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

The Conservatives have used their clout in the Senate stacked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to kill an NDP climate change bill that was passed by a majority of the House of Commons.

Without any debate in the Red Chamber, Conservative senators caught their Liberal and unelected counterparts off-guard on Tuesday by calling a snap vote on Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act introduced by Bruce Hyer, a New Democrat who represents Thunder Bay-Superior North in the House.

It is the first time that the unelected Conservative senators have used their near-majority to kill a bill passed by elected politicians. The absence of more than 15 Liberals from the Senate allowed the bill to be defeated by a margin of 43 to 32.

"This was one of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada," NDP Leader Jack Layton said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

"To take power that doesn't rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country."

Mr. Harper used his power to destroy an initiative on climate change so that "he could please his friends in the big oil companies" and so he could go to an upcoming international conference on the environment in Mexico without having the bill languishing in the Senate, Mr. Layton added.

The bill had required the federal government set regulations to establish targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to set a long-term target to bring emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Mr. Hyer said Wednesday that Conservative senators have told him the Prime Minister's Office warned them not to talk publicly about the bill or to allow it to be debated.

And, Mr. Hyer added, there is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy of Mr. Harper "using the unelected Senate to kill bills that he doesn't like, passed by the democratically elected House when Harper has spent most of his political career railing and raging when the Liberals did this."

Before his Conservatives won their first election in 2006, Mr. Harper worried about the roadblocks that Liberal-appointed senators could pose for a Tory government.

"The Liberal Senate in the past was extremely unco-operative when their party wasn't in power, so it's a worry," told reporters at that time.

"I hope that better judgment will prevail and the unelected Senate will play the role that historically it has played, which has been a useful technical role but will not try and interfere with the democratic will of the elected House."

Although the Liberals used the majority they enjoyed in the Senate during the first years of the Harper government to suggest changes to a couple pieces of legislation, and one or two bills were delayed, they never killed bills that had been passed by a majority of the Commons.

Environmentalists chimed in on Wednesday's news as well. "Stephen Harper has done what he always promised never to do: use unelected officials to counter the will of Parliament and the Canadian public." Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said in a statement.

The NDP bill "won the support of a majority of Members of Parliament, not once but twice, at a time when the majority of Canadians are demanding stronger action on climate change in Canada," Mr. Saul said. "Despite this, government Senators voted the bill down before even taking the time to debate or consider it. This both irresponsible and unprecedented."

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