Stephen Harper will revive a contentious plan to reform the Senate after Parliament resumes in March, setting the stage for a showdown with the opposition and a handful of provinces over whether senators should be elected and held to term limits.
The Prime Minister's decision to prorogue Parliament, and appoint five new senators during the 22-day break, could give his minority government enough clout to move its reform agenda through the Senate, and then force a high-stakes vote on the legislation in the House of Commons.
Mr. Harper promised Tuesday that any senators he did appoint "will further our Senate reform agenda." However, he acknowledged he is disappointed that his party has been unable to effect any meaningful reform to this point, and said he is "less optimistic" than he was four years ago that such legislation would make it through Parliament.
"I thought we'd get at least something," he said in an interview with CBC television. "We're not there yet. … What the Senate is blocking isn't just government crime legislation, it's blocking Senate reform legislation."
After taking office in 2006, the Conservatives proposed a bill to limit senators' terms to eight years - which was to precede a bill that would establish Senate elections - but it died as Liberals in the Senate insisted there should be 12-year terms and that such a constitutional change must be negotiated with the provinces.
Now that the Conservatives are poised to gain more votes than the Liberals in the Senate, they are prepared to revisit the idea of an elected Senate.
"Senate reform will definitely be back as part of the government agenda," Government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton told The Globe and Mail.
Blocking an overhaul of the unpopular, appointed Senate may be politically risky for the Liberals and NDP, especially in the West, even if the New Democrats favour scrapping it completely.
For the Tories, pushing forward the bill could prompt court challenges from provincial governments in Ontario, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Quebec, which insist that creating an elected Senate involves a constitutional change that must be negotiated with the provinces.
Mr. Harper is poised to appoint five senators to fill vacancies, giving his party 51 to the Liberals' 49. That still does not give the Conservatives an absolute majority, because there are five Independents.
But because of illnesses and absences among Liberals and Independents - Liberal Senator Raymond Lavigne has been expelled from his caucus and has not cast a vote since being charged with fraud 27 months ago - the Conservatives were already winning votes in the Senate before Mr. Harper ended the last session.
The plurality of Senate votes, combined with prorogation and the opening of a new session of Parliament, now gives the Conservatives a majority over the committees that must review legislation, and control over the steering committees that set their agendas, allowing them to move bills more swiftly through Parliament.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister, Sara MacIntyre, played down the odds of passing the bill in the Senate, and said the Harper government won't use the issue to engineer its own defeat.
"A plurality in the upper chamber doesn't guarantee passage of Senate reform," she said. "We're not going to do anything in the House [of Commons]to bring about an election."
Mr. Harper will face pressure from his own political base to push forward a change that has long been the tenet of Conservative and Reform Party politics. His 2006 and 2008 electoral platforms both promised reform.
And now that the Tories have the edge in numbers in the Senate, elections to the Red Chamber would probably not send them back to a minority position any time soon. Of the seven senators who must retire within the next two years, only one is a Conservative.
Previous versions of the Conservative Senate-reform legislation have called for senators appointed before the last election to remain in office until they turn 75, with recent appointees having to retire after eight years - the term limit for new senators. They also proposed a separate bill for elections for new senators.
The Liberals insist that is a constitutional amendment that requires the consent of provinces. "If you want to do this, you have to talk to the provinces," said Liberal Senate Leader James Cowan.
New Democratic MP Libby Davies argued that after Mr. Harper moved to shut down Parliament in December, Canadians will be skeptical that the Prime Minister is really interested in democratic reform.
"He wants to control committees in the Senate, he wants to get away from the Afghan detainees issue in the Commons," she said. "When he puts [Senate reform]out there as some kind of democratic priority, I think it's laughable."
But Mr. Harper dismissed concerns raised by voters, constitutional scholars and opposition politicians about his decision to have Parliament prorogued. In his interview with the CBC, he maintained that "governments do want to examine their agenda from time to time and refresh it."
As for the detainee issue, the Prime Minister said "polls have been very clear … that that's not on the top of the radar of most Canadians."
The Conservatives have long argued that they faced obstructionist efforts from Liberal senators, and accused them of blocking or watering down bills that passed the Commons, or using their control of Senate committees to delay them. Two pre-Christmas moves, to delay a consumer safety bill and amend a drug crime bill, angered the Conservative government.
"If he appoints his senators, he won't be able to talk about an unelected, unaccountable Liberal Senate any more," Mr. Cowan said. "He'll have to talk about an unelected, unaccountable Conservative Senate."
With a report from John IbbitsonReport Typo/Error