Stephen Harper calls on Senate to reform itself
Prime minister speaks to estimated 3,000 Conservative delegates
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hammered on small-c conservative values in his speech Friday night, speaking to party delegates in Calgary about cutting taxes and the importance of families.
But he couldn't make a speech without addressing the nearly year-long scandal in the Senate, an issue that opposition parties have focused on in question period over the past two weeks.
Harper said the party brought in the federal Accountability Act, which he referred to as the toughest piece of federal ethics legislation in Canadian history.
He blamed the courts for blocking Senate reform legislation, despite asking the Supreme Court less than a year ago — and seven years into his tenure — to advise on what changes Parliament can make without the consent of the provinces.
"So, friends, it is time for the Senate to show it can reform itself. The vast majority of Conservative senators want to do this," Harper said.
The senators under fire, Harper said, collected hundreds of thousands of dollars through questionable expense claims.
He didn't name them, but senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, as well as former senator Mac Harb, are being investigated by the RCMP over their expenses.
"This was done knowingly, or without regard to the rules, over a long period," Harper said.
"And, friends, while we do not know whether these actions were criminal, that is not relevant. In private life, you would be fired for doing anything resembling this."
'We will do the right thing'
"We will do the right thing," he said.
Harper focused on what the party's accomplished while in government, reminding Conservative members of their fiscally responsible roots at a time when senators he appointed are under fire over their spending.
First touching on the party's cut to the GST, Harper also mentioned killing the gun registry, ending the Wheat Board monopoly and establishing the universal child-care benefit.
"We took money out of the hands of the lobbyists, academics and bureaucrats, and we gave it to the real childcare experts — their names are Mom and Dad," Harper said.
Harper, however, didn't deal directly with the cheque his former chief of staff Nigel Wright wrote to cover Duffy's $90,000 in expenses, nor did he mention the alleged involvement by several of his staff in arranging the deal. But he did say that "actions have consequences, whether you are a parliamentarian or a staff member."
Roy and Isabel Cummings praised Harper's speech as they headed toward the after-party, where Harper played piano and sang with a band.
"It's nice how he's laid out the things that he still wants to do. He's a man that has two feet on the ground. I think Canadians appreciate that, those who are thinking and like to vote," Isabel Cummings said.
"We have, as Conservatives, been trying to reimagine the Senate in the first place," she added.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau called the speech a dud.
"I thought that Canadians tonight expected from Stephen Harper, really, the speech of a lifetime," Garneau said.
"He did not for one second admit that he had some responsibility to bear for what has happened — not only did he hire Wright and Wallin and Brazeau and Duffy, he has changed his story many, many times."
NDP caucus chair Peter Julian said many Canadians are looking for answers to questions about how his office handled Duffy's questionable spending.
"He's not going to respond, he's not going to answer these questions and that makes it a bigger and bigger crisis … Mr. Harper, instead of showing leadership in responding and coming clean, seems to want to turn the page in a rather desperate and awkward and sad way."
A poll released Friday morning suggests Canadians are now judging Harper more on his handling of the Senate controversy than on how he handles the economy.
Conservative officials hoped the speech would fire up party members and put them in a celebratory mood when they were reminded of the measures called for by conservatives that Harper has been able to deliver.