It must have seemed like the clap of doom. Amid rising public anger about the Senate and an embarrassing fraud scandal, the Harper government moved in 2011 to reform it.
It's not hard to find the reasons why the government felt compelled to move.
In March of 2011, then-Liberal Senator Raymond Lavigne was convicted in a fraudulent scheme to obtain at least $10,000 in improper travel claims and hundreds of hours of free labour to clean up one of his properties.
The public wanted action to clean up the Senate.
In the end, Uppal's proposal came to nothing — but it evidently sent a wave of dismay through the Red Chamber.
For one thing, senators appointed after 2008 would have been limited to one nine-year term. For another, the prime minister would have to consider nominees selected by elections at the provincial or territorial level.
Elections? But that meant an aspiring senator might lose! Whatever happened to the cushy, lifelong gig that had always made a Senate appointment so desirable?
The calendar of one new senator — Mike Duffy — reveals the unease among his colleagues about this reckless talk of reform. (The diary became evidence at his fraud and breach of trust trial earlier this week.)
In fact, the anger had been brewing for a year.
An entry in Duffy's diary for May 30, 2010, reflects the gathering storm:
"Informal Senate caucus — angry debate over Senate reform."
Honourable senators were not taking it well.
Then, it got worse. At the time of Uppal's reform plan, the auditor general was threatening to audit the Senate.
This was too much. The Conservative leadership in the Senate — notably Senator David Tkachuk, then the chair of the powerful Board of Internal Economy — seems to have circled the wagons.
Duffy's entry for June 22, 2011, records this:
"Senate sits. David Tkachuk warns about complaints against Senate administration in intvw with Auditor General - message is: 'Don't rock the boat!'"
Duffy's next calendar entry says he met in the cabinet room with then-Conservative leader in the Senate Marjory LeBreton, Uppal, Tkachuk, and two top aides from the prime minister's office — Ray Novak and Derek Vanstone — "re Senate Tory caucus and Senate reform."
There's no record of how that meeting went.
'Not on priority list'
Duffy's diary for June 15 makes reference to a letter from reformist Alberta Senator Bert Brown, later leaked to the media, that said Uppal was "showered with complaints" from senators in caucus about the nine-year term limit.
"Sen. Bert Brown sends e-mail to Senators urging us to be loyal to PMSG [sic] on Senate reform (Sends it to Libs by mistake - they release it to media)"
The Saturday after that media leak, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal went on CBC Radio's The House to paper over the caucus cracks, saying all Tory senators would be voting in favour of Uppal's bill out of their "duty to doff our heads to the democratic will as expressed in that prior House."
Some fears may have diminished that fall. Note Sept. 27's diary entry:
"Senate Caucus — Marj LeBreton — Senate reform is NOT on govt legislative priority list"
And then this entry, the next spring (May 15, 2012) — blacked out by Duffy, but still visible under the marker:
"Senate Caucus - General unhappiness with the way govt can't get story out to media; Govt adding non-derogation clause to Senate Ethics bill @ MD's suggestion; Senate reform on the back burner, Bert Brown objects"
In the end, the Supreme Court put the kibosh on the government's reform plans.
Once again, Canadians seemed to be stuck with the status quo: you can't reform the Senate because you can't get the provinces to agree.
Now, if Duffy's defence counsel, Donald Bayne, is to be believed, we are stuck with a Senate where even the most blatantly partisan activities by senators are to be funded by the taxpayer. In effect, anything goes.
We'll see if the judge buys that. If he does, Duffy may not be alone if he writes in his diary, "Phew!"