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Senate reform is possible without all provinces' consent, Harper government says

Senator Mike Duffy arrives on Parliament Hill on June 04, 2013 in Ottawa. Mr. Duffy eventually resigned from the Conservative caucus amid allegations that he made improper housing expense claims.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Harper government believes it can inject more democracy into the Senate without the approval of the provinces – and, conversely, that it can abolish the Red Chamber even if it lacks the unanimous consent of all premiers, Ottawa's new Minister of State for Democratic Reform says.

Pierre Poilievre held a news conference Wednesday as Ottawa prepares for the Supreme Court to consider what degree of independence Parliament possesses when it comes to making changes to the Senate. The government referred the matter to the court in February to get backing for a long-promised overhaul of the Senate – one it argues can be done without reopening the Constitution.

Mr. Poilievre's appearance comes as the Tories try to rebuild their carefully cultivated image as Senate reformers after a string of expense-claim controversies by Conservative appointees to the Red Chamber.

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The minister laid out the six questions the government is asking the Supreme Court to rule on, including whether Parliament by itself can impose term limits on senators, whether Parliament or the provinces can consult the public on recommendations for Senate appointments – such as ballots – and whether Parliament can abolish the Red Chamber without the approval of all provinces.

"The Prime Minister has said since 2006 that the Senate as present is not acceptable. The Senate must either be reformed or, like its provincial counterparts, it must be abolished," Mr. Poilievre said. "This reference to the Supreme Court will give Canadians a series of legal options and maybe even a how-to guide on how to pursue them. And once we hear back from the top court, we can take direction from Canadians on how to do so."

The Supreme Court is expected to consider the matter this fall.

The government argues many of its plans – such as imposing term limits and consulting provinces on appointments – are not fundamental changes that would require provincial consent. Ottawa is also seeking to abolish the requirement that senators hold property of a certain value.

In a legal document filed Wednesday, the government asked the Supreme Court to adopt a flexible approach to determining how its Senate reform plans jibe with the Canadian constitution – just like years ago when it ruled in favour of allowing same-sex marriage.

"Slavish adherence to original intent has been rejected by this court … in, for example, the Same Sex Marriage Reference, where the court held that the understanding of 'marriage' that prevailed in 1867 should not be determinative of our present day understanding," the government argued.

Similarly, "In 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald foresaw an Upper Chamber of prosperous gentlemen of substance in the Upper House," the government said in its legal brief.

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That does not accord "with contemporary expectations of who should sit in the Senate."

A copy of the factum the government has filed with the Supreme Court of Canada is available here. A copy of the factum filed to the Quebec Court of Appeal is available here.

The Senate has morphed into a bad-news story for the Conservatives, a party that came into office championing reform of the chamber but then never managed to achieve the parliamentary consensus it needed to do so.

Calls for reform or abolition of the Senate have resumed in recent months as controversy arose over expense claims by senators.

Two of Mr. Harper's Senate appointees, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, quit the Conservative caucus after their expense claims came under heavy scrutiny. Mr. Harper lost his chief of staff Nigel Wright in May after it was revealed the aide had gifted Mr. Duffy $90,172 to repay his improperly claimed Senate expenses.

The NDP is calling for the Senate to be scrapped and so is Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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