Prime Minister Stephen Harper is vowing not to make any more Senate appointments, an effort to distance himself from the scandal-plagued Red Chamber and to goad provinces into agreeing to reform or abolish the discredited legislative body.
"Let me be kind of blunt about this: The number of vacancies in the Senate will continue to rise, and other than some voices in the Senate, and some people who want to be appointed to the Senate, no one's going to complain," Mr. Harper announced after meeting Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall in Regina.
He noted he has not handed out any Senate seats in more than two years.
"We have 22 vacancies now and how many people are noticing?" he said. "What are the problems this is creating? None."
The Conservative Leader is a long-time proponent of reforming the Red Chamber, but his credentials as champion of a more accountable Senate have been tarnished by a scandal over improper expense claims that has engulfed several of the people he appointed. Mike Duffy, most notably, is charged with fraud and his trial is set to resume on Aug. 12.
Mr. Harper has been stymied in his efforts to reform the Senate, with most provinces opposing his plan to elect senators, and a Supreme Court ruling last year that confirmed the bar is high for getting approval for an overhaul. The court said reform would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population. It also said abolition would require unanimous consent of all provinces.
The Conservatives hope this moratorium gives Mr. Harper a way to deflect questions about Mr. Duffy's trial, in which former Prime Minister's Office chief of staff Nigel Wright is set to take the stand next month.
Support for the NDP under Thomas Mulcair, who has vowed to scrap the Senate, has risen in the polls, and the Conservatives appear to be betting this ban on appointments gives them a defensible policy on the Red Chamber, with an election call expected in the weeks ahead.
Shortly before Mr. Harper's announcement on Friday, Mr. Mulcair said in Waterloo, Ont., he would hold off appointments and negotiate with provinces to abolish the chamber if he becomes prime minister. He called the Senate undemocratic and unaccountable, and said that during the election campaign, he will seek a mandate to abolish it.
New Democrats pointed out that the NDP chief has talked of discontinuing appointments to the Senate in the past. "We could let the thing die on the vine – just wither away by attrition, name no one else to the Senate," Mr. Mulcair told CBC in July, 2014.
Friday was the second time Mr. Harper has promised to starve the Senate of appointments. He pledged this in the 2006 election campaign, but changed his mind after the 2008 election, citing the need for enough Tory legislators to pass his government's legislation.
As vacancies rise, the Senate will be increasingly unable to perform its legislative task of scrutinizing and passing legislation.
The chamber is about one-fifth empty. The number of vacant seats jumps to 34 by the end of 2017, when 71 senators would be left. Emmett Macfarlane, a University of Waterloo political scientist, predicted the Senate would be having "clear problems" functioning by then.
Mr. Harper's moratorium is indefinite. He acknowledged the Red Chamber would need some senators to function, but did not say how long he would let the situation continue.
The Prime Minister said this will save money, noting that Senate expenses are down $6-million annually since vacancies began piling up.
He also hopes to prod provinces into agreeing to reform or scrap the Red Chamber. "The ball is in their court ... [to] come up with a plan of comprehensive reform or to conclude the only way to deal with the status quo is abolition," the Prime Minster said.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who favours abolition, backed the announcement.
"It will be up to premiers … to respond to this now."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has promised an independent advisory body to recommend non-partisan nominees to the Senate, noted on Friday that Mr. Harper installed 59 Senators in the Red Chamber after saying in the 2006 election campaign he would appoint none.
"Mr. Harper is trying to distract people from his inability to deal with the economy," Mr. Trudeau said.
With a file from the Canadian Press