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The Senate chamber sits empty ahead of the return of Parliament on Sept. 16, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
The Senate chamber sits empty ahead of the return of Parliament on Sept. 16, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Is Harper systematically 'snuffing' out democracy in Senate? Add to ...

Opposition MPs are worried their private-member's bills will meet a similar fate to that of Bill C-311, the NDP climate-change legislation that was killed without debate last week by the Conservatives in the Senate - or that the bills will just be allowed to die.

And constitutional experts say any move by Conservative senators to block the advancement of opposition private-member's bills as the Prime Minister Stephen Harper locks his grip on the Red Chamber later this month would be an abuse of government power.

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WHAT'S ON THE TABLE?

In this session, just seven opposition-sponsored private-member's bills have been passed by the House of Commons.

Only one of them - a bill from Conservative MP Joy Smith that imposes minimum sentences on people who engage in human smuggling of people under the age on 18 - has made it through the Senate to become law.

Another bill by Liberal MP Scott Andrews, which would allow the courts to refuse bail in cases where there are concerns about the welfare of the accused's minor children, has been sent to a committee for study. It dovetails with the Conservatives' crime agenda.

One Tory-sponsored bill has not made it past first reading in the Senate but the Conservatives say it is unlikely to face delays.

Meanwhile, three opposition-sponsored bills that do not have the support of the government have gone nowhere since April and early May. And they will die on the order paper unless they are passed into law before a federal election call that could come this spring.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

If senators loyal to the minority government block opposition bills that have been passed in the House of Commons "they are altering the terms of discussion about the upper chamber and its role in a bi-cameral Parliament," said David Smith who teaches politics at the University of Regina.

"It was a widely shared view that the Senate does play this role of examination, investigation and technical expertise and it's not its job, nor has anyone ever said it was its job, to overturn the will of the House of Commons."

Peter Russell, a constitutional expert and former professor at the University of Toronto, said the key issue is not whether the Conservative senators vote against the opposition bills but whether the Senate is prepared to debate bills that the government does not approve.

All legislation, even legislation that the government thinks is bad, should be put before the public in some form of debate, in committee or on the floor of the Senate, he said. "To stifle that is to stifle the really important role that the Senate can play in Canadian parliamentary life - that is to provide a good debate. And I think that's a misuse of the power."

WHAT'S THE PROCESS?

Marjory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, said Tuesday there is no attempt on the part of the Conservatives to block the opposition private-members bills. The fact a vote was called on the climate-change bill was the fault of the Liberals, she said.

"I fully expect the private-member's bills that are here now and that are coming here are going to be treated in the normal way in the Senate," Ms. LeBreton added.

But opposition MPs are not convinced. One of the bills that has been sitting for some time in the Senate was introduced in the Commons by NDP MP Yvon Godin. It would require all Supreme Court judges to be bilingual.

Mr. Godin held a news conference Monday to complain his bill to has languished for 224 days in the Senate without moving to a committee. "What's happening at the Senate is a snuffing of strong and responsible democracy," he charged.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters: "We don't believe an unelected body should in anyway be blocking an elected body."

That was when the Liberals dominated the Red Chamber. Since that time, Mr. Harper has made 34 Senate appointments. The Conservatives now hold 52 seats in the 105-seat Senate and, when Senator Peter Stollery retires on Nov. 29, Mr. Harper will be free to appoint someone who will give him an outright majority.

But the Conservatives have had a de facto majority for several months, in part because they are so much more disciplined than the Liberals and are able to get bodies into seats for critical votes. And their lock on the Senate will only get tighter as more senators retire.

Mr. Godin, whose New Democratic Party has been calling for Senate abolition for many years, said it is doing so "more than ever now... because this is not democracy anymore."

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