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Pamela Wallin, former broadcaster (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Pamela Wallin, former broadcaster (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Senate reform fight heats up Add to ...

Facing surprising pushback within his own party, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to take his quest for Senate reform directly to the House of Commons as early as this week.

The Conservatives are looking at combining separate bills on term limits and the election of senators into a single package they can quickly push through the Commons.

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The shift in strategy, aimed at putting pressure on recalcitrant senators, highlights an unusually bumpy ride for one of Mr. Harper's signature promises.

It wasn't supposed to be this tough a slog. Mr. Harper enjoys clear majorities in both the Commons and the Senate, and polls suggest most Canadians share his desire for a shakeup.

But making changes, without radically altering the way government works in Canada, is proving to be thornier than anticipated.

Emblematic of the kind of emotions the debate stirs up, a Conservative senator and an NDP MP got into a shouting match Sunday as tempers flared over term limits for senators.

Hamilton-area MP David Christopherson, the NDP's parliamentary reform critic, called Conservative-appointed Senator Pamela Wallin "arrogant and elitist" on CTV's Question Period Sunday after she snubbed his idea of a national referendum on abolishing the Senate.

And he suggested Ms. Wallin, a former CTV broadcaster appointed by the Harper government in 2008, didn't have a "mandate" from the electorate to reform anything.

Ms. Wallin shot back that the Conservatives' freshly minted majority in the Commons is all the legitimacy the government needs. "That, in our system, sir, is a mandate," she said.

It's been a rough few days for the Senate, envisioned by constitutional architect John A. Macdonald as a place for "sober second thought." Last Thursday, former Liberal senator Raymond Lavigne went from the Upper House to the Big House after being sentenced to six months in jail for abusing his office and skimming public funds while in office.

Meanwhile, some Conservative senators are fighting Mr. Harper's plan to limit their term to nine years. That prompted a letter to fellow Conservatives from Senator Bert Brown, who slammed his colleagues for resisting reform by forgetting who appointed them. "The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper," he wrote in the letter, leaked to reporters.

But the debate is more than about senators protecting their cushy jobs, which come with a base annual salary of $132,300 plus generous travel privileges. Senators resisting the reform push warn that term limits and mandating provincial votes to elect them could have unintended consequences.

For example, Mr. Harper's initial proposal of an eight-year term limit would allow a two-term Prime Minister to completely repaint the 105-seat body in his own party's colours. The Harper government is now proposing nine-year terms, still short of the 15 years sought by some Conservative senators.

There are also worries that a fully elected Senate would replicate the kind of partisan rancour and gridlock that many Canadians find distasteful in the House of Commons.

And then, there's the constitutional question. Quebec, for example, is vowing a legal challenge, arguing that Senate reform is only possible via a constitutional amendment, backed by seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population.

Appearing Sunday on Question Period, Ms. Wallin bristled at the widely reported dissent within Conservative ranks. And she rejected the notion of a referendum.

"We should have some facts injected into the conversation," Ms. Wallin suggested.

"I've got a mandate. What have you got?" responded Mr. Christopherson, who says the Senate should be scrapped if that's what a solid majority of Canadians want.

Ms. Wallin accused Mr. Christopherson of being "simplistic and ill-informed," pointing out that getting rid of the Senate would require a constitutional amendment anyway.

"Don't talk down to me," Mr. Christopherson interrupted.

"Are you done?" Ms. Wallin asked.

"I could go on all day," added Mr. Christopherson, speaking from Vancouver, where the NDP was holding its national convention over the weekend.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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