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Tory resistance to Senate reform puts Harper in bind, pollster says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduces elected Senator Bert Brown to his caucus in Ottawa on Oct. 17, 2007.

TOM HANSON/The Canadian Press

With cracks emerging in Conservative caucus unity on the issue, pollster Nik Nanos says the Prime Minister's plans to reform the Senate by imposing term-limits should be a no-brainer.

"First of all Senate reform has been on the radar for the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Stephen Harper for a very long time," the Nanos Research president said, noting that Mr. Harper has spent his time in government creating the perfect conditions for his Senate reform proposals.

He has packed the Senate with more than 30 appointments - people he has looked in the eye and explained his "vision" for the Red Chamber, Mr. Nanos said. It appeared that he had their buy-in.

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And not only does he have the upper hand in the Senate, he won a majority in the Commons on May 2. Mr. Nanos figures the Prime Minister is asking himself what more he can do?

"On appearance everything has aligned for Stephen Harper to easily deliver on one of his priorities of [democratic reform]" the pollster said. "But what we're seeing now is some rumblings, some of which are emanating from his own caucus."

More than rumblings - it's a mini-revolt. A letter leaked to the media by Conservative Senator Bert Brown revealed the divisions in the Conservative caucus over these proposed reforms.

"Every senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be," Mr. Brown wrote his Senate colleagues Wednesday. "The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper."

The senator, who is from Alberta, is a big proponent of an elected Senate. But to achieve it, he and the Prime Minister might have to compromise.

Mr. Harper's team has proposed term limits of eight years for senators, who at present can keep their perk-laden positions until the age of 75. The Prime Minister's reforms would also require they be elected. Right now, they are appointed - and therefore don't face the threat of losing their jobs at the hands of disgruntled constituents like MPs.

But there are objections to an eight-year term, with some senators arguing they should be longer to ensure greater independence. So now Mr. Harper finds himself quibbling over whether it should be a nine-year term instead.

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It's becoming a messy, confusing and unnecessary bump in the road for the Prime Minister.

From an "internal management perspective," Mr. Nanos said Mr. Harper has to deliver on the promise he made to his base. And he doesn't want to be seen to be making compromises with the unelected Senate in the process.

"That would not be a good signal to send out," he the pollster said. "Politically, he's got to whip that Senate caucus."

Ironically, Mr. Nanos suggested Mr. Harper probably figured this would be an easy promise to deliver. On paper it looked that way. But in practice, it's not so easy to convince job-for-life senators - even those you appoint - that they will have to do some extra work to keep their posts for a set period of time.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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