The Conservative government is proposing major changes to the Canadian Senate, and on Friday the Supreme Court of Canada will rule on whether the changes can go ahead. At the heart of the historic case is the question of whether a simple majority vote in Parliament is enough to alter Canada’s basic structures of government.
Here is a reader’s guide to the key changes proposed by the Harper government:
Hold non-binding elections
Senators have always been appointed by the prime minister. Under a proposed law, the federal government would ask the provinces to hold elections, as a means of making the Senate more relevant. The election of senators is important to the Conservatives’ political base because it would strengthen the voice of the regions. “Canada needs an upper house with democratic legitimacy,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper says. The issue has become more pressing because of an expenses scandal involving, paradoxically, three Harper appointees to the Senate.
Adopt term limits of nine years
Term limits are important for the renewal and vitality of the Senate, the government says. Senators may sit until 75 under current rules, but on average they sit only for 11.3 years, according to research done by McGill political scientist Christopher Manfredi and cited by Ottawa as evidence it is not changing an essential feature of the Senate.
End the $4,000 property requirement for senators
The requirement is inconsistent with modern democratic ideals, the government says. “Property qualifications are not a reliable indicator of the quality or character of a person, nor do they insure independence of thought.” Referring to the wishes of Canada’s founding fathers in terms more common in the United States, it said “slavish adherence to original intent” should be rejected by the Supreme Court.
Abolish the Senate
Mr. Harper has said that if he can’t change the Senate, he would like to abolish it – with the agreement of seven provinces that have at least 50 per cent of the country’s population.
What the Canadian Constitution says
Any change to the powers of the Senate or the means of selecting senators needs the approval of at least seven provinces with at least 50 per cent of the country’s population. (Mr. Harper’s reply: Elections would not change the means of selection because he would still have discretion not to appoint the elected.) Abolition is not expressly mentioned.
What the provinces say
Most say the so-called 7/50 formula for amending the Constitution would be required for any fundamental change to the Senate. “The design of the Senate is an integral part of the Confederation bargain,” Ontario says. Quebec calls the Senate part of the “covenant of Confederation.” Most say abolition would require unanimous approval of the provinces.
How judges responded at the hearing in November
“If the purpose is democratizing, how is it the Prime Minister wouldn’t feel obliged to appoint the winner?” Justice Marshall Rothstein of Manitoba asked. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said the key question is whether an election list would have an enduring effect on what the Senate is and how it functions. Some judges wondered if Canada could become a dictatorship with the approval of barely half of the population. “Your position is that we could abolish both the Senate and the House of Commons” under the 7/50 formula, Justice Thomas Cromwell of Nova Scotia said to a lawyer representing British Columbia. “Exactly,” she replied.
What the Senate is
Canada’s chamber of “sober second thought” was designed to give the country’s regions roughly equal representation, to counterbalance the big provinces’ strength of numbers in the House of Commons.