OTTAWA - Stephen Harper threw in the towel on Senate reform Friday after the Supreme Court slammed the door on his hopes of a quick fix for the scandal-plagued upper house.
The prime minister sounded resigned to the status quo as he gave up on more than three decades of championing an elected Senate, washing his hands of what has repeatedly been a central plank in Conservative election platforms.
Harper said he had no option left after the high court concluded that no major change can be made to the much-maligned Senate without a constitutional amendment supported by most or all the provinces.
That's a politically risky and potentially divisive route that Harper has no intention of taking.
"We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition and no desire of anyone to reopen the Constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations," a defeated-sounding Harper told a business audience at an event in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.
In essence, he added, the court has said "we're essentially stuck with the status quo for the time being and that significant reform and abolition are off the table."
He said he's personally disappointed and predicted the "vast majority of Canadians" will be too. Nevertheless, Harper said his government "will respect that decision."
In fact, the court did not put the kibosh on all Senate reform. It responded to specific questions from the Harper government on specific proposals to impose term limits on senators and to create a "consultative election" process to choose nominees.
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The eight justices unanimously advised that Harper's proposed reforms would require constitutional amendments approved by at least seven provincial legislatures representing 50 per cent of the population. The Harper government had hoped it could proceed alone with such reforms.
Harper has periodically threatened to abolish the Senate if his reform plans are stymied. But the court set an even higher bar for abolition: unanimous consent of all 10 provinces.
Some of Harper's ministers have in the past promoted the idea of a national referendum to put pressure on the provinces for abolition. But Harper showed no interest in that Friday and his democratic reform minister, Pierre Poilievre, later ruled it out.
"We have no plan whatsoever for a referendum. We have no plans to open the Constitution and our focus will continue to be on the economy," Poilievre said.
Since coming to power in 2006, Harper's government has introduced several different versions of bills aimed at imposing term limits and electing senators. But they've all been allowed to languish in the legislative line-up after meeting with strenuous provincial objections to Ottawa's attempts to go it alone.
Harper finally sought the top court's advice on the matter in February 2013.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, a champion of abolition who backed the government's efforts, was more blunt than Harper in his assessment.
"I think its over," Wall said.
The decision leaves Canada in some pretty strange company when it comes to democracy, he added.
"Thailand, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Burkina Faso, Fiji, Grenada, Jamaica, Jordan, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Dominion of Canada — these are the countries that have a wholly appointed upper chamber with no prospects for change."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused Harper of doing nothing to advance the cause of Senate reform. Now the prime minister is giving up even the pretence, content to continue appointing "his buddies" to the upper house, he added.
Mulcair, who's been crusading for Senate abolition in the midst of the expenses scandal that has rocked the chamber for more than a year, was undaunted by the prospect of needing unanimous provincial support.
"We're not going to raise the white flag on this," he said after a speech in Kingston, Ont.
"We're going to keep fighting to get rid of the unelected, unaccountable Senate. We know it's a tough job but, you know what? That's why you apply for these jobs."
But Liberal intergovernmental affairs critic Stephane Dion suggested Mulcair is dreaming if he thinks he could keep constitutional talks focused strictly on the Senate. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has promised to put Quebec's traditional constitutional demands — distinct society status, among other things — back on the table should negotiations be opened on the Senate.
Two of Couillard's ministers repeated that promise Friday.
"There's no way it will be only about the Senate," Dion said. "There is no appetite for that among Canadians. Nobody wants to reopen the Constitution, to have mega-negotiations about a lot of issues."
Dion said the court decision proves Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is the only federal leader who has a realistic, practical plan for reforming the Senate.
Trudeau has kicked senators out of the Liberal caucus in a bid to return the Senate to its intended role as an independent, less partisan chamber of sober second thought. He's urged Harper to follow suit but, so far, the Conservatives have dismissed Trudeau's gesture as a meaningless stunt.
Should he become prime minister, Trudeau has also promised to create a blue-chip, non-partisan advisory group to recommend Senate nominees.
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, question period, Feb. 13
"In terms of Sen. Wallin, I have looked at the numbers. Her travel costs are comparable to any parliamentarian travelling from that particular area of the country over that period of time. For instance, last year Sen. Wallin spent almost half of her time in the province she represents in the Senate. The costs are to travel to and from that province, as any similar parliamentarian would do."
