Are there divisons in the Conservative caucus? Not over Senate reform, says Conservative Senator Hugh Segal.
"I'm telling you that when the vote comes in the Senate, the Conservative government caucus will vote as one in favour of the [Senate reform] bill. I'm completely comfortable with that. And none will vote against," Segal insisted, in an interview for host Kathleen Petty's final edition of CBC Radio's The House.
Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal introduced a bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday that would limit Senate terms to nine years. It also proposes a voluntary scheme provinces may use to hold Senate elections.
Last week CBC News reported the Senate reform bill was supposed to be introduced in the Senate itself, and Harper changed the plan out of frustration with his own Senators' concerns.
Segal dismissed the report in his interview for Saturday morning's program.
"I think [making the bill House legislation] was probably a tactical decision made by the prime minister's office so as to make sure that the elected side expresses its view first, which of course adds moral authority," he asserted.
"When things are approved by the House of Commons first with a strong vote, that tends to say to the Senate we have a duty to doff our heads to the democratic will as expressed in that prior House, so I think that's a level of assurance which shows how committed the prime minister is to these reforms."
Conservative dissent 'misunderstood'
Segal's comments appear to paper over cracks in the Conservative caucus made visible to the public last week, when a letter written by Alberta Senator Bert Brown to his caucus colleagues was leaked to the media.
The letter talked about how Uppal was "showered with complaints" from senators in caucus about the nine-year term limit.
"Those of us who came to the Red Chamber were there to get a majority vote for reform," Brown admonished his colleagues. "Every senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be."
Brown is currently Canada's only elected senator. The long-time crusader for Senate reform famously ploughed the words "Triple-E Senate or else" into his neighbour's barley field.
"Triple-E" stands for equal, elected and effective, three things critics and reform advocates have long argued the current Senate is not, and a future reformed Senate must be.
Alberta became the first province to embrace Senate reform and begin to elect its suggested nominees for the Senate after a passionate debate in the late eighties.
Brown was elected to be a Senate nominee for Alberta in 2004, and Harper appointed him when the next vacancy became available for the province in 2007.
"The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper," concluded Brown in his letter.
Segal stopped short of criticizing Brown's letter, which he said was "constructive and helpful."
"He may have been reacting to what he misunderstood as the difference between senators asking questions and senators expressing opposition," Segal suggested.
Former Alberta premier at odds with latest bill
In an interview published in the Edmonton Journal Thursday, former Alberta premier Don Getty, a veteran of past Constitutional talks, expressed skepticism that Harper's current reform plans sufficiently address the most serious issues with the Senate — particularly because the bill to implement term limits and facilitate provincial Senate elections wouldn't change the composition of the Senate to more evenly, or more fairly, redistribute seats.
The current formula gives the Maritimes the same number of seats as the much-larger western provinces. A province like New Brunswick has ten senators, while Alberta or British Columbia have only six. Both Ontario and Quebec each have a Senate contingent the same size as all the western provinces combined.
"If it's not equal, you just make the power base of Ontario and Quebec, with their huge Senate side as well as their House of Commons side, too much," Getty argued.
In his interview with The House, Segal said the legislation was an important first step that could lead to other reforms.
"Once most of the provinces have moved to elect their Senators... that's when the [historic] inequality [between regions] will sink in, and then you can go for the kind of Constitutional amendment to get you towards 'Triple-E,'" Segal suggested. "Without that kind of public awareness, there's no chance premiers would give you that kind of constitutional amendment."
Segal believes a referendum would be valuable to confirm public support for either abolition or reform of the Senate.
"Premiers and prime ministers would be hard pressed not to move [on Senate reform or abolition]," he reasoned, "should that be the public will."
Current premiers weighing in
Several provincial premiers, including Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, have panned Senate reform efforts in favor of abolition.
"If it didn't exist today, would we reinvent it?" Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter asked rhetorically in an interview with Evan Solomon on Monday's edition of Power & Politics on CBC News Network.
Canada's Senate: Should it be abolished? Share your view.
Dexter, like other premiers, isn't impressed by Harper's strategy of changing the Senate through legislation alone.
"If there is a change that affects the manner in which the Constitutionality of the Senate is going to be affected, then that's a question that needs to be discussed with the provinces."
In May, the government of Quebec said it would mount a court challenge to Harper's Senate reform plans, but as yet no legal proceedings have begun.
In Ottawa to meet with Harper on Thursday, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark maintained her preference for Senate abolition, because she thinks provincial premiers do a great job representing their province's interests to the federal government, rendering a second chamber to represent regional concerns redundant.
However, Clark feels that if it can't be abolished, some reforms are necessary.
Clark's government announced earlier this spring it would support a private member's bill in the B.C. legislature to bring in provincial Senate elections.
Speaking to reporters Thursday she now appeared reluctant to proceed with elections alone.
"If we start electing senators and give them legitimacy, will we entrench an unequal Senate that actually works against British Columbia’s interests? It’s a legitimate concern."
Another option she floated Thursday, is for the prime minister to intentionally leave Ontario or Quebec seats vacant, so their Senate numbers are no longer so out of proportion with the seats allocated to Alberta and British Columbia.
It's unclear whether deliberately leaving Senate seats vacant complies with the Constitution.
Clark isn't spoiling for Constitutional negotiations to fix regional representation for the long term. Quite the opposite: she's got other priorities she'd prefer to focus on.
"Senate reform is important, but it isn't as important as creating jobs," Clark said on Power & Politics. "Political geeks love it, but it isn't as important to people as providing for their families."
Segal noted on The House that not only B.C. and Alberta, but also Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have taken steps towards Senate elections in their province. And if Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak is elected in this October's provincial vote, another large province could be on board with the idea of Senate elections.
So while it may seem like there's insufficient appetite for Harper's reforms at the moment, "that balance could shift relatively quickly," Segal concluded.