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The Senate Scandal Is All Downhill For Mr. Harper

11/01/2013 05:20 EDT | Updated 11/01/2013 05:20 EDT

After another week of appalling new revelations, exacerbating contradictions and failed attempts to make the issue go away, everybody is now speculating about the Prime Minister's next move in his management of the senate scandal crisis as he prepares to deliver an important keynote speech to Conservative party faithful tonight in Calgary.

At this point, his options are not numerous, and come with daunting political consequences. He can continue to attack the credibility of the three senators involved and drag his former chief of staff down with them -- while pretending he has no responsibility in this affair -- as he did all week in the House of Commons. Harper can only hope Mr. Wright will go down quietly rather than publicly contradict his former boss's account of events.

The credibility problem Mr. Harper has in this affair is serious. He can't escape the fact that he appointed senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau in the first place and used them as star fundraisers for his party with taxpayers' money.

The Prime Minister has run out of excuses for the mess he helped create. Over the last few months, he has contradicted himself to a degree that his own personal brand is now at stake. Mr. Harper knows full well he can't remain on the defensive forever on this issue. He needs a way out.

Which leads us to the obvious: as some conservatives have already hinted publicly, why not change the channel, double down, and go on the senate reform or abolition route? Why not propose a national referendum on Senate abolition? Given everything that has happened in the last year, a majority of Canadians would probably support him, right?

If it could be that simple.

The senate abolition remedy might be obvious and attractive to a lot of people, including the NDP and Mr. Mulcair, but the road to get there is a TransCanada highway of minefields. Here is a simple fact to consider. As stated again last week by the Quebec Court of Appeal in its reference case on the Supreme Court, Canada is a federation where provincial governments are not subordinates of the federal government. It is very doubtful the Supreme Court will say otherwise when it will render its much-anticipated decision in the coming weeks.

A winning referendum could probably provide the political legitimacy to proceed with Senate reform or abolition but it would only open old constitutional wounds the country has no appetite for. Such moves killed the political career of Brian Mulroney and reduced the Conservatives to two seats in 1993. Remember the Charlottetown Accord saga?

If anyone is under the illusion that provinces would just be happy to raise their hands in assent and ask for nothing in exchange for senate reform or abolition they should think again. The most ardent federalist in Québec right now, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, has already stated publicly he won't even consider discussing Senate reform before the Québec issue was discussed and resolved.

Somewhere in Québec city, Premier Marois' strategists are no doubt fantasizing about this and burning candles in the hope Mr. Harper will give them that opening they have been waiting for since 1995. For Mme Marois, this is the ultimate winning condition: another failed attempt by the rest of Canada to deliver a constitutional reform that would satisfy Quebec. And this is just Québec. Who knows what baubles other provinces and interest groups would seek if constitutional negotiations were re-launched?

Conservatives should ask themselves if going back into full federal-provincial constitutional negotiations melodrama will get them out of the woods. What an amazing paradox it would be for Mr. Harper's Conservatives to ignore the anxiety felt by so many Canadians in this tumultuous period of economic uncertainty while putting all their eggs into a Senate reform or abolition initiative.

It remains to be seen what road the Prime Minister will choose. At this point, he has no good options in front of him to solve this senate mess.

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