Where some see political disaster, Preston Manning sees opportunity. The Senate ordeal is "embarrassing for everybody" involved, he says, but there's hope public outcry may spur the change his former Reform Party long advocated.
"If what comes out of it is a resolve to start reforming the place, that's good," Mr. Manning, the former leader of one of the precursors to the Conservative Party, said Thursday. "That's our hope."
As delegates began funnelling into Calgary's Stampede Park on Thursday for the Conservative Party's policy convention, a Tory minister reiterated Mr. Manning's pledge. And the Manning Centre think tank held something of a convention prequel Thursday morning, tackling an issue on the minds of many: Whither the Canadian Senate?
Among the speakers was Pierre Poilievre, Minister of State for Democratic Reform and the government's point-man on Senate overhaul. He headed west to assure many early Reformers – including Mr. Manning and those in the so-called Calgary School of conservative political theory from which Prime Minister Stephen Harper emerged – that the status quo isn't tolerable, and Senate reform is still on the agenda.
"Canada's Senate is a political science experiment gone wrong," Mr. Poilievre said, adding reform is the first priority.
"Two democratically elected chambers would be ideal for the Canadian public, but certainly abolition would be superior to the status quo," he said, stressing later: "Patience is not only a virtue in this conversation, but it is a necessity."
Mr. Poilievre said reform would ideally be achieved without reopening the Constitution, a process that would require provincial consent. The federal government has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on what powers it has to change the Senate.
"We are looking at ways to make incremental reforms that do not require convening the general amending procedure of the Constitution. If we can achieve those, it would be a major step forward towards the ideal of two democratic houses," he said.
Conservatives arrived in Calgary as the government continues to push to suspend three senators appointed by Mr. Harper – Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. The storm over their expenses has shaken the Prime Minister's Office. But within the party, opinions are split on how to deal with them.
Mr. Manning said all three should resign or be removed. "I think their presence there just discredits themselves, the rest of the senators, the Senate, the Parliament, the parties, the institution," Mr. Manning said, adding that, in politics, "you are guilty until proven innocent. That's the reality of it."
Former Senator Bert Brown – who was appointed after being elected as a nominee in Alberta – said only Mr. Brazeau should resign, as he thinks Mr. Duffy's and Ms. Wallin's cases are less serious. Mr. Brown doesn't believe the scandal will lead to Senate abolition, and hopes it doesn't.
"I think it's going to be a tornado, and then disappear," Mr. Brown said Thursday at the Manning Centre, adding "the press is just stirring this for the hell of it." Without the Senate, he added, the Prime Minister would have absolute power. "You want a dictatorship in this country? An absolute dictatorship?"
Doug Black, another elected Alberta senator in Calgary for the convention, hasn't decided how to vote on the fate of his fellow senators, but doesn't expect the issue to dominate the convention. "I think there'll be some corridor chat. I think I know pretty clearly where the party and Canadians are, which is exactly where I am – which is this can't go on. This institution needs to be reformed."
Delegates arrived Thursday to register, while the bulk of the convention – debate over party policy and election of a national council – was set to begin Friday. Among the early registrants was Alyson Hawksworth, of Victoria, for whom the Senate affair raises questions.
"I'm not really passionate about a lot of things other than being honest and taking care of business, like our forefathers did. So what's been going on is troubling to a grassroots person like myself," she said, adding the scandal hasn't shaken her faith in Mr. Harper. "I really like Stephen Harper. He's the best thing that ever happened to Canada."
Mr. Harper arrived Thursday, but a photo-shoot was hastily cancelled. He's set to address the convention Friday.