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Senate security waits for the start of Question Period outside the Senate chamber June 04, 2013 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Senate security waits for the start of Question Period outside the Senate chamber June 04, 2013 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Manitoba seeks restrictions on Ottawa’s power to reform Senate Add to ...

Manitoba is pushing back against the federal government’s hopes for unilateral Senate reform, arguing in a Supreme Court submission that some of Ottawa’s proposed changes “ignore the principle of federalism” and provinces must instead have a say in term limits and election of prospective senators.

The province filed its factum, or argument, on Tuesday to the Supreme Court after the federal government asked the court for clarity on the rules around Senate reform and outright abolition. The Manitoba submission was the first of any province, and follows the filing of federal government’s factum last month.

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Manitoba’s stance signals Ottawa will get push-back from the provinces on any Senate changes, up to and including abolition, and suggests the status quo won’t soon be changed. Manitoba, however, argues that “the failure to reach consensus on Senate reform in the past is certainly not a reason” to allow the federal government certain unilateral powers.

The federal government believes Parliament should be allowed to unilaterally “impose term limits, provide for public consultative process on Senate appointments” and remove the “archaic” rule that senators must own $4,000 worth of land in the province they represent.

But Manitoba only agrees on the last point, saying the property qualifications are “unrelated to the functioning of the Senate” and therefore can be changed by the federal government.

The province insists the federal government can’t act alone on Senate nominations or term limits.

“Term limits affect the independence of the Senate and cannot be unilaterally imposed by Parliament,” the Manitoba submission, which was made public Wednesday, argues. It goes on to say term limits could affect Senators’ independence by encouraging them to favour the government of the day in a bid to earn a second term.

Further, it says “non-binding elections [of nominees] impacts the functioning of the Senate and does not fall within Parliament’s unilateral authority.” Alberta already does this, electing Senate nominees that are then candidates for appointment. But Manitoba argues that “holding elections for senators, even elections that are non-binding, will profoundly affect the operation of the Senate” by creating a “hodgepodge” of appointment processes and a “hierarchy of senators with those who have been elected seemingly having more legitimacy than those who have not.”

The Supreme Court question comes amid ongoing investigations into the expenses of senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Manitoba’s factum concludes that while there “may very well be compelling reasons for Senate reform,” there are no compelling reasons to “depart from our nation’s tradition of respect for federalism” by allowing the federal government to make unilateral changes.

Many other provinces are expected to submit factums before Friday’s deadline, but stayed quiet Wednesday when asked what they might include.

The Premiers of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have publicly called for abolition, a position also shared by the federal NDP. It’s unclear, though, how the Senate could legally be abolished.

The federal government argued that abolition requires the support of seven provinces with at least 50 per cent of the population. Manitoba argues that outright abolition goes beyond “general amending” and requires unanimous provincial consent – an unlikely feat, as many provinces prefer Senate reform to abolition.

The federal government has said the Senate must change or “vanish,” but that it will wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling before proceeding with any changes.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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