CALGARY – Senior Conservatives continued to stray from the prime minister’s political Senate script Friday — the very day Stephen Harper was to deliver a key speech designed to steer attention back to his party’s record.
Following the lead of Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Justice Minister Peter MacKay offered moral support to Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff depicted by Harper as the sole architect of the “deception” surrounding the repayment of Sen. Mike Duffy’s disallowed expenses.
“I’ve known Nigel a long time, he’s a very principled individual, he’s somebody who is honest, he’s worked hard for our party in the past,” MacKay said.
“That’s my opinion, that’s my view of Nigel.”
Both Kenney and MacKay are viewed as potential contenders to succeed Harper in the future, and each have a loyal following within the party.
Ontario MP Gord Brown echoed the sentiment on Wright.
“I’ve known him for many, many years,” Brown said. “We’ve been in politics together since the ’80s, and he’s a man of high integrity and it’s disappointing that all of this has unfolded, but I stand behind Nigel.”
On another front, junior minister Maxime Bernier — a popular figure among rank-and-file Conservatives — floated the idea that the party ought to hold a referendum on whether or not to abolish the Senate.
The premier of Saskatchewan, now an avowed opponent of the Senate, weighed in. “Not a bad idea Maxime Bernier,” Brad Wall wrote on Twitter.
Harper, meanwhile, has been pushing for Senate reform for decades. His government referred a number of questions to the Supreme Court of Canada on the mechanisms for reforming the Senate and how to abolish it.
“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Government Senate leader Claude Carignan.
“Right now we have a reference at the Supreme Court, we should respect the Supreme Court and respect its judgment, which will take about a year and then we can discuss the method that the Supreme Court will identify for us.”
The evolving Senate scandal, meanwhile, continued to throw curveballs Friday: the RCMP filed court documents alleging Sen. Pamela Wallin committed fraud and breach of trust by filing fraudulent expense claims.
The Senate also revealed it paid $390,500 for the independent audit that exposed those questionable claims, bringing to more than $500,000 the cost of reviewing the expenses of Duffy, Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb.
The trials and tribulations of the upper chamber, though hard to miss, were far from the only issue occupying the minds of Conservative delegates.
Behind closed doors at the convention, party members appeared to put to rest a long-standing debate within the ranks — for now.
A recurring bid to change the leadership rules to adopt a system that is closer to one-member, one-vote was once again defeated, meaning it won’t go to the larger convention floor for debate.
A pointed resolution that would forbid resolutions from coming back to conventions if they’ve been defeated twice before will be discussed at the plenary session on Saturday.
Currently, each Conservative riding association in the country has an equally weighted say in electing the leader. That was a rule negotiated between Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance when the parties merged in late 2003, designed to prevent a candidate from swamping the race with support from a specific region — such as Alberta.
“I feel quite strongly and quite passionately that we have to have equality and inclusiveness in our party,” said MacKay.
“The party has spoken, and the democratic principles are alive and well.”
Delegates also defeated a resolution to reject the supply management system for dairy, eggs and poultry. However, a motion to officially condemn sex-selective abortions passed an initial debate and will proceed to the floor on Saturday.