Wallin speaking Wednesday in her own defence
"By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect — a right guaranteed us by the charter — to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based, is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy and makes a mockery of this chamber. This charade is supposedly about preserving the reputation of this place, but the real intent is to remove a perceived liability — namely, me."
Harper on Wallin's expenses, question period, Feb. 14
"The senator and all other senators and members of the House are fully prepared and committed to have an examination of expenses to ensure that they are appropriate. That is the commitment the government has made in both chambers, a commitment we will keep."
Harper in question period on May 28 on when he learned that former chief of staff Nigel Wright personally wrote a $90,000 cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy's expenses
"Mr. Speaker, I have been very clear on this question. This matter came to my attention two weeks ago, after speculation appeared in the media. On Wednesday, May 15, I was told about it. At that very moment, I demanded that my office ensure that the public was informed, and it was informed appropriately."
Duffy in the Senate on Oct. 22
"I made one last effort. I said: 'I don't believe I owe anything, and besides which, I don't have $90,000.' 'Don't worry,' Nigel said. 'I'll write the cheque.'"
Harper in question period, May 28
"As I have said repeatedly, my first knowledge of this was on the date and at the time indicated. Prior to that point in time, it was my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid back his own expenses."
Harper in question period, May 28
"If the leader of the NDP is suggesting I had any information to the contrary from Mr. Wright prior to this, that is completely false. I learned of this on May 15 and immediately made this information public, as I have said many times."
Harper in question period, June 4
"Mr. Speaker, that information was already made public on Feb. 13, and I have been very clear about this. Mr. Duffy approached me after a caucus meeting to discuss this matter. From the beginning, my position has been clear: any inappropriate expenses should be refunded to taxpayers by the senators concerned."
Duffy in his Oct. 22 Senate speech
"I've violated no laws, I've followed the rules."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, why then did the Prime Minister, last week, deny instructing any members of his personnel to settle the Mike Duffy matter when he gave that order with that personnel present in the room at a caucus meeting in February of this year?"
Harper, in reply to Mulcair in question period June 4
"Mr. Speaker, it was my view from the beginning that any inappropriate expenses by any senator should be repaid by the senator, not by somebody else. That was very clear. Those are the facts obviously before us. As I say, my statements on this matter have been very clear and very consistent."
Harper in question period June 5 explaining his meeting with Duffy
"Mr. Duffy was seeking clarification on remarks I had made to this effect in caucus and I was adamant that any inappropriate expenses had to be reimbursed by him."
Duffy in the Senate Oct. 22
"So after caucus on Feb. 13 of this year, I met the prime minister and Nigel Wright, just the three of us. I said that despite the smear in the papers, I had not broken the rules, but the prime minister wasn't interested in explanations or the truth. It's not about what you did; it's about the perception of what you did that has been created in the media."
Harper in question period Oct. 23, referring to Duffy's account of the Feb. 13 meeting
"No, Mr. Speaker I absolutely did not say that."
Duffy to the Senate on Oct. 22
"I argued: I'm just following the rules like all of the others. But it didn't work. I was ordered by the prime minister: Pay the money back, end of discussion. Nigel Wright was present throughout, just the three of us."
Harper in question period on June 5
"I have made it very clear what my views were to all my staff and to our caucus. We expect inappropriate expenses to be reimbursed and I would expect they would be reimbursed by the person who incurred them. I would certainly not expect them to be reimbursed by somebody else."
Harper in question period on June 5
"Mr. Speaker, as I have indicated, Mr. Wright informed me of his personal cheque on May 15. This was an error in judgment. He indicated he did this because he believed that taxpayers should be reimbursed and he was prepared to ensure that happened, as in fact it did happen. However, obviously this was an error in judgment for many reasons that have already been outlined and for that reason, I accepted his resignation."
Harper at a news conference on July 6 in Calgary
"I think if you read the affidavit it makes very clear that the decision to pay money to Mr. Duffy out of Mr Wright’s personal funds was made solely by Mr. Wright and was his responsibility. Obviously, had I known about this earlier I would never have allowed this to take place. When I answered questions about this in the House of Commons I answered questions to the best of my knowledge."