Skip to main content

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

The Harper government is planning to embed Senate reform within this autumn's Throne Speech as part of a strategy for surviving the political fallout from the expenses scandal.

Senate reform "is going to be a huge hill to climb," acknowledged a senior government official, speaking on background. But it stands as the Conservatives' best hope for survival.

People "just want it fixed," the official explained.

The Conservatives realize that even their own supporters – about 30 per cent of the electorate, plus another 10 per cent of voters who are seen as persuadable – are angry and frustrated at revelations of improper spending by four senators.

Senators and members of Parliament heard that message loudly and heatedly, after they returned to their provinces and constituencies for the summer recess.

The anger and frustration will only deepen after Tuesday's report detailing $121,348 in improper travel claims from former Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin.

And with the RCMP now investigating the affair, the government is braced for the possibility of criminal charges.

If and when any charges are laid, both Conservative and Liberal senators will move swiftly to suspend any accused senator without pay or privileges, and to expel them from the Senate if they are convicted.

The Conservatives will also stress that they put the rules in place that brought the improper expenses to light, and have moved to further tighten procedures for all senators seeking to have expenses reimbursed.

In the longer term, however, the meat of the Conservative message will be Senate reform. Before the revelations about improper expenses, the government had introduced legislation to have senators elected to fixed terms.

The Harper government had introduced similar legislation when it was in a minority. But opposition, including from within the Conservatives' own caucus, stymied attempts to pass the bill, causing the Prime Minister to appoint a spate of Tory senators in an effort to take control of the upper house.

Three of the senators accused of improper spending – Ms. Wallin, former broadcaster Mike Duffy and aboriginal rights activist Patrick Brazeau – were among those appointments. The fourth, Mac Harb, was a Liberal appointment. All four have left their respective caucuses and now sit as independents.

The government has asked the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the proposed legislation, and also to set out the constitutional requirement for abolishing the Senate. That ruling is expected some time in the new year.

The Conservatives believe most Canadians, and especially their own supporters, prefer reform to abolition, if only because they are used to having an upper house as part of the parliamentary system of government.

But if the court sets the constitutional bar for reform too high, Mr. Harper will move for outright abolition. Depending on what the court says, he may need the support of only seven premiers representing 50 per cent of the population to do it.

For those reasons, Senate reform will figure prominently in a Speech from the Throne that is expected when Parliament returns. The thinking inside the government is that Mr. Harper could ask Governor General David Johnston to recall Parliament in early October.

For the majority of voters who don't vote for the Conservatives, and who are deeply skeptical toward their actions and intentions, the Conservatives' plans may be seen as too little, too late, and too insincere.

The government's best hope is that its own supporters, and those whose support is conditional, will accept that Mr. Harper has moved to correct a situation that all sides agree is intolerable.

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