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Explaining Stephen Harper's 'end run' on Senate form

The Senate chamber sits empty ahead of the return of Parliament on Sept. 16, 2010.


It's a debate nearly as old as Canada, and it has flared again after senators killed an opposition-backed climate bill last week and the Tories offered to fast-track reform at the Senate. We take stock of the persistent - and prickly - quest to rethink the Red Chamber.

What is Bill C-10? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been trying to make substantive changes to the Senate since he took office in 2006. Bill C-10 is the latest incarnation of the Conservative proposals on Senate reform. It would limit any senators appointed after Oct. 14, 2008, to a non-renewable eight-year term. The senators would still have to retire at 75, regardless of when they were appointed. A concurrent bill, introduced in the Senate, urges provinces to elect senators, who would then be appointed by the prime minister.

A long history. Attempts to reform the Canadian Senate began as early as seven years after Confederation, when the House of Commons rejected a proposal that would have seen each province select its own senators. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau tried to bring in a broad package of changes to the Senate in 1978, which were rejected by the Supreme Court. The push for change resurfaced in the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, and again in the precursor to C-10, which was first introduced in the Senate in 2006. Two other similar bills followed. One died when the 2008 election was called. The other died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament late last year.

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A difficult proposition. Senate reform has been a quagmire for a number of reasons, with constitutional wrangling among the stickiest. The Constitution states that changes to the method of selecting senators requires the consent of the Commons, the Senate and seven provinces making up 50 per cent of the population. Getting that many premiers on board would be a daunting task for any federal government, let alone a minority. Eastern provinces, which have far greater Senate representation than those in the West, have already warned Mr. Harper that he can expect a fight if he tries to change the Senate equation.

Is reform really on? Michael Behiels, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, argues that an elected Senate is no longer a real goal for Mr. Harper. "Harper is … enjoying this immensely in an ironic sort of way," he says. The Tories have stacked the Senate to the point that they can kill an opposition-backed bill anyway, as they did last week. And then there's the issue of the Supreme Court, which would likely thwart any attempt at reform by the federal government. "He's simply making an end run, trying to please his base by making all of these declarations and presenting these bills; but, ultimately, he knows … he will be quashed."

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