National Affairs column
CALGARY, ALTA. – If one had to pick a lost opportunity arising out of the weekend's Conservative convention, it would be on the Senate front.
For better or for worse, the idea of a national referendum on the abolition of the upper house took on a life of its own in Calgary, but not because Stephen Harper was leading the parade.
As the Conservatives regroup in preparation for the 2015 election there is support for a plebiscite on the Senate in just about every quarter of Harper's fractious party.
Ontario Sen. Hugh Segal - a leading red Tory - has been promoting the idea for almost as long as the party has been in power.
Quebec minister Maxime Bernier - who hails from the libertarian side of the Conservative movement - championed it in Calgary this past weekend and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had come down in favour of getting rid of the Senate early last week.
Putting the issue to voters would dovetail with the populist Reform roots of the party. And the stars are aligned in favour of such of a move in a way that they have not been in the past.
For a long time the cause of a reformed Senate was an iconic one in Western Canada. But that was before Harper's reform attempts wilted on the parliamentary vine and a scandal propelled the institution to the top of the public's hit list.
Quebec has unfinished constitutional business. Harper's government has very little standing in the province. In other circumstances, a move to consult Canadians on the Senate without also addressing the province's demands could be portrayed as a manifestation of Conservative insensitivity.
But the risk is mitigated by the suddenly large New Democrat presence in Quebec. The party has long wanted to get rid of the Senate. If Harper went ahead with a referendum, Thomas Mulcair and his Quebec caucus would provide political cover for the Conservatives.
Few constitutional planks enjoy majority support in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, but these days the abolition of the Senate is one of them.
And yet - even as he has been scrambling to change the conversation on the Senate - Harper passed on the opportunities to put a referendum on its abolition in the Conservative window in last month's throne speech and again on the weekend.
His keynote speech to the convention seemed designed to bolt the door.
Instead of reminding delegates that he had actually asked the Supreme Court for a road map to abolish or reform the Senate, the prime minister claimed - falsely - that the courts stood in the way of dealing with the upper house.
Instead of restating his longstanding commitment to either reform or abolish the Senate, Harper suggested that the upper house would "reform itself."
The prime minister may be keeping his powder dry until the Supreme Court deals with the federal reference. Or deep down he may not really be ready to preside over the outright dissolution of the second house of Parliament.
Either way a recent ruling of the Quebec Court of Appeal has already provided a preview of the response Harper can expect from the Supreme Court.
The court concluded that if he wants to do something about the Senate, the prime minister must head to the constitutional table and secure the agreement of most or all provinces.
Neither a successful referendum in favour of abolition nor a federal law to reform the place will do the trick.
Advocates of a plebiscite argue that a referendum is the only way to generate the momentum required to bring premiers to the table. Public opinion pressure is more likely to prod the provinces into acquiescence than any amount of federal cajoling.
But the odds of success are low and the operation fraught with perils. The history of provincial and federal plebiscites in this country is paved with negative answers.
Given the country's divisive constitutional experience any prime minister would think hard before reopening the file.
And then it may be that the last thing Harper wants is to place the Senate - his Achilles heel - at the centre of the 2015 election. But for whatever reason, the prime minister missed a rendezvous with his party and with many Canadians this past weekend.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.