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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

Appointments give Harper upper hand in Senate-reform battle Add to ...

With seven new senators – all appointed by Stephen Harper last Friday and all reliably Conservative – soon to join the Other Place, we can make this out-on-a-limb prediction: The next senators from Saskatchewan and New Brunswick will be elected.

Last week’s appointments should be sufficient to overcome resistance to the Senate Reform Act from within the Prime Minister’s own Senate caucus, which means the bill will almost certainly become law, probably in the first half of next year.

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It’s a long road for legislation that Mr. Harper has been pushing since he first came to power in 2006. But the end of that road is finally in sight.

The Conservatives thought they would have an easy time with Senate reform once they had their majority government. They hoped that a bill limiting senators to nine-year terms, and allowing provinces to hold senatorial elections – with the Prime Minister promising to respect the outcome of those elections – would be in place by last Christmas.

The Tories’ own ranks proved to be an emerging new threat to the legislation, however. Some of the Conservative senators started having second thoughts about giving up their jobs so quickly, arguing that they’d be forced to leave just as they began to get the hang of things. With the Liberals solidly opposed, it wasn’t clear that the government had a majority for the bill in the Red Chamber.

So the Conservatives decided to introduce Bill C-7, the Senate Reform Act, in the House instead, where it is currently awaiting a vote on Second Reading.

All the Conservative MPs who were to speak to the bill have spoken to it. But the Liberals and NDP appear determined to have every MP contribute to the debate, which is delaying the vote.

The Conservatives do not intend to impose closure on the bill. House Leader Peter Van Loan insists that time allocation was only imposed last year on bills that were crucial priorities and key elements of the Conservatives’ election platform. Besides, bringing the hammer down on something as fundamental as changing the rules of Parliament would look just awful.

Nonetheless, sometime before June the opposition is expected to run out of MPs to throw into this mini-filibuster. Once it passes second reading, the bill will go to committee, and then return to the House for third and final reading.

Perhaps that final vote will come before Christmas; perhaps it will come in Spring 2013. But it will come. Then the legislation will head to the Senate. Thanks to those seven new Tory senators, it is certain to pass there as well.

In the meantime, six senators will retire this year, four of them Conservative and two Liberal, having reached the age limit of 75.

One retiree represents Saskatchewan; the other New Brunswick. Both provinces have committed to holding elections for future senators. The word is that Mr. Harper won’t appoint senators for those two provinces, waiting instead for them to vote a nominee. So we should be welcoming elected senators from the Prairies and the Maritimes in the not-too-distant future.

The Quebec government is vowing to challenge the Senate Reform Act in court. As the Supreme Court’s December ruling on a proposed national securities regulator revealed, Tory assumptions that their agenda is judicially bullet-proof may prove to be premature.

But barring a judicial veto, as of next year, senators will have only nine-year lives, and provinces that want to can begin holding senatorial elections as vacancies crop up.

By the next election in 2015, we may already have a sense of whether the whole thing was a good idea.



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