In politics substance trumps scandal. Leading up to the 1988 federal election, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were going down to defeat, thanks to a panoply of petty scandals attributable to Mulroney’s taste for high living. It was going to be a death by a thousand cuts, except that a miracle came along and saved him from himself: the then-Liberal dominated Senate gave Mulroney what turned out to be a gift. They rejected his Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, telling him that the issue was so important that Parliamentary assent was insufficient. Something this momentous needed to be ratified by the electorate. Therefore, Mulroney campaigned on free trade in 1988.
The result: the 1988 Canadian federal election was the most issue-centered election in Canadian history. Mulroney’s PC’s were in favour of free trade with the US; the John Turner Liberals were against. In the ensuing debate, all of Mulroney’s petty infractions were forgotten. Compared to free trade, they were seen to be small-ball crap. Best of all, conservative principled triumphed in the end. Mulroney was re-elected – all thanks to the Liberal Senators who only wanted to throw a spanner in his works!
Stephen Harper has to do the same thing. He needs to fight tooth-and-nail for either the reform or abolition of the Senate. If he succeeds in turning the issue into a debate about fundamental issues of governance, the inflated expense accounts of a handful of Senators will be seen for what it is: penny-ante politics. If Harper makes Senate reform a key issue in the next election, he can triumph in 2015 – just like Mulroney in 1988.
The best part is that Justin Trudeau is on the wrong side of Senate reform. He’s against it – which makes him implicitly the champion of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and (let’s not forget) Mac Harb.