Senate setback: Top court judgment the latest in a series of losses for Harper agenda
Friday’s Supreme Court judgment on Senate reform is the latest setback for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government as it looks to rebound from the Senate expenses scandal and fend off the surging Liberals in next year’s federal election.
Although Harper would no doubt love to turn the page on the Senate scandal and put the issue behind him, he has been dealt a series of blows that have put the brakes on some of his big-ticket agenda items.
Here are some of the most significant setbacks, where the issues stand and what might come next.
The top court ruled today on three issues: whether Parliament has the right to abolish the Senate outright, make the Senate an elected chamber, or give senators fixed term limits.
On elections and setting term limits, the top court ruled that those changes would require constitutional amendments with the consent of seven provinces totalling 50 per cent of Canada’s population. Further, all 10 provinces would have to consent to abolishing the Senate.
Harper said Friday he is “disappointed” with the decision, saying it takes significant reform and abolition “off the table.”
“We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition and no desire of anyone to reopen the constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations,” Harper told a business crowd in Kitchener-Waterloo. “So essentially, this is a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian.”
A new medical marijuana program was to come into effect earlier this month that would allow patients with a prescription to purchase weed from a federally approved list of suppliers. The federal government said the program that allows patients to grow their own pot was subject to abuse, was putting homes at risk of fire and other health hazards, and adversely affecting community safety.
Patients went to court to fight the new program, arguing that marijuana from federal suppliers would be prohibitively expensive, and said the new regime violates their constitutional right to grow their own if they cannot afford the drug from a supplier.
A Federal Court granted the patients an injunction, meaning that they can continue to grow their own pot. Ottawa said it will challenge the ruling, but it could be months before a hearing is scheduled.
Last month, the Supreme Court rejected Harper’s latest appointee to the top court, Marc Nadon, on the grounds that he does not meet the requirements for an appointee from Quebec. Quebec appointees must either come from the Quebec Superior Court, the Quebec Court of Appeal, or must be a current member of the Quebec bar.
Nadon was appointed from the Federal Court of Appeal.
The federal government said it had sought legal advice from former justices and constitutional scholars and none raised a flag about Nadon’s eligibility. After first expressing surprise at the ruling, Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay said they would respect it, noting: “We have many qualified people for this job.”
The government has yet to name a replacement appointee.
In 2008, the federal government brought in mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession as part of its law-and-order agenda. Under the law, someone could go to prison for three years for what could amount to a licence violation.
The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled last November that the law is unconstitutional, saying there is a “cavernous disconnect” between the severity of the offence and the sentence.
"No system of criminal justice that would resort to punishments that 'outrage standards of decency' in the name of furthering the goals of deterrence and denunciation could ever hope to maintain the respect and support of its citizenry," the court ruled.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Crown appeals of two of the Ontario cases that were part of the Court of Appeal ruling.
The Harper government has spent years lobbying U.S. officials on the merits of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project to little avail, as the State Department announced last week that it will give federal agencies further time to review the details before a decision is made.
The $5.4-billion project would move Alberta bitumen down to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. It cannot go ahead without a green light from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Last September, Harper told a New York business crowd that Canada won’t “take no for an answer” on the project, suggesting that if Obama turns down the pipeline, his successor will.
"My view is that you don't take no for an answer," Harper said. "We haven't had that. If we were to get that, that won't be final. This won't be final until it's approved and we will keep pushing forward."
So far, Obama has pushed off giving a no, or a yes.
Fair Elections Act
On Friday, Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, who is tasked with ushering the legislation through Parliament, announced a number of changes to the proposed bill following an outcry from the opposition, scholars and other experts.
Poilievre announced the changes a day after dismissing the criticism of the bill, saying the uproar was loudest inside the Ottawa bubble.
He appeared to be right. An Ipsos Reid poll for CTV News found that only 23 per cent of Canadians are following the debate “closely.” However, a vast majority said they support some of the bill’s more controversial provisions, including the elimination of vouching, which allows one registered voter to vouch for another who does not have adequate ID to prove his or her identity.
One of the proposed changes would allow voters to sign an oath attesting to their place of residence, but they must still show some form of ID that proves their identity.