Stephen Harper is severing a long-standing tie with the beleaguered Senate as the first step in a coming shakeup of his ministerial team and administration, signalling there will no longer be a place in his cabinet for the person who represents the government in the Red Chamber.
As part of a reboot of his government, the Prime Minister is trying to further distance himself from an institution suffering a crisis of legitimacy where several Harper appointees have embarrassed the Tories by submitting improper expenses for reimbursement by taxpayers.
Mr. Harper telegraphed this decision Thursday in a statement that followed Senator Marjory LeBreton’s announcement that she will relinquish her role as Leader of the Government in the Senate after 7 1/2 years in the job.
Although a cabinet shuffle is expected as early as next week, Mr. Harper said in a release he’d pick a new leader of the government in the Senate at some point in the next few months after “consulting with members of the Senate caucus.”
Sources told The Globe and Mail that this was intended to serve notice that the government’s point person in the Senate will “no longer be a cabinet position,” and said it would be fair to assume that, as a rule, senators will no longer be allowed to sit around the cabinet table.
The government leader in the Senate has almost always been a member of the cabinet of the day, stretching back to Confederation. There are notable exceptions, however, including during the Progressive Conservative Diefenbaker government, an administration dear to Mr. Harper’s heart.
A senior government official said the Prime Minister’s Office has consulted lawyers to verify that it can make this change. “Any senator can be authorized to speak on behalf of the government by the Prime Minister,” the official said.
Polls suggest the Senate expenses scandal has hurt the Tories in recent months. A recent Nanos Research survey suggests voter support for the Conservatives has slipped to its lowest level since 2006, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals enjoying a slight lead over the Tories.
The Prime Minister, who has been staying at his Harrington Lake summer residence this week, is expected to announce shortly a major shuffle of his cabinet that provides him with a team to take into the next election. Speculation is that at least nine portfolios may be up for grabs, although some Tories think the overhaul will be much bigger.
Several ministers who had been planning to travel next week have been grounded, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has cut short a trip to China to return to Canada.
In preparation for the shuffle, Mr. Harper has asked ministers to tell him whether they plan to run again so he can take that into account when he remakes his cabinet.
Three have already announced their intention to step down as of the next ballot, including Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Americas and Consular Services, who revealed Thursday she will not seek re-election after more than 20 years in the Commons. Ms. Ablonczy said she hadn’t planned to announce until next year that this was her last term, but felt pressure to speak up now.
“Since some of my colleagues have recently announced that they will not seek re-election in 2015 the questions are becoming more insistent. That puts me, my family and my staff in an uncomfortable position.”
So far, at least three cabinet posts are up for grabs, although speculation is strong that Manitoba MP and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will also announce he’s calling it quits as of 2015.
Earlier this week, Minister of State for Finance Ted Menzies signalled he intends to bow out as of the next ballot, and late last month federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, who is fighting cancer, indicated he’d asked Mr. Harper to excuse him from cabinet as of the shuffle.
Ms. LeBreton, who turned 73 on Thursday, was appointed to the Senate in 1993 by former prime minister Brian Mulroney. She said she plans to remain in the Conservative caucus and serve out her term until she turns 75, which is retirement age in the Senate.
She had a tough time defending the government over a scandal involving two of Mr. Harper’s Senate appointees, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, who quit the Conservative caucus after their expense claims came under heavy scrutiny. Mr. Harper lost his chief of staff Nigel Wright after it was revealed the aide had gifted Mr. Duffy $90,172 to repay his improperly claimed expenses.
How big a shuffle the Prime Minister is planning will depend on whether he ousts Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Defence Minister Peter MacKay from positions they’ve held for years. Mr. Flaherty has been in the job since the government took office, and Mr. MacKay has held his post since 2007.
Mr. Flaherty, who has been battling a rare skin disorder with a strong drug regimen that caused weight gain, has made efforts to signal he wants to stay on in his post.
Mr. MacKay, who has been an MP for 16 years, has also been the subject of speculation about whether he’d quit politics. His long-time chief of staff and a veteran communications aide have both left his office in recent days.