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Will the Senate become Harper's chamber of horrors?

Workers clean the Senate chamber in Ottawa on Jan. 27, 2011.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper's point man on Senate reform, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal, is getting it from all sides now - the opposition and even his own Tory colleagues.

The push back is coming not only from NDP critic David Christopherson but also long-time Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin. He is considered to be one of the dissenters, refusing to allow smooth passage of Mr. Harper's planned reforms.

Both Mr. Nolin and Mr. Christopherson argue there needs to be a larger debate - involving all Canadians - over this issue. There is no quick fix, they say, and reforms should not be rushed.

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In the Commons Monday, Mr. Christopherson went after Mr. Uppal, criticizing the government for being "all over the map" with its message. He called it confused and noted the Prime Minister "cannot even get his own senators on side with his plan."

Mr. Christopherson called for a "straight up" referendum asking Canadians: "Do they support abolishing the Senate, yes or no?"

But Mr. Uppal dismissed the notion, arguing that "Senate reform is the best option to address Canadians' concerns about senators serving terms up to 45 years without a democratic mandate."

He added: "We are committed to reform the Senate so that it better reflects the values of Canada and Canadians in the 21st century."

The Conservative bill is expected to be introduced this week. Before it is, however, Mr. Nolin has some things to say about the proposed reforms.

Appointed to the Red Chamber in 1993 by Brian Mulroney, the senator is in no way beholden to Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister's own appointees all agreed to his reforms - an elected Senate and terms limits of eight to nine years - when they accepted their seats.

Mr. Nolin will not discuss what took place in the Senate caucus last week when Mr. Uppal was given a hard time as he outlined the reforms. However, he said he has been in no way pressured or lobbied by the Conservative leadership to bow to Mr. Harper's plan.

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Rather, the senator is quite confident he will not be touched by any of the Prime Minister's reforms. He is to sit until he turns 75 in 2025, giving him 28 years in the Red Chamber - the only limit he agreed to.

And in an interview with The Globe this week, Mr. Nolin suggested all senators appointed before Mr. Harper took office will have their terms grandfathered and so will not affected by term limits.

He argued the Senate is part of our parliamentary system, with roots that go back through Canada's history with Britain. "Whoever is trying to change this order of things is not respecting the fundamental parliamentary system," he said.

He believes elected senators would create a "highly political chamber ... which is not needed." In addition, he worries there would be even more politicization if senators were elected on provincial party tickets.

As for term limits, he thinks the eight-year proposal is too short and would affect the independence of the Red Chamber. "I think that it's important that you are not performing in the Senate to please someone or to keep your job."

He said he is not angry about Mr. Harper's efforts to reform the Senate. Rather, he is "quite excited about being part of that discussion."

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However, he senses an "appetite" across the country for debate about the Red Chamber's future. "I hope we will be able to secure a discussion across the country ... to bring the discussion to Canada," he said.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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