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Conservative bill to set term limits, allow elections for senators

A view of the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday Jan. 13, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Conservatives will introduce legislation in June that will bring about the most important changes to the Senate since Confederation, just weeks after they were criticized for appointing three Tory faithful to the Red Chamber.

One new bill will impose term limits on all senators, including those already in the chamber; the other will allow provinces to hold elections for senators whenever seats become available.

The Senate reform legislation will be a major priority for the new majority Conservative government when the 41st Parliament convenes Thursday.

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Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed three candidates who had lost in the May 2 federal election to the Senate, two of whom had been senators before stepping down to run. The Conservatives argue that they needed the three reliably Conservative votes to ensure Senate reform, and with this legislation, they hope to shift the focus away from patronage appointments.

The Harper government has tried to pass similar legislation in the past, without success due to opposition from other parties, particularly the Liberals who dominated the Senate. But now that the government has clear majorities in both Houses of Parliament, the Conservatives are confident they can have the new rules in place by Christmas.

"That's certainly our goal," Senator Marjorie LeBreton confirmed in an interview. Ms. LeBreton is the government leader in the Senate.

The term-limit legislation is expected to have the easiest time of it; representations from provinces and opposition from other parties could slow down the elected-Senate legislation.

Both bills will be introduced in the Senate first, to keep the House of Commons calendar free for passage of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget. Once clear of the Senate, they will proceed to the House, most likely in the autumn.

One unique feature of this Parliament is that any opposition to Senate reform will be led by the Liberals in the Senate, because the NDP has no presence there, and then later by the NDP when the bills make it to the House, where they are the Official Opposition.

During previous debates about imposing term limits and electing senators, some constitutional experts have argued that the legislation would be found unconstitutional if challenged in the courts. But the Conservatives believe that the federal government has the constitutional authority to go this far in changing the rules of the Senate. Currently, senators are appointed by the prime minister of the day, and can serve until the age of 75.

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Many provinces balk at electing senators, who could compete with provincial governments as voices representing regional interests. Quebec especially opposes Senate reform.

The NDP wishes to see the Senate abolished.

But "surely some reform is better than no reform at all," Ms. LeBreton said.

The term-limit legislation, once passed, would set a fixed number of years a senator could sit before retiring. The clock would start ticking on all existing senators once the legislation received royal assent.

The Conservatives originally proposed a term of eight years, but the new legislation could amend that to 10 or 12 years, on the grounds that it would increase senatorial independence, because each senator's term would then be longer than the life of two majority governments.

Many provincial premiers have expressed reservations about or opposition to holding elections for senators unless the federal government pays the cost.

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Ms. LeBreton said that electing senators would cost very little, if those elections were held in conjunction with federal, provincial or municipal votes.

The legislation would not force a prime minister to respect the results of a senatorial election. Mr. Harper has said, however, that he would appoint any senator so chosen.

The expectation is that political parties would nominate candidates who would compete for the Senate seat. In this way the NDP could, if it wanted, finally have senatorial representation.

The legislation would not redress the existing imbalance in the Senate, where the Atlantic provinces are overrepresented at the expense of Western provinces.

Any rebalancing on that front would require amending the Constitution, which is considered a near impossibility.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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