Senate reform: What's Stephen Harper's plan?
A view of the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 13, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Amy Husser, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, May 21, 2013 7:12PM EDT
The latest Senate scandal involving improper expenses is leading to revived calls for reform -- an issue that has been touted for the better part of the last decade.
“As Canadians know, I did not get into politics to defend the Senate,” Stephen Harper said Tuesday morning, speaking ahead of a Conservative caucus meeting. “And it was this party that put Senate reform on the agenda.”
Harper first introduced a proposal to reform the Senate in 2006, when the Conservatives came to power. The legislation ultimately died in the Senate when the then-Liberal-dominated chamber insisted on longer term lengths and the incorporation of a constitutional change, which requires co-operation with the provinces.
Then, during the two-month break that followed Harper’s contentious decision to prorogue Parliament in late 2009, the prime minister appointed five Senators, shifting the balance of power in the Senate. The Conservatives had now appointed 51 Tory senators to the Liberals’ 49.
After the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives reintroduced the legislation in June of that year. Bill C-7 -- also known as the Senate Reform Act -- would limit Senators to a nine-year term and would allow the provinces to hold elections to choose their representatives.
The bill has yet to pass second reading and hasn’t been debated in more than 15 months.
With questions still circling around whether a constitutional change is required (as opposed to it being ushered via parliamentary vote alone), the federal government earlier this year asked the country’s top court to weigh in on the issue.
Specifically, the Supreme Court of Canada is looking at the constitutional requirements for five possible options for Senate reform:
- Fixed-term Senate appointments
- Repealing the property qualifications required to become a senator
- A system in which the federal government consults the provinces, but still appoints senators at a national level
- A system in which the provinces choose their own senators
- Abolishing the Senate altogether
A SCOC decision is expected in November.
Meanwhile, the Quebec Court of Appeal is also looking at the constitutionality of the Conservatives’ bill on the provincial government’s request. Ottawa had filed a request to have that review process stopped, but it was rejected in March.
The Quebec hearings could be held as early as September, meaning a Quebec judgment could be reached before the Supreme Court weighs in -- something the Harper government would like to avoid.
Beyond the lack of accountability for appointed members, one major argument for Senate reform has been an East Coast bias: the Atlantic provinces hold 30 of the Senate seats compared to Western Canada’s 24 – something critics suggest is unbalanced, based on shifting population demographics as the West booms and the East Coast sees its population stagnating.
Alberta and British Columbia already hold non-binding Senate elections, sending a list of names to Ottawa for consideration. Harper’s most recent appointment, Scott Tannas, came from one of those lists. He was appointed in March.