Conservatives Consulting Supreme Court About Senate Reform

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The federal government will seek clarification from the Supreme Court on its powers to reform or abolish the Senate. (CP)
The federal government will seek clarification from the Supreme Court on its powers to reform or abolish the Senate. (CP)

The federal government will seek clarification from the Supreme Court on its powers to reform or abolish the Senate, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform confirmed Friday afternoon in Ottawa.

Tim Uppal tried to blame the opposition parties for delaying the legislation, which was first introduced in June 2011, but hasn't been debated for nearly a year.

A key piece of the Conservative Party's platform going back to the days of its predecessor, the Reform Party, Senate reform has stalled amid resistance from senators and some of the provinces.

There are also questions about whether the majority of the provinces have to agree to the reform, something required for constitutional change. The federal government maintains such changes are relatively minor and can be done with the approval of Parliament alone.

The government's Senate reform bill, C-7, would limit senators' terms to nine years and allow the provinces to hold elections to choose senators. The Governor General would then, on the advice of the prime minister, appoint senators who had been selected through provincial elections.

The court is being asked whether the Senate Reform Act is constitutional, as well as about the constitutional amending procedure for changes to the net worth and property qualifications for Senate nominees, which were designed at the time of Confederation.

"It is clear that action is needed to compel reform," Uppal said.

"This reference is actually going to move Senate reform forward and at an accelerated pace, and lay the groundwork for further reform as well."

'Ill-conceived'

But it's expected the court will take between 10 months and two years to consider the questions, Senator Claude Carignan said.

Liberal MP Stéphane Dion, who was minister of intergovernmental affairs for seven years, said that argument makes no sense.

"It's completely ridiculous that we go to the Supreme Court to speed up the parliamentary debate. With this government able to rush any bill they want? As they have done through the year?" Dion said.

Dion pointed out a number of problems that have to be tackled for the reform to happen, including a way to resolve disputes between two equal, elected chambers.

"It would create a stalemate like you have in the United States," Dion said.

The biggest issue, he says, is the difficulty in getting the provincial governments to agree to the number of senators allowed for each province.

"If the premier of Quebec, the premier of Alberta, the premier of P.E.I., the premier of Ontario and so on, agree about 'I will give you this many senators, you will take this number of senators,' I'm telling you, in two weeks, we will solve the other problems," Dion said.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen accused the government of stalling the legislation on purpose, saying the Conservatives may just be hitting "the delay button."

"While they talk about Senate reform, they continue to stuff the Senate with every friend and patronage appointment they can find. So they are wanting for credibility on the issue of Senate reform," Cullen said.

The NDP wants the Senate abolished.

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