Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform is a “decision for the status quo” that hamstrings his government in making substantive changes to the Red Chamber.
Speaking ahead of a question-and-answer session in Kitchener on Friday, Mr. Harper said the court’s ruling indicates that reforming the Senate requires re-opening the constitution, something he said no one wants to consider. The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the government’s plans to introduce term limits and consultative elections for senators would require the approval of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. Abolishing the Senate, the court said, would require unanimous provincial consent.
“We know full well that there’s no consensus among the provinces, there’s no willingness to re-open the Canadian constitution,” Mr. Harper said several hours after the Court’s ruling was released. “So therefore the result of this decision by the Supreme Court is a decision for the status quo.”
Mr. Harper said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling and believes most Canadians are as well. He added that the possibilities for introducing term limits and consultative elections “no longer exist for the future, at least the near future.”
And he said there is no desire by anyone to reopen the constitution “and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations.”
“Essentially this is a decision for the status quo. A status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian,” Mr. Harper said.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre said Friday that the government has no plans to hold a referendum on Senate abolition or to “re-open the constitutional debates of the past.”
Asked why he would not want to push the provinces to support Senate abolition, Mr. Poilievre responded that the government has other priorities.
“Our priority is the economy, jobs and low taxes. That’s where we’re putting our focus. We do not want to distract from that agenda with a focus on constitutional squabbling,” he said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the court’s ruling shows the government should be working on consultations with the provinces and territories on Senate reform, rather than giving up on the possibility of substantive change. “Mr. Harper’s raised the white flag, and he says, ‘it’s not my fault, I can’t do anything.’ It’s not a very impressive attitude for Canadians,” he said.
Mr. Mulcair said his party continues to favour abolishing the Senate, even though the Supreme Court found that doing so would require unanimous consent from all of the provinces.
But the leader of at least one province said Friday that she is prepared to participate in national discussions on Senate reform if the federal government chooses to lead them. “Ontario is ready to participate if the federal government decides to lead collaborative pan-Canadian discussions about Senate reform,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said in a statement.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said the court’s decision means Canadians are “stuck indefinitely” with the Senate in its current form. He said he does not see how a national referendum could affect change, adding that such an exercise would probably be a waste of time and money.
“This is obviously very disappointing to the province of Saskatchewan and so many Canadians who find it unacceptable and even embarrassing that in 2014 Canada is the only western bicameral democracy that has an unelected and unaccountable institution with real power over its citizens,” Mr. Wall said in a statement.
PEI Premier Robert Ghiz said the court’s finding that Ottawa cannot make unilateral changes to the constitution is positive news for smaller jurisdictions. He said PEI is against abolition unless there is some way to protect the province’s representation in Parliament, but the province is not opposed to working on Senate reform with the federal government if Mr. Harper decides it’s a priority.
“Is there unanimous consent among the provinces in terms of how to go about Senate reform? No there’s not. Is there unanimous consent on any issue? No. But it takes leadership to sit down and try and hammer these things out. Again, I’m not looking to go to First Minsters meetings, but if this is a priority for the Prime Minister, I’ll be there.”
Manitoba’s justice minister said the federal government should pursue the abolition of the Senate.
Andrew Swan said there is a growing sense across the country that the Senate should be abolished – and he feels governments should listen.
Swan said he believes Manitoba can be “very persuasive” and there doesn’t seem to be any province currently putting up a strong defence of the Senate.
The B.C. government said it is pleased with the ruling. Attorney-General Suzanne Anton said while the province is still reviewing the case, it’s pleased with the outcome because British Columbians deserve to have a say in any decision on Senate reform.
With files from The Canadian Press