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john ibbitson

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair walks past the entrance to the Senate after speaking with the media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, May 22, 2013.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

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Thomas Mulcair is using the Senate expenses scandal as an opportunity to launch the latest NDP campaign to abolish the Senate. The effort might eventually offer Stephen Harper a chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

The Leader of the Official Opposition launched the campaign Wednesday, urging Canadians to join his "roll up the red carpet" campaign.

"We're going to stop trying to find excuses for keeping a bunch of party hacks, bagmen, political operatives and defeated candidates sitting in appeal of the decisions of the duly elected members of the House of Commons," Mr. Mulcair told reporters. "That's a game of the past."

This is a tall order. Even if it were constitutional to simply eliminate one of the Houses of Parliament, abolition would require provincial consent. Anyone who doubts that should consult their provincial government for clarification. They will find that their premier either: (a) wants to protect their province's over-representation in the Senate; (b) demands a whole new deal for their province within Confederation as part of any Senate discussion; (c) envisions a reformed, responsible and regionally representative Senate, which would be anathema to (a) and (b); or (d) would rather be defeated on a budget than have to think about it.

For the NDP, that doesn't matter. Mr. Mulcair wants to exploit the election expenses scandal as a potential election wedge issue that plays on allegations of Conservative arrogance and corruption while exposing the dithering of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who hasn't made up his mind about how, if at all, the Senate should be reformed.

This, we suspect, would be just fine with Stephen Harper. The Prime Minister has referred Conservative legislation that would have senators elected to fixed terms to the Supreme Court, which could rule on its constitutionality this fall. The Court has also been asked whether and how the Senate could be abolished.

However the Court rules, the government will have an opportunity to put forward new legislation to reform the Senate, and even to use the Senate ethics scandal as a weapon to push for those reforms.

Many senators – some of them Conservatives – fought the elected/fixed terms legislation. They will have a much harder time defending that position, as Marjorie LeBreton, Leader of the Government in the Senate, reinforced in a speech Wednesday.

"The unelected, unaccountable nature of the Senate is not sustainable," she told her colleagues. "…the public reacts negatively because the institution does not have legitimacy … Unless and until this body is reformed, this is the reality."

We could see, then, an election fought in part on the issue of Senate reform. The NDP would attempt to link the current imbroglio to the need to abolish an unelected, patronage-ridden and illegitimate Senate.

The Conservatives would respond that the best proof of Conservative accountability is its latest effort to reform the Senate (in whatever way the Supremes invite it to be reformed).

If the Liberals were caught between these two polar opposites, then that would satisfy both the NDP and the Conservatives.

Let's make one thing clear: the 2015 election will not be fought on the issue of Senate reform. For all we know, the expenses controversy will be long forgotten by then. And in any case, the economy, whatever it's state, is bound to be far more in the forefront of voters' minds as they enter the polling booth.

But the NDP and the Conservatives could use it as a wedge against each other, and to embarrass the Liberals. For both the government and the official opposition, there would worse things.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.