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Tories fail in attempt to fast-track Senate reform

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


The Harper government failed to persuade the opposition to speed up the reform of the Senate one day after the Conservative majority in the Upper Chamber killed an environmental bill.

Digging in its procedural playbook, the government sought the unanimous consent of the House of Commons on Thursday to quickly approve legislation that would impose eight-year term limits on future senators.

The changes proposed in Bill C-10 would be a radical departure from the current situation, in which senators can serve from the time of their appointment until the age of 75.

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But opposition MPs immediately objected to the Conservative government's request and slammed its step-by-step plan to reforming the Senate, which also includes an attempt to persuade the provinces to organize elections to fill future vacancies.

"It's a ludicrous approach," Liberal Senator James Cowan said about the Conservative proposals. "This is a publicity stunt, and it's not how Parliament works."

Conservative House Leader John Baird responded by saying that opposition MPs can't complain about the unelected Conservative senators who killed a bill that originated in the House on Wednesday and, simultaneously, object to plans to elect future senators.

"If they don't want an unelected, unaccountable Senate, we have the legislation to fix that," Mr. Baird said after failing to obtain unanimous consent in favour of Bill C-10.

Mr. Baird cast much of his blame in the direction of the NDP, which could side with the minority government and allow the reforms to go through.

"We got up in the House of Commons and called their bluff and said let's pass the Senate reform legislation, and they said, 'no,' " Mr. Baird told reporters. "So I think it's all about a bunch of huff and puff but they didn't have the courage to act."

However, the NDP's position is simply to abolish the Senate, with Leader Jack Layton criticizing the Conservative proposal as a cynical attempt to manipulate Parliament.

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"They are hoping that Canadians don't really care or don't understand that the Senate, as an unappointed body, should not be in the business of stopping legislation that is passed by the House of Commons," Mr. Layton told reporters.

The Liberals are justifying their objections to the Conservative proposals by arguing that under the Canadian Constitution, Senate reform can only be accomplished with the support of the provinces.

"There is an elephant in the room, and it's the fact that the government has to talk to provinces about these changes," Mr. Cowan said, calling for any legislation to be submitted to the Supreme Court for approval. "They can't do this unilaterally."

This week's death in the Senate of the bill known as the Climate Change Accountability Act prompted cries of indignation from the NDP and the Liberal Party, which had sponsored the legislation.

However, it also announced a change of attitude on the part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper who, when the Liberals dominated the Senate, often railed against the possibility that unelected senators would kill, delay or alter bills that elected politicians had passed in the Commons.

Mr. Baird said the House of Commons simply approved the environmental legislation in the knowledge that it would be killed in the chamber of "sober-second thought."

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"A number of Liberal members had said this is bad legislation, showed up to vote for it with the hope that if it did pass the Senate will have to deal with it. And that's not responsible," Mr. Baird said.

Bill C-10 did not die as a result of Mr. Baird's move, but it now needs to go to a committee before heading to a final vote in the House.

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