Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.
Saskatchewan MLAs will "probably" vote this fall on formally calling for the abolition of the Senate, Premier Brad Wall says, and the province could encourage others to do the same.
Mr. Wall, regularly voted Canada's most popular premier, is now calling for abolition himself, saying it's now "painfully clear" Senate reform won't ever happen. Members of his right-leaning Saskatchewan Party recently voted, by mail-in ballot, 86 per cent in favour of doing away with the Red Chamber for good.
"I think the message is pretty clear that people in Saskatchewan are saying, look, it's unaccountable, it's unelected, it's unnecessary right now," Mr. Wall told The Globe and Mail after his party's vote results were announced Monday. "And with little hope for real meaningful reform, it's unnecessary and it's expensive. Time for it to go."
It's been a slow change of heart for Mr. Wall, who had – like many conservatives – held out for a reformed senate that was elected, effective and equal, the so-called "Triple E" model. But he says he began to waver, even before the current scandals surrounding senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Ms. Wallin is from Saskatchewan.
Mr. Wall first raised doubt in late 2011. Last year, his party considered a motion at its convention to abolish the Senate. That motion was defeated. It was brought up again in a mail-in ballot. All told, 3,727 card-carrying Saskatchewan Party members – between a quarter and a third of the total membership, Mr. Wall says – voted, with 86 per cent supporting abolition.
His position presents a challenge for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose party includes many who champion reform while the Official Opposition NDP calls for outright abolition. Mr. Wall is a prominent figure in conservative circles, but his party is now breaking from the federal Conservatives and its neighbour, Alberta.
Asked about Mr. Wall's statement, Mr. Harper's director of communications said reform and abolition are on the table, but the status quo is not.
"Canadians understand that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change or, like the old Upper Houses of our provinces, vanish," Andrew MacDougall said in an e-mail.
But Mr. Wall believes the chances of meaningful reform are now "nil." Some provinces, for instance, may not actually elect Senate nominees, and Prime Ministers may not appoint the nominees that are elected. Currently, only Alberta elects Senate nominees. Some have been appointed, others haven't.
"I began to realize that even if we were trying to incrementally change the Senate, and I think that was a laudable goal originally, we would have very few provinces actually going through an election. Then you would have the chance the Prime Minister of the day would not appoint the elected nominees anyway. So you'd end up potentially with this hybrid senate. Some elected. Very, very few elected. Some appointed, maybe with a bit more credibility because of a stream of elected senators but none of the structural problems fixed," Mr. Wall said, noting the "equality" piece was the most important for him . "…Now, I know that abolition is also very, very difficult. I think slightly less so than trying to reform it. But I just think reform in an incremental way, depending again on the Prime Minister of the day appointing some elected senators from provinces that chose to have the elections, is just not the meaningful reform I think we wanted. This, I think, is a more realistic position."
The federal government has reached out to the Supreme Court for an opinion on how the Senate could actually be abolished or reformed. Some constitutional amendments can be made with the support of seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population. Other changes require unanimous consent.
Whatever the requirement for Senate abolition, it will require provincial input, Mr. Wall says. That's why he expects a vote this fall.
"I'm going to check with our caucus. We might consider a resolution in the fall, though, that would be tantamount to our constitutional declaration on the matter from Saskatchewan's perspective... And that might be something we might want to suggest to other provinces," the premier said. "That kind of a thing doesn't necessarily have to wait for the Supreme Court decision. Because whatever the formula, whatever the decision, provincial decisions are going to be required. We'll probably take that opportunity."
He declined to weigh in on Ms. Wallin's troubles, but said he's discussed his change of heart with Mr. Harper in the past. "Obviously, our positions then were not aligned, because he was working to reform the Senate in ways we've already discussed. But we did talk about it, though, yes... If we talk soon, I'll just indicate to him that, look, this is the position of the party, and the province, by the way – I think the great majority of people in the province."
All provinces should be weighing their position on abolition, he said. "I hope all of us as premiers and the national government takes the time to canvass Canadians' opinions," Mr. Wall said. "And if it's abolition, let's move on."
Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.