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Harper spokesman rejects criticism of Senate appointments

Nova Soctia Premier Darrell Dexter and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall are shown in a photo combination

The Canadian Press

The Harper government is brushing off complaints over the appointment of failed Conservative candidates to the Senate, calling on angry premiers to organize their own elections instead of criticizing the Prime Minister's picks.

Stephen Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, rejected attacks by the premiers of Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, who called the controversial appointments a setback for Senate reform. The surprise nominations on Wednesday sparked criticism across the country, given Mr. Harper's past promises to avoid patronage appointments to the Senate as he worked toward making it an elected body.

Mr. Soudas said the three Senate appointments were needed to ensure the passage of legislation setting eight-year term limits on Senate appointments and allowing the provinces to organize elections to select their representatives in the Red Chamber.

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With a Conservative majority in both chambers of Parliament, the government will move on Senate reform "as quickly as possible" with the help of senators Larry Smith, Josée Verner and Fabian Manning, Mr. Soudas said. The three nominations give the Conservative caucus 55 seats in the 105-seat chamber.

"[The appointments were]done on the same day as the cabinet shuffle to show that our commitment on reforming the Senate is stronger than ever," Mr. Soudas said.

According to parliamentary researchers, this is the first time since the 19th century an ex-senator has been reappointed after losing an election. Ms. Verner, who failed to keep her seat in the House on May 2, will nonetheless go back to Parliament alongside Mr. Smith and Mr. Manning as a senator.

The Harper government is facing much criticism, with NDP Leader Jack Layton calling the appointments a "slap in the face of the Canadian voters."

Nova Scotia's NDP Premier, Darrell Dexter, said on Thursday that they caused "considerable damage" to Mr. Harper's agenda. Mr. Dexter said appointing defeated candidates has "no justification," arguing that Mr. Smith and Mr. Manning had used their previous positions in the Senate to benefit their campaigns.

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan's Brad Wall said the appointments could stall Senate reform, and even raise doubts over the need for the Upper Chamber.

"I think it takes away momentum for change at the provincial level," Mr. Wall said.

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But the director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office said the two premiers do not have to wait for the federal legislation to enable Senate elections, and can go ahead in their provinces if they wish.

"Both of these provinces have yet to move on setting elections and consulting the population for the appointment of senators," Mr. Soudas said. "We encourage them to do that so that if there are any vacancies from Nova Scotia or from Saskatchewan, obviously .... we would appoint those chosen by the population."

Conservative Senator Bert Brown, who was appointed in 2007 after winning an election in Alberta, said the three appointments were important because they give the Tories enough support in the Senate to start enacting reforms.

"The only way you can win in the Senate is if you have the votes," Mr. Brown said.

On election night on May 2, when Mr. Smith was asked if he would be returning to the Senate, he said: "I have no place there and I have no expectation of returning there."

In a radio interview in Montreal on Wednesday, however, Mr. Smith said he accepted Mr. Harper's invitation to "serve the public."

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While he complained last year that he took a drop in salary to work in the Senate, he said this week that those comments showed a "lack of sensitivity." Mr. Smith added that he looks forward to working with the Conservative caucus in Quebec, including the four ministers from the province who will "need some support."

With a report from the Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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