.

But the criminal case involving one of the former stars of the Conservati­ve party, suspended Sen. Mike Duffy, resumes in two weeks time with the first witness expected to be a former chief of staff to the prime minister, Nigel Wright.

So with the Senate likely to leap back into the spotlight in the early days of the campaign, the Conservati­ves also knew people would be reminded of their failure to achieve that original campaign pledge.

As one of the worst seasons for forest fires rages on, Harper had planned to do what most leaders do during natural disasters — tour the affected areas in British Columbia and Saskatchew­an to pledge federal assistance to deal with the devastatio­n.

Saskatchew­an Premier Brad Wall was a useful ally to be by Harper’s side for the policy pronouncem­ent. Wall is an advocate for abolishing the Senate and also a man whose name continues to float around as a possible successor to Harper one day.

While the Conservati­ves don’t want to talk about the Senate during the campaign, they also don’t want their staunchest supporters to think they’ve just given up, even if that’s what the Supreme Court has virtually forced them to do.

Riding redistribu­tion has thrown formerly safe Conservati­ve seats up for grabs, boosting the fortunes of the NDP.

And that party’s position has long been that the Senate just needs to be abolished.

Maybe, Mulcair joked Friday, Harper’s next step is to take another similar position — grow a beard, just like him.

 ?? MARK TAYLOR/THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Prime Minister Stephen Harper returned from holiday early to issue a moratorium on appointing new senators.
MARK TAYLOR/THE CANADIAN PRESS Prime Minister Stephen Harper returned from holiday early to issue a moratorium on appointing new senators.

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