As of late, the chamber of sober second thought has become more of a dark dungeon of drunken regrets. Revelations that Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, in a deal arranged by the prime minister’s former legal adviser, paid off Senator Mike Duffy’s $90,172 invalid expense claims is only one of the most recent examples of how the Senate will be the end of Harper’s reign.
The Senate has been an ongoing problem for the prime minister. It all started in 1990, when a much more idealistic Harper wrote the Reform Party’s policy manual, known as Blue Book. The Blue Book promised constitutional reform to create a Triple-E Senate: Elected, Equal representation from each province and territory, and Effective in safeguarding regional interests.
In 2001, Stephen Harper and five others published an open letter to Ralph Klein in the National Post, making certain demands that would better Alberta’s position within Canada. His Alberta Agenda included using the Supreme Court’s Quebec Secession Reference to “force Senate reform back onto the national agenda.”
When the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives merged, democratic reform was put on the backburner to keep the coalition united. By the 2006 election however, Senate reform was back on the table. When elected, Harper pledged that there would be senatorial election by the next federal election. He was ready to reform the upper chamber unilaterally, but hoped that the premiers would join his cause.
That hasn’t happened. Instead Harper kept appointing new senators, believing the only way he could get meaningful reform was if he held a majority in the Senate. Yet even after that happened in 2010, nothing changed.
Despite Harper’s inaction, the Senate has certainly been busy destroying itself. Senator Patrick Brazeau garnered the media’s attention after a humiliating boxing match with Justin Trudeau. The increased attention plagued him. His attendance record was scrutinized, he engaged in extremely childish arguments with reporters and Canadians on Twitter, and he was arrested for an alleged domestic assault. To top it all off, the RCMP has opened a criminal investigation into his expenses along with those of Mike Duffy and Liberal senator Mac Harb.
An Angus-Reid public opinion poll taken in February, before much of this mess began, suggests that a full two-thirds of Canadians would like to directly elect their senators, with the same number believing their terms should be limited to eight years. Abolishing the Senate garnered only 36% support, though it would not be surprising to see that number much higher today.
Stephen Harper is starting to feel the heat. Rather than just being a Senate problem, the Mike Duffy scandal has for the first time directly involved the Prime Minister’s Office and threatens to ruin any credibility the PM has left on being accountable. The high ranking senator Pamela Wallin has already left the Conservative caucus, and there are rumours that Jacques Demers plans on resigning his seat over the party’s behaviour.
Now is the time for Stephen Harper to act. Until he became prime minister, much of his political existence relied on democratizing the Senate. Political reasons kept him off track in a minority government, but the time for excuses are over. With a majority government and a handful of scandals that threaten to ruin him, he can no longer ignore his instincts.
“Those who abuse the public trust are not welcome in the Conservative caucus” Harper said Tuesday in a meeting with Tory MPs and senators, “we have heard the outcry from Canadians and are committed to reforming the senate.”
To realize this statement, the PM is going to have to work very hard over the next two years. His credibility has taken a huge blow. It is a safe bet that Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau will be hitting this point hard. The only way to disarm the opposition come 2015 is to follow through with his plans and ensuring that the Senate becomes accountable to the people and plays an effective role in governance.
Focusing on the economy will not be enough, as it did in the last election. Failing to resolve the democratic deficit will be the end of the Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.