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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark waves while being recognized by the Speaker in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 23, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark waves while being recognized by the Speaker in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 23, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Clark pitches plan for Senate reform Add to ...

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is making a new pitch for Senate reform, saying she will accept the Prime Minister's vision of an elected Senate only if British Columbia's representation in the Red Chamber is improved.

The rookie Premier, in Ottawa on Thursday for her second meeting with Stephen Harper, advanced two proposals for Senate reform in a single day.

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In the morning, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Clark said she wants as many as 10 more senators for her province to reflect its growing economic muscle.

"Maybe they could add seven or 10 senators for British Columbia without having to change the Constitution," she said. There are currently six B.C senators and six each from the three other Western provinces. "Twenty-four senators for the entire Western Canada? The economic engine for our country?" she scoffed. "To entrench an institution where we will forever be vastly underrepresented just doesn't make any sense."

But after spending nearly an hour meeting with the Prime Minister - who is pushing a reform package that includes an elected Senate and term limits - Ms. Clark floated another concept.

"I've started a conversation with the Prime Minister while I was in Ottawa about considering limiting the number of senators who would come from the regions that are currently overrepresented. Because it wouldn't require a constitutional change," she told reporters.

"What they could do is put a cap on the number of senators, for example, from Ontario and Quebec so that instead of appointing the full complement of 24, just appoint 16 and leave the rest empty and at the same time appoint the full complement of senators from British Columbia and the Western provinces so we could have a more equal and representative Senate."

Andrew Heard, a constitutional expert from Simon Fraser University, said Ms. Clark's proposal to add Senate seats could not be executed without amending the Constitution.

Boosting B.C.'s influence in the Senate by freezing appointments in other regions could fly without ripping open a constitutional debate, he said, but it is a tactic that would be poorly received in other parts of the country. "In theory, the prime minister could not appoint senators in some provinces without opening up the Constitution, but in practice it would lead to the barricades."

He said Ms. Clark needs better advice on the Constitution before she takes on Senate reform.

"When a premier goes to Ottawa they should have some workable suggestions that are in keeping with the established constitutional provisions," he said. "It doesn't look good for British Columbia if our Premier proposes something that is quite clearly unconstitutional."

Gerald Baier, assistant professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, agreed that Ms. Clark's first proposal would require a constitutional amendment. Her second proposal of the day might conceivably proceed without any formal change to the Constitution, he said.

That's because there is nothing in the Constitution that tells the prime minister when a Senate vacancy must be filled. In theory, vacancies could be left perpetually empty, fulfilling the letter, if not the spirit, of constitutional requirements.

But Prof. Baier said other provinces might still launch a constitutional challenge, arguing that the federal government was violating an unwritten constitutional convention.

Earlier this week, the Harper government introduced legislation calling for nine-year term limits for senators - they can currently sit until age 75 - and for the provinces to elect a roster of potential senators. Quebec is planning to fight the bill and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, who favours abolition, has also rejected the Prime Minister's plan.

Earlier this month, Ms. Clark looked like she was heading towards supporting Mr. Harper's position. She supported a private member's bill, put forward by her own parliamentary secretary, that would allow British Columbians to nominate their choices for senators from B.C.

Ms. Clark said she is now concerned that electing senators without additional reform would be a bad idea. "If we start electing senators and give them legitimacy, will we entrench an unequal Senate that actually works against British Columbia's interests? It's a legitimate concern."

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