Monday, May 30, 2011

Senate Reform - After 5 Years It's Back To Square One

Yes, it was 5 years ago today when Stephen Harper's government made its first attempt to reform the Senate. That attempt failed, just like all those that followed. Later on, facing constant obstruction from the 3:1 Liberal majority and the prospective of the opposition seizing power and perpetuating their dominance over the Red Chamber, Harper had to fill all the vacant seats by appointment.

Senate reform was by no means a hot topic during the last Parliament, as the nation teetered on the verge of a snap election. So now, 5 years later, we're back to square one. But it's certainly not the Conservative government to blame.
During the five years that Harper headed a minority government, Parliament resisted Senate reform, though everyone more or less agreed that some sort of reform was needed.

The way the Senate works is that the party in power appoints mostly its supporters to the Senate. Minority governments give token representation to outsiders, but generally it's a patronage appointment. That's just the way it is.

Of course, it shouldn't be that way.
Since 1970, there have been more than two dozen efforts in Parliament to reform the Senate - all of which have failed. Harper wants an eight-year term for Senators, but no dice. A Senator is there until age 75, unless he/she commits some breach that gets him bounced.

To blame Harper for appointing defeated MPs or hacks to the Senate when his efforts for reform have been rejected, is silly, misguided and thoughtless.
Stephen Harper did his best trying to avoid appointing new Senators for almost three years. How did the opposition respond? By introducing a Senate bill mandating timely appointments of new Senators. By considering to demand new Senate appointments directly from the Governor General. By threatening a constitutional challenge if there would be no other way to block the consultative Senate election bill... So they better stop complaining about Harper's appointments. (Especially Quebecers!) They got exactly what they kept asking for.

Now, however, once the Conservatives have a solid majority in both houses, we can look forward for the Senate reform to finally move forward.
Harper is using his first majority to mollify his political base by moving swiftly with legislation to dilute widespread criticism of delays on Senate reform.
Harper has promised to set term limits for senators - anywhere between eight and 12 years - and a contentious change that would allow the appointment of elected provincial nominees.

Constitutional watchers say it's unlikely the government would be hauled before a judge by setting terms, but could face a Supreme Court challenge over elections because provinces could argue that, while it would follow the letter of the law, it would not follow the spirit.
First - let's bring in term limits and then... Hopefully we can eventually move to the Australian Triple E Senate model. And if all those who favor the status-quo keep trying to block the reform - how about putting the question to a referendum? It will pass by a 2:1 margin, resolving the dispute once and for all.

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