Jackson Doughart
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Harper should call a snap election

Prince Arthur Herald, 24 October 2013

The temperature around the Prime Minister is surging, thanks to Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau’s allegations of Mr Harper’s personal knowledge and involvement in the cover up of the Senate expense scandal. Pamela Wallin will speak next, which promises to provide more trouble for the government’s reputation.

It won’t be long before Harper is called on to resign. First it will come from the opposition parties, then from the media class and the public more generally, then from his own party. One insatiable talking point from the past week is how “the base” is upset at the Senate scandal, which actually means that grassroots Conservative supporters, set to meet at the party’s upcoming convention, are sick of having their reputation sullied by senatorial shmucks. (Remember that back when the Conservatives were in their populist Reform Party stage, they were against the Senate altogether.) What evidence is there that “the base” will not turn at the man at the top if the charges against him prove to be cogent, or even if they don’t?

It’s hard to believe that the Senate scandal has been going on for as long as it has, perhaps because its rumblings have continued in the absence of parliamentary sessions. Either way, it is important to remember that throughout the controversy, people have consistently expressed annoyance and even outright contempt with the Senate as an institution, seemingly under the belief that the offenses of Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau are not a mere result of personal failings, but also the fruit of an ultimately unaccountable part of representative government. If Harper is to save his own dérrière, he needs to shift things back onto not just the senators in question — whose status as defenceless political piñatas seems to be coming to a close — but to the whole thing.

This is why I think Harper should call a snap election, with the promise to hold a Canada-wide referendum on Senate abolition, if reelected. (I write this as someone who, in principle, opposes the idea of getting rid of the Senate, largely on the ground that whatever would remain of a check on the largely-executive-controlled legislature would be represented solely by the dubious supreme court.) In practice, of course, it would be unlikely that any attempt to alter the upper-chamber, either in reform or removal, would result in anything but a constitutional malaise. Yet notwithstanding the prerogative of provinces to pursue only their own regional interest on the issue, a vote which saw the vast majority of Canadians support abolition would doubtless cause some provinces — save Quebec, of course — to reconsider their absolute and hard-line stance against reform.

Yes, the reference case ruling on the Senate has not been delivered. But, in a way, that’s an advantage in this case. The nebulous legal status of reform procedure would lend credence to the more grassroots-focussed idea of a referendum — think, “While the justices deliberate on the law, we the public will have our say”, or something to this effect. In any case, an election that purports to be focussed on the Senate will move the crosshair lens on Harper himself out of focus, and return the attention to the upper chamber, thereby putting far more political interests in flux than that of the Prime Minister alone.

This move would also catch the Liberals off guard: it is their position that the Senate ought not be reformed toward a more democratic structure, let alone abolished. Trudeau-the-Younger’s reasoning for this is that any reform would decrease the influence of Quebec (in case you were wondering where his priorities rest). It would also disrupt the carefully-calibrated timeline that the Liberals have been following for their resurgence, which presently assumes an election in 2015, not now. The NDP, meanwhile, supports abolition, though this position contradicts that of its Quebec constituents, for whom disproportional senate representation has a greater strategic significance, related to the pursuit of political sovereignty, than that of other reform-opposing provinces. Without a guarantee of maintaining the existing hold on Quebec, the chances of NDP advances are minute.

If played properly, the scandal can actually be used to the Conservatives’ advantage, especially if the Prime Minister could portray the election call as a chance for voters to submit their voice in a debate that is far broader than any one character or action. But if he instead chooses to wait it out, more revelations will doubtless come to light, making the pressure of resignation all the greater. Leaving any moral considerations aside, the Machiavellian solution here is to embrace the scandal, not to run from it, and to send Canadians promptly to the polls.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com