The Conservative government is asking the Supreme Court to speed up its study of Senate reform as it fends off questions about the expenses of unelected senators.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted for years that his government could reform the Senate without seeking permission from the Supreme Court or the provinces, but he changed course this month by asking the court whether Ottawa has the power to unilaterally reform or abolish the Senate.
At the time of the Feb. 1 reference to Canada’s highest court, the government speculated that it could take up to two years to hear back.
However, the Department of Justice has since filed a new motion with the court, asking it to hurry up. In a motion filed last week, federal lawyers say the question is so important that it should be given priority on the court’s agenda.
“Determination of the legal issues surrounding these proposed changes is a matter of great public importance that should be settled as soon as possible,” says the motion from three lawyers representing the Attorney-General of Canada.
Eugene Meehan, a partner at Supreme Advocacy LLP who specializes in Supreme Court matters, said motions of this type are moved in a minority of cases, but they are not so rare as to be considered unusual. If the motion succeeds, he said, it could shorten the timeline for a decision by between six and 12 months.
Politically, a faster timeline would mean the odds are much higher that there will be clarity on the issue before the next federal election, scheduled for 2015.
Ottawa is asking the Supreme Court to give an opinion on whether the federal government, on its own, has the constitutional power to make specific reforms to the Senate.
The list of possible reforms Ottawa is asking about includes fixed terms of varying lengths, retroactive term limits on current senators, legislation that allows for provincial votes to elect Senate nominees, and repealing sections of the Constitution Act, 1867, that require a senator to hold property worth $4,000 “over and above his Debts and Liabilities.”
The Supreme Court reference also asks whether Ottawa can abolish the Senate, and if so, whether it requires the unanimous consent of the provinces or only the support of two-thirds of the provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.
The House of Commons recessed for a one-week break Friday, ending several days of repeated questions from the NDP about the expenses of Conservative and Liberal senators.
The Senate has confirmed that four senators – suspended independent Patrick Brazeau, Conservatives Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, and Liberal Mac Harb – are facing external audits related to their expenses.
B.C. NDP MP Peter Julian said the controversy over Senate expenses is resonating with the public.
“I can tell you from my riding there is an increasing level of concern,” he said. “We’ve seen all this week Conservatives defending the indefensible, defending what has been Conservative misspending and often very clear violations of Senate rules.”
Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan said all audits will be made public and accused the NDP of being insincere in its calls for the Senate to be abolished.
“We have legislation to get more people elected to the Senate to give Canadians a say in who represents them, to deliver a truly accountable Senate, but the NDP stands against it every step of the way,” he said.