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Harper's majority can't guarantee Senate reform

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 21, 2011.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying again to pass Senate reform legislation, this time with dramatically improved odds of success thanks to Conservative majorities in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

Legislation to create nine-year term limits and encourage provinces to hold Senate elections should enjoy smooth sailing in Parliament this fall. Yet many hurdles remain, given fierce opposition from some provinces and the fact that the proposed law could ultimately land before the Supreme Court of Canada.


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The Conservative Senate Reform Act combines two measures that previously were in separate bills: elections and term limits. The Constitution says it is the governor-general (acting on the advice of the prime minister) who is responsible for summoning a "fit and qualified person" to fill a Senate vacancy. The government wants to change this and appoint senators who win provincial elections. Mr. Harper did just that in 2007 when he named Alberta farmer Bert Brown to the Senate.

The case of Mr. Brown – a dedicated Senate reform advocate – shows an elected Senate is possible. The fact that no other province has yet followed suit shows why it remains a long way off. Still, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced this month that her province is moving toward Senate elections. Saskatchewan also supports the idea.

NDP Leader Jack Layton warns the law will create a half-elected "monster" that will continue to cost taxpayers nearly $100-million a year.

Term limits

In a slight change from previous versions, the government's latest Senate reform legislation calls for non-renewable terms of nine, rather than eight, years. Senators appointed before Oct. 14, 2008 – including Mr. Brown – would not be affected.

Changing the Constitution, which lays out the rules governing the Senate, requires the support of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. But the government argues a constitutional amendment isn't necessary. As evidence, it points to a 1965 change, approved by Parliament, requiring senators to retire at age 75, where previously they had served for life.

But by combining term limits with elections – a much more fundamental change – Mr. Harper has ensured that the entire package will ultimately be dismissed in court, says Liberal Leader Bob Rae.

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"I find it strange that he would think electing six senators from Alberta when there are 24 from Ontario is some sort of democratic breakthrough. To me, it's all nonsensical," he said. "It's an incredible waste of Parliament's time to go through all of this and then find that none of it is constitutional."

Conservative politics

Not all Conservative senators are on board with the Prime Minister's plan. Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, appointed by prime minister Brian Mulroney, told The Globe and Mail that an elected Senate would create a "highly political chamber" that is "not needed."

As controversial as the latest Senate reform package is, the bill is only a small step toward the "Triple E" Senate plans that were at the core of the Western-based Reform Party's calls for an elected, equal and effective Senate.

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning isn't complaining, though. He says a Senate that gives equal seats to every province won't happen until Canada re-opens the Constitution. In the interim, he said an elected Senate will at least make the body more effective.

"This is a one-and-a-half 'e,' but it's a good step," he said in an interview. Mr. Manning rejects calls to abolish the Senate, arguing that Canada's size requires a body that reflects its regional makeup.

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"We're the second largest country by land mass on the face of the Earth with a very unevenly distributed population," he said. "If you want a formula for national disunity, having a single federal chamber would be a big step toward that and I think people will figure that out."

With a report from Jane Taber

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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