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Politics PM’s Western supporters are not amused about Senate expense scandal

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to business leaders in New York this week: The message was, the Keystone XL pipeline would be a less risky way to transport heavy crude to the U.S. East Coast.

ADRIAN WYLD/CP

The Senate expense scandals sweeping Ottawa have met a particularly poor reception in the Conservative government's Western heartland, where calls are now emerging for the resignation – and criminal prosecution – of several senators.

Those implicated in housing expense problems "should be out of there, in a flash. No stalling about it," said Myron Thompson, the outspoken Albertan who spent 15 years as a member of Parliament. Mr. Thompson was first elected in 1993 with the Reform Party, which had championed Senate reform, a political platform that drew its greatest support in Western Canada.

"They're stealing taxpayers' money and they've committed crimes," he said of the senators accused of expense-account wrongdoing, including Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb. They have brought their institution into question, he said.

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"I can tell you right now the voice of the people on the ground where I live is saying, 'Why do we even have a Senate? What's the point of putting up with that kind of nonsense? Get rid of it.'"

As it stands, the Senate serves "no purpose to Canadians at all," said Cliff Breitkreuz, a former Reform MP and one-time "senator in waiting" elected in Alberta, but never appointed. The Senate should be overhauled in keeping with Reform's principles, he said.

"And if they don't want to do it, they should abolish the damn thing. We've got an elected house. If the Senate is dysfunctional as it is and loaded with crooks, why keep the thing?" Mr. Breitkreuz said. Mr. Duffy was "a CBC Liberal" who Prime Minister Stephen Harper should never have appointed, he said.

"Mike Duffy should be fired, but [Mr. Harper] can't do that. That's the whole thing. He can stay there till he rots, but the Prime Minister has no power to fire him," Mr. Breitkreuz said, later adding: "It just isn't good. And it's too bad that it reflects on the PM, because I kind of like the guy."

Link Byfield, another of Alberta's former "senators-in-waiting" and the son of Reform Party pioneer Ted Byfield, affixed the blame largely to provinces, including Alberta, that have stood in the way of significant change. Because senators aren't elected, "these people do not behave accountably and, when they are forced to account, they're kind of shocked," Mr. Byfield said.

Calgary MP Rob Anders, first elected under the Reform banner, agrees the scandals leave "probably more attention on [the Senate] at the time," but called on Liberals to support Conservative changes tabled recently that will restrict certain expenses, including travel.

Mr. Harb was the only Liberal whose spending the committee found problematic, but Mr. Anders alleges that's not the case.

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"I'm sure that he's not the only Liberal that's had implications with regards to this kind of thing. So, to be honest, I think it crosses party lines," he said.

The series of scandals may eventually provide an opening for Conservatives to make change. That's unlikely to happen immediately, since "right now, in this context, it would be viewed as a reckless or last-gasp try to save face," said Faron Ellis, a Lethbridge College political scientist. But in time, the Harper government may argue that it has unsuccessfully sought reform, saying "we've tried everything and it's failed. So the last resort is to give up and say let's consider abolishing it," Mr. Ellis said.

Despite the discontent among early Reform Party supporters, Mr. Harper has already gone some way to mending Western fences with the appointment of Ray Novak as his new chief of staff, a long-time party operative Mr. Thompson strongly supports.

"I think that's going to make a lot of people happy," he said.

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