Making the best of a mess

In literature and in drama, there are the characters who scheme in the shadows, who always seem one step ahead of everyone else and who — even at the moment of their downfall — manage to emerge victorious.

Harper can let the Senate simply implode and then launch a new

government model

In literature and in drama, there are the characters who scheme in the shadows, who always seem one step ahead of everyone else and who — even at the moment of their downfall — manage to emerge victorious.

Politics is one breeding ground for such archetypes.

What is it, almost eight years ago now, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his first election promising open and transparent government? Oh, and also wasn’t there something about Senate reform?

In the time since, we’ve seen more of literature’s Cardinal Richelieu than we’d like, in the prime minister’s behaviour. We’ve seen power fully locked into the Prime Minister’s Office, obsessive control of spin and messages, misdirection via unreadable omnibus bills pushed through by cabinet bulldozers, and a determined downgrading of the role of Parliament and its elected members.

And no action on Senate reform.

Rather, Harper’s most famous appointees have ended up reducing the Senate into a partisan circus.

Last May, the prime minister had no knowledge that his then-chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had cut a personal cheque to help Mike Duffy pay back $90,000 in expense subsidies that he allegedly double-dipped.

Wright would become an “honourable man” who honourably resigned when existence of the payment became known. Later, when it became expedient to say so, the resignation was revised into a firing. But Duffy made public that the plan for his “repayment” was imposed, not by the Senate (whose arcane rules were not broken), but by the PMO. Duffy says that staff in the PMO even concocted a narrative for him, that the money came from a bank loan he took out with his wife.

And that “just us three” — Duffy, Wright and Harper — held a meeting to begin the process.

Now, Harper says he and all Canadians were victims of a deceit by his former most trusted advisor. A government known for throwing its staff under a bus when it served to do so, backed up the bus and plowed over Wright a second time.

The Senate scandal’s storyline reads like a television ad. “Wait, there’s more!” And more. And more.

All of this is occurring just as the party’s national convention is set to begin in Calgary this weekend, and as two vital byelections are set to engage.

Has control-obsessed Stephen Harper truly lost control of events? Or is this simply an opportunity Harper can use to further the goals he said he had in mind almost eight years ago?

It’s not much of a leap to get there.

Instead of having to engage a years-long program of Senate reform, complete with Supreme Court challenges from every side and a politically-deadly constitutional battle, Harper can simply let the Senate implode.

He can come out of this with a well-crafted statement that includes a promise never to appoint anyone to the Senate again. Just let vacant seats remain vacant until there’s no one left.

Meanwhile, he can create some kind of blue-ribbon committee of worthy statespeople to come up with a plan to replace this no-longer-existent body.

But what about all that important work the Senate supposedly does? He can give that work to Parliament backbenchers. Designate all-party committees as needed and give them deadlines to produce reviews and reports on the policy issues the Senate deals with now.

In other words, give backbenchers something visibly important to do. There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the house that’s not being used.

Allow these committees to inform policy well in advance of its being introduced by his government, or a government to come. Take the long view on things like poverty, health care, education, pension reform, prison reform, the environment, while cabinet moves the current agenda day-to-day.

Be broad-minded. Allow the committees to critique policy, to review and report on the various sections of omnibus bills, so other parliamentarians can understand them well enough to explain them to us.

The result, to my mind, would be to attract a better grade of backbencher. It would enhance the role of an elected Parliament, rather than putting these powers in the hands of people who never had to ask for our mandate.

Canada could probably get all that for less than the financial cost (and certainly the ethical cost) of maintaining a dysfunctional, partisan Senate.

I don’t think Harper planned for events to go this way. But planners like him often seem to find a way to turn such dark, cynical moments into sunshine, just before the final act.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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