Prime Minister Stephen Harper will pad the five vacancies in the Senate today with Conservative appointees, tilting the balance of power towards his party and gaining an upper hand in upcoming legislative battles.
Given that Parliament is prorogued, Senate committees will have to be reconfigured at the start of the new session in March, at which point the Tories will have more seats and be more likely to win key votes.
Filling two empty seats in Ontario and individual vacancies in Quebec, Newfoundland and New Brunswick will give Mr. Harper 51 Conservative senators to the Liberals' 49. Overall, the Conservatives will be two seats away from a straight majority in the 105-seat Senate. They will be able to count at times on the votes of the five senators who are either independent or members of the Progressive Conservative caucus.
One nominee is expected to be Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, an advocate of victims' rights in Quebec who lost one daughter to murder and another to a car accident. One source said last night that Mr. Harper has discussed a nomination with Ontario Progressive Conservative veteran MPP Robert Runciman. But an official in the Ontario party said the provincial Tories cannot spare Mr. Runciman.
"I'm not sure with the Liberals being as weak as they are, a by-election in mid-swing and [PC Leader Tim]Hudak having two members suspended from the legislature for an indefinite time that Hudak can afford to lose another caucus member," said the official.
There was also continued talk last night that either former Conservative minister Loyola Hearn or Loyola Sullivan, a former provincial minister, would be appointed from Newfoundland.
The Liberals played down the significance of the new appointments - and made nice with the five senators who are neither Liberal nor Tory.
"Let's remember one thing, the Conservatives will have the plurality, not the majority," Liberal senator Jim Munson said. "It's the independent senators who will hold the balance of power and we should respect that balance of power."
While the Conservatives are making gains in Parliament, they will also have to live up to the expectations for change that Mr. Harper has created with his frequent attacks on the unelected chamber and its many partisan members.
"Mr. Harper is on a long backslide on his promise to reform the Senate," said NDP MP David Christopherson. "He's on the verge of a majority in the Senate, no one believes that he'll want to reform or abolish it. It will be the final nail in the coffin of the faux populism that brought Stephen Harper and the Reform Party to Ottawa in the first place," he said.
Government insiders have said a key qualification in this round of appointments will be experience in a legislature. Although senators are often chosen from other fields - former NHL coach Jacques Demers went in with the last batch - the Conservative leadership believes it needs to shore up legislative experience to help drive government bills through the Senate.
In particular, the government has said it needs the extra muscle in the Senate to push through its promised reforms of the Red Chamber, including eight-year term limits and setting up a system in which senators are elected in provincial ballots.
Roger Gibbins, president of think tank Canada West Foundation, said the third major round of Senate appointments is not likely to rankle Conservative supporters, but added that Mr. Harper's reforms will have to be more than just tinkering.
"It's becoming increasingly unclear just what the longer term vision of the Prime Minister is in terms of Senate reform," Mr. Gibbins said. "People approve of the tactics, but they're not quite sure any more what the strategy and what the goal is."
Mr. Boisvenu has spoken to a Sherbrooke's La Tribune newspaper about his possible nomination this week.
"I've concluded that if the opportunity presented itself, it would be an opportunity to serve the country and to promote the ideas I've defended in the areas of justice and public security in Canada," he said.