Paul Wells

Stephen Harper abandons Senate reform. Again.

Wells: The PM had his answer to the Supreme Court ready six months before they ruled

Stephen Harper responded to the Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform, surprisingly quickly, by abandoning his reform plans. But what if the prime minister had used his most important speech of the past year to write off Senate reform — months before the Supremes delivered their opinion?

It sounds like a tantalizing hypothetical, but it’s actually what happened. At last November’s Conservative convention in Calgary — with 3,000 Conservatives in the hall, dozens of reporters watching, and at least many thousands more in a nationwide television audience — Harper abandoned any serious Senate reform project. And not a lot of people noticed that’s what he was doing. All he did today was to repeat the gist of what he said in last November’s speech.

Here’s what I wrote back then

This speech appeared to be an abandonment of Harper’s Senate reform agenda, disguised as defiance and wrapped in shopping lists.

 “This is the only party that has tried to reform the Senate,” he said. “We were blocked by the other parties in the minority parliaments. And now we are being blocked in the courts. So, friends, it is time for the Senate to show it can reform itself.”

 And what was the sum total of this Senate self-reform agenda? “Suspend those Senators without pay!”

I went on to note that the courts had not “blocked” the Conservatives’ Senate reform plans. One court — the Quebec Appeals Court — had described a process for limiting terms and holding consultative elections that would require the consent of at least 7 provinces. The Supreme Court decision lay well ahead, but it was likely to be similar (in the end, it was almost identical) and Harper had plainly already decided he didn’t want to go down that path. That’s why he now defined “reform” as “dock Mike Duffy’s pay.”

This explains why Harper had such a quick response to the Supremes today. They’d given the response he expected. Or perhaps more than that. It took him six years to even get up the energy to send this reference to the Court. He has been singularly listless in pursuing his reform agenda. Maybe he just needed a No so he could drop the whole notion. Maybe this is the response he wanted.