Leo Housakos is taking over as the Speaker of the Senate just as a hard-hitting report by the Auditor-General is set to land on his desk, providing the former Conservative fundraiser with a quick test of his ability to restore the institution's reputation.
But Mr. Housakos will also have to fend off attacks from his political rivals, who argue he is the perfect example of the patronage appointees who have brought down the chamber's standing in the eyes of the public.
Mr. Housakos has big shoes to fill as he takes the Speaker's chair. Appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, he is taking over from a beloved veteran of the institution, Pierre Claude Nolin, who died last month of pancreatic cancer.
In his initial statement as Speaker on Tuesday, he vowed to keep up with Mr. Nolin's efforts to modernize the administration of the Senate.
"Our great institution is facing great challenges, but also great opportunities," he said in the Senate.
Set to be tabled in June, the long-awaited report by the Auditor-General is expected to point to wrongdoing by a handful of senators, but also raise a series of questions about the administration of the Senate. The report will come as three suspended senators are undergoing or facing fraud trials, all of which has reinforced the notion that some senators are more interested in their entitlements than offering sober second thought.
"If there is a clear understanding on the part of the Auditor-General of any individuals who have conducted illegal activities and impropriety, we are going to deal with it in the most severe fashion," he said in an interview.
Mr. Housakos added his goal is to "move the yardsticks forward" by persuading Canadians that the Senate can serve the political interests of regions and minority groups.
"I look at the report by the Auditor-General as an opportunity to show the Canadian public how committed we are to getting to the bottom of things and making sure we turn the page and go forward in a positive way," he said.
Mr. Housakos is a businessman who was mostly known as a fundraiser before his appointment to the Senate. He worked over the years with the now-defunct, right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec, but also with the Conservative Party of Canada.
The NDP, which would like to see the Senate abolished, said Mr. Housakos's nomination as Speaker will only bolster the institution's reputation as a tool to reward party workers.
"It sends a very strange signal to the population about the institution's purpose," said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. "The Senate is a prehistoric institution, and Mr. Housakos is one of its dinosaurs."
The Conservatives "have made gains" in Quebec in recent weeks, according to the most recent Leger poll, with key senators helping to spread the party's message.
Still, Mr. Housakos has been linked in the past to attempts to influence government decisions, including the 2007 nomination of a new president of the Montreal Port Authority.
In the House of Commons, the NDP has quoted from recordings of phone calls that were anonymously uploaded on the Internet, in which businessmen Bernard Poulin and Antonio Accurso discussed plans to acquire the services of Mr. Housakos and his friend, Dimitri Soudas, on the port matter. Mr. Soudas worked in the Prime Minister's Office at the time.
According to the NDP, Mr. Poulin and Mr. Accurso wanted to favour the nomination of former municipal bureaucrat Robert Abdallah as port president.
In an interview in 2012, Mr. Housakos said he never spoke to anyone about Mr. Abdallah's nomination to the port, and said he did not know why the two businessmen discussed hiring him.
"I would love to know who made those tapes, I would like to know how and when they were made and I would like to know why they were disseminated when they were disseminated," Mr. Housakos said.