Skip to main content

A cyclist passes the Supreme Court of Canada Ottawa April 24, 2014.Chris Wattie/Reuters

The Supreme Court said no to the Prime Minister's Senate-reform plans, and his democratic-reform minister has backtracked, under fire, on his elections bill. All is proceeding according to plan for Stephen Harper.

More accurately, these two events on Friday were not body blows to the Prime Minister. They were tactical manoeuvres executed without suffering political damage.

If part of his political base was starting to find fault with Mr. Harper for failing to reform the Senate, the top court has just told them it is not his fault. And on elections, his government has sacrificed some contentious measures to get others without political cost.

Start with the Senate, where the Supreme Court gave Mr. Harper the expected answer, and the cover he needed.

Last year's Senate expense scandal put new pressure on the Prime Minister to reform the unpopular chamber drastically, as he had long promised. Mr. Harper needed a new narrative to deflect blame for failure.

And here it is now: Mr. Harper tried, and the Supreme Court said no. If anyone wants to try again, they have to talk to fractious premiers. This, Mr. Harper said, is a "decision for the status quo."

Never mind that the court did not say that. The judges did not block reform, they said a prime minister alone cannot radically change Canada's Parliament – the provinces must agree.

Unless Mr. Harper was spectacularly ill-informed, this is the answer he must have always expected. Most Constitutional experts believed provincial approval is required. The court would have said that when Mr. Harper came to power eight years ago. But back then, he could blame Liberals for opposing him in a minority parliament.

Things changed when the public was fuming about senators Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin. Mr. Harper asked, and now he can say – as he effectively did on Friday – that he tried and was blocked.

"He'll try and say that, but that's not true," Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz said. "He [should] say that he doesn't want to do Senate reform because he doesn't want to sit down with the provinces. Really, that's probably what it boils down to."

Close enough, for the PM. Most Canadians do not want Constitutional negotiations, and premiers do not agree on reform.

And as Mr. Ghiz notes, few people sit up nights thinking about Senate reform. Mr. Harper will not lose an election because he did not deliver Senate reform at all cost. He just has to persuade Conservatives he is not to blame: it is the court, and some of those petty premiers.

Now, Mr. Harper can try to win back political ground. Canadians do not like the unelected Senators, and they hate the thought that they live high on the public purse – so the Conservatives are signalling they will slash their budgets. The Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, said the government will "minimize the cost" of the Senate. The public would cheer.

On the same day, Mr. Poilievre was slipping away from controversial measures in another sphere: his Fair Elections Act. But here is the result of what the opposition is calling a climbdown: the Tories will smoothly pass a bill that would have had critics screaming three months ago.

Mr. Poilievre withdrew two measures that would have favoured the Tories in an election – a loophole for campaign spending limits and partisan appointments of poll supervisors – but others, like a increase in donation limits, remain. Elections Canada would still be barred from advertising to encourage voter turnout – key to Conservatives who viewed campaigns targeted at students and native people as get-out-the-vote efforts for opponents. Elections investigators still would not get new powers.

The big climbdown is a softening of new rules for voter ID, so people could sign an oath about their address, alleviating concerns many would be turned away from casting a ballot.

That was enough to get the opposition declaring partial victory. It will win some plaudits for compromise. That is all Mr. Harper needs. Most Canadians are not following the bill's details. The danger was the outcry might have created a narrative that he had rigged the rules. Now, he can take half a loaf, without a price.

And all in all, the two blows that hit Mr. Harper on Friday did not hurt him.

Follow me on Twitter: @camrclark

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct