Ottawa is asking the Supreme Court to determine whether proposals to limit the terms of senators and to change their method of appointment are constitutional.
Tim Uppal, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, announced Friday that he is asking the top court to provide an opinion about the government's plans for Senate reform, including what would be required to abolish the Red Chamber.
"Despite our efforts to advance change through comprehensive debate in the House of Commons, it is clear that action is needed to compel reform," Mr. Uppal told reporters.
The Supreme Court will be asked to determine whether the Constitution allows for fixed Senate terms, whether provinces and territories can be asked to elect senators, whether the property-ownership qualifications for senators can be amended, and how the Senate could be abolished – if it came to that.
Mr. Uppal said the question of abolition was included in the Supreme Court reference because some provinces have raised it "and we see the reference as an opportunity to clarify the amending procedure for that proposal."
Bill C-7, which is before the House of Commons, calls for all new senators to be selected through provincial or territorial elections and to serve fixed terms, with the latest version of the legislation proposing a nine-year mandate. Senate appointments are currently made by the Prime Minister. There is no term limit, but senators must retire at the age of 75.
Quebec called last May for that province's court of appeal to rule on the constitutionality of Bill C-7, and some sources have described the federal government's referral of its own questions to the Supreme Court as a pre-emptive move against an eventual challenge.
Liberals have been saying since 2007 that the government needed to ask the Supreme Court whether it was constitutional for Parliament to impose term limits unilaterally – without provincial consent. And they argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's proposals for senatorial elections could not be accomplished without simultaneously opening the Constitution to reform other aspects of the Senate, particularly the under-representation of the West.
Given the number of constitutional questions that have been raised about senate-reform legislation over the past six years, reporters asked Mr. Uppal to explain why it took the government so long to turn to the court for an opinion.
The minister said the action was necessary because the opposition New Democrats and Liberals have "made a consistent effort of delaying Senate reform because of their opposition to it and essentially supporting the status quo."
But the Conservatives hold a majority in both houses and could have forced the passage of their Senate bill by shutting down debate, as they have done with other bills.
In fact, efforts to transform the Senate have proved far more difficult than the Conservatives originally imagined. Sources have told The Globe and Mail that a number of Conservative senators, including some of those appointed by Mr. Harper himself, object to the nine-year limit.
Mr. Harper had pledged in opposition that he would not appoint unelected senators. However, he has named 58 senators since coming to office in 2006. The 105-seat Senate has 65 Conservatives, 36 Liberals, one Progressive Conservative and two independents. There is also one vacancy.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc