Why Stephen Harper waited until now for his Senate moratorium
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, July 25, 2015 11:57AM PDT
OTTAWA -- When the Calgary Stampede ends and the last pancakes are flipped, the white cowboy hats put away in their boxes, Stephen Harper usually heads to the official prime minister's summer residence at Harrington Lake.
There, like many a prime minister before him, he spends the waning days of July and early August on semi-vacation. Things start booting up again in mid-August, and Harper's official return to the spotlight comes with the annual Arctic tour.
But this is no usual year.
As NDP Leader Tom Mulcair continues his tour of the country and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau begins his own political circuit, Harper also came out of his lakefront comfort zone earlier than expected.
Tthe issue that took him there was the Senate.
Since the Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform in 2014, there's been pressure in the Conservative caucus to find a new way forward on overhauling the upper chamber, consistently bogged down in scandal for the last three years.
The ruling tied the government's hands to act unilaterally. It declared reform would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population. Abolition would require unanimous provincial consent.
But caucus didn't want to let the issue rest. When canvassed late last year as part of the process of building the campaign platform, a number put forward ideas on how changes could take place.
That desire stemmed from the old days of the Reform party, when Senate reform was a hallmark of party policy. Many of the old guard weren't prepared to let it drop.
Retiring Edmonton MP Peter Goldring, who was first elected as a Reform MP, is among them.
He issued a statement on Friday, laying out one of his ideas -- that the Governor General alone do the appointments.
"Senators should be selected by the Governor General, as our Constitution presently describes, based possibly additionally on the recommendation of the provincial lieutenant governors such that the partisan aspect that is at the heart of the current scandal will greatly diminish."
Consensus for a proposal to go forward wasn't reached, and the divergent views were merely noted and handed off.
Initially, Friday's announcement -- a formal moratorium on appointing new senators -- was meant to be timed for close to the official campaign call, an event that could be as late as Sept. 13, or as early as within the next 10 days, as some are speculating now.
Part of it was designed to thwart the NDP's policy for Senate abolition by emphasizing the matter really rests with the provinces, as Harper did Friday by saying he'll no longer appoint new senators until the provinces figure out reform or agree to abolish.
Harper had been hearing from those around him that he should get the announcement out ahead of the campaign as a way to keep it out of the campaign. One piece of advice on his desk argued that since there's little the federal government can do, why make it a platform issue.
But the criminal case involving one of the former stars of the Conservative party, suspended Sen. Mike Duffy, resumes in two weeks time with the first witness expected to be former chief of staff to the prime minister, Nigel Wright.
So with the Senate likely to leap back into the spotlight in the early days of the campaign, the Conservatives also knew people would be reminded of their failure to achieve that original campaign pledge.
As one of the worst seasons for forest fires rages on, Harper had planned to do what most leaders do during natural disasters -- tour the affected areas in British Columbia and Saskatchewan to pledge federal assistance to deal with the devastation.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was a useful ally to be by Harper's side for the policy pronouncement.
Wall is an advocate for abolishing the Senate and also a man whose name continues to float around as a possible successor to Harper one day.
His province too is important.
While the Conservatives don't want to talk about the Senate during the campaign, they also don't want their staunchest supporters to think they've just given up, even if that's what the Supreme Court has virtually forced them to do.
Riding redistribution has thrown formerly safe Conservative seats up for grabs, boosting the fortunes of the NDP.
And that party's position has long been that the Senate just needs to be abolished.
Maybe, Mulcair joked Friday, Harper's next step is to take another similar position -- grow a beard, just like him.