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If at first you don't succeed: Harper tries again to impose Senate term limits

OTTAWA - When it comes to Senate reform, the Harper government is applying the old adage: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

OTTAWA - When it comes to Senate reform, the Harper government is applying the old adage: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

The government reintroduced for the third time Thursday legislation that would force senators to retire after serving a single, non-renewable term of eight years.

And it intends to reintroduce shortly legislation that would create a process to elect senators.

"Well, here we go again," said Marjory LeBreton, the government's leader in the Senate.

Two previous attempts to impose term limits went nowhere amid objections from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, which argued that Senate reforms require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces.

Quebec has been the most adamantly opposed, threatening to take the federal government to court if it persists in trying to unilaterally reform the upper chamber.

Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic renewal, said legal and constitutional experts have assured the government it can act alone on term limits. He dismissed suggestions that the matter be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, as Liberal senators have demanded in the past before allowing the matter to even be put to a vote.

"This is a federal area of jurisdiction," Fletcher said.

"This government has been elected several times with this in the platform. We have a mandate from the Canadian people to pursue it and that is exactly what we're doing."

However, Conservative Senator Michel Rivard, who joined LeBreton and Fletcher on the podium to announce the term limit bill, suggested the coming bill on election of senators will require a constitutional amendment and the consent of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.

He twice made that point during the news conference and repeated it in an interview later.

"It's my point of view, if we read the law, we cannot change that without opening (the Constitution) and everybody knows that now with the (economic) crisis is not the time to talk about constitutional proposals, change or anything like that," said Rivard, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister.

Fletcher later said Rivard wasn't briefed on the coming Senate election bill and may be confused about what the government plans to propose. While direct election of senators would require an amendment as Rivard suggested, Fletcher said the government will not go that route.

Rather, as it's done twice before, the government will propose that voters be "consulted" about Senate nominees, with the winners to be appointed by the prime minister. Because the prime minister would technically retain his power to appoint senators, the government maintains there's no need for a constitutional amendment or provincial consent.

"We're taking steps that are within the constitutional ability of the government, the federal government alone," Fletcher said in an interview.

LeBreton agreed: "Everything that we're doing is all done within the realm of the possibility of what we can do without opening the Constitution."

However, Quebec and several other provinces are adamant that provincial approval is necessary to implement any change to the manner in which senators are chosen, as well as to the length of their terms.

Liberal senators, who dominate the upper house, shelved the term limit bill in its first incarnation, demanding that the government seek advice from the Supreme Court about its constitutionality.

They also proposed that the limit should be extended to 12 to 15 years, arguing that an eight-year limit meant a two-term prime minister could theoretically appoint every member of the 105-seat chamber.

LeBreton noted that with recent Tory appointments and the raft of retirements coming up, the makeup of the Senate has changed since the term limit bill was first proposed. Indeed, Conservatives will hold a majority in the chamber by the end of the year.

But even should the bill make it through the Senate, there's no guarantee the minority Conservatives can get it through the House of Commons. Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois MPs have been lukewarm, even hostile to the Senate reform agenda.

Currently, senators serve to age 75. Since a senator must be at least 30 when appointed, terms can be as long as 45 years. The new bill would force them to leave after eight years or at age 75, whichever comes first.

The term limit would apply retroactively to all senators appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper since last October.

 
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