The final vote on suspending three former Conservative senators will take place no earlier than Monday or Tuesday, according to three sources with knowledge of the Tories’ plans.
Senate Conservatives have been trying to expedite voting on the suspension without pay of senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, each accused of claiming improper expenses. But that vote will not take place this week, those sources say. That means Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads into a Conservative convention aimed at building political momentum with the Senate expenses affair still hanging over him.
Mr. Harper is due to address supporters on Friday night in Calgary and will be unable to say that the Conservatives have delivered on plans to cut the three senators off from receiving a public paycheque. That means the matter of the suspensions will likely overshadow the Conservative convention, which is meant to be a high-profile platform for the party to move beyond the Senate scandal.
The Conservatives are under pressure to suspend the senators in the face of a damaging controversy over their expense claims that began nearly a year ago. And Mr. Harper, who appointed all three of the senators now facing censure, will be hard-pressed to deliver a message that deals with concerns from MPs and supporters who are angry about the expenses affair and believe it has prevented the government from getting its message across on key files.
Alberta MP James Rajotte, co-chair of the convention’s host committee, said the convention is focused on reviewing party policy and setting the stage for the 2015 election, but the Senate will likely dominate hallway chatter.
“I think there’s just general disgust at the whole situation,” he said in an interview. “... I think people wanted this dealt with as quickly as possible, but we’ll see what people say this weekend.”
The Liberal opposition in the Senate says it may still be possible for the Conservatives to force a vote on the suspensions on Friday but added that the timeline was not clear from a procedural standpoint.
Despite the expenses controversy, recent polling suggests Conservative support remains stable among decided voters. An Ipsos Reid poll released on Wednesday puts the Conservatives at 30 per cent in the polls, down just one percentage point since last week.
Alberta MP James Rajotte, co-chair of the convention’s host committee, said the Senate issue looms large and will likely dominate hallway chatter, but that the convention is focused on reviewing party policy and setting the stage for the 2015 election.
“I think there’s just general disgust at the whole situation,” he said in an interview. “...I think people wanted this dealt with as quickly as possible, but we’ll see what people say this weekend.”
After a procedural setback, the Senate Conservatives announced they would re-introduce the suspensions as a single government motion that would allow all three to keep their life insurance and medical benefits.
Claude Carignan, the Conservative government leader in the Senate, laid out the options for lightening the proposed sanctions in a caucus meeting earlier this week after some Conservatives expressed concern about the suspensions, according to a source. A majority agreed that the best compromise would be to allow the senators to keep their benefits if they are suspended, the source said.
However, as many as seven Conservative senators expressed concern with the original plan to suspend the senators, and sources familiar with the matter said that, in many cases, the amendment did not alleviate their concerns. Mr. Carignan has said that the vote will not be whipped, but there is usually added pressure to vote with the party on a government motion.
Senator Hugh Segal, one of three Conservative senators who spoke against the motions publicly, called the move to allow the senators to keep medical benefits “a touch of humanity” but said it still does not address his main concern that the government is trying to suspend them without giving them an adequate opportunity to defend themselves.
He declined to say on Wednesday whether he would vote against the new government motion. “I have to assess on the merits what I’m going to do between now and then. As a general principle, I’ve never voted against a government motion. … I’m going to reflect, and I have a few days to do that.”
Only about one-third of Conservative senators made plans to attend the convention this fall, in part because of concern that they would not be welcomed by MPs who are angry about the expenses affair, according to a source. Senators were also told they should expect to pay their own way at the convention because of the optics of asking the Senate to pay for the trip.
Some Conservative senators who had planned to attend are cancelling their flights and hotel rooms in anticipation of a late-night sitting on Thursday to deal with procedural matters ahead of the suspension vote, the source said.
With reports from Josh Wingrove in Calgary and Steven Chase in Ottawa