Idea of Senate abolition gaining momentum inside Conservative caucus

OTTAWA – While the NDP bangs the drum for Senate abolition in the Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is likely to hear the same beat coming from inside his own Conservative caucus.

Government MPs got an earful from constituents over the spring and summer about the ongoing Senate expenses scandal, which has already prompted the ouster of three high-profile Tory senators and Harper’s chief of staff. An RCMP investigation and auditor general’s review will keep the story alive indefinitely.

Many members were riled up after a Conservative private member’s bill on union accountability was gutted with the help of some of their own caucus mates in the upper chamber.

As a result, patience is running thin.

A number MPs who spoke to The Canadian Press — some on the record, others preferring to remain anonymous because they are uncomfortable speaking publicly about the matter — say the Senate should simply be done away with, rather than wait for reforms that could take years to achieve, if at all.

“Personally, I think the country could be well governed without it,” said one Conservative MP.

Added another MP: “I’m ready to campaign on abolition.”

Some even pointed to the political toll that the concept of Senate reform is taking on Harper himself.

“The Senate is a longer-term problem where without action, the prime minister is perceived as the person who is responsible for the Senate and the status quo,” said one Tory MP.

“That’s not a position he wants to be in.”

Any movement on the Senate will have to wait until the Supreme Court of Canada answers a series of questions the government posed earlier this year — including how to go about abolition. As a result, Senate reform is not expected to garner but a passing reference in Wednesday’s throne speech.

Harper has tried unsuccessfully to introduce term limits to the Senate, and to create a framework whereby the provinces could elect their senators.

Industry Minister James Moore raised the threat of abolition last weekend, saying taxpayers should have some sort of election process to allow them to to do away with senators they feel aren’t up to the task.

“But if we can’t do that, then the Senate should be abolished,” Moore told CTV’s Question Period.

“Either elect or abolish, but serious reform or abolition has to happen, and we want it to happen yesterday.”

Ontario MP Bruce Stanton said the Senate expenses issues became “water-cooler talk” in his riding over the summer. He would prefer to see the kind of Senate reform that Harper has proposed in the past, but not at any cost.

“If it comes to pass that (reform) cannot happen without some kind of constitutional upheaval — meaning the general amending formula and all the provinces have to agree — if we’re going to go down that path, then certainly abolition might be the better bet,” Stanton said.

Other MPs are holding out for a healthy discussion inside caucus — and later this month at the Conservative convention in Calgary — on possible solutions for making the Senate more effective and less costly.

“You still need that sober second thought because we could still ram stuff through Parliament rather quickly if we wanted to, and that may feel good one day but the damage could be a year or two down the road when you don’t take the time to really vet something properly,” one western Conservative MP said.

“That’s where the Senate provides that strength — do we really need to have them here doing that committee work? Do we need to have them travelling all over the world?”

Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher, the former minister of state for democratic reform, said the legal advice he’s seen would suggest that introducing Senate elections and term limits is entirely possible.

Expecting Canadians to unite in supporting abolition, however, is unrealistic, Fletcher said.

“Anyone who says that the Senate as a first choice should be abolished, such as the NDP, are being disingenuous when they say it because they know that’s not going to happen,” he said.

“That’s not because we don’t want it to happen, it’s just because it can’t happen.”

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