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john ibbitson

Stephen Harper has a problem with his proposed Senate reform bill. The Prime Minister is dealing with the problem by allowing the bill to languish. Someone should tell his support base.

Senate reform is a priority for many dedicated Conservative supporters, especially in the West. Bill C-7, the Senate Reform Act, is the latest attempt by the Tory government to implement its long-standing promise to have senators elected to fixed terms.

Previous attempts were stymied by opposition parties in minority parliaments. But now the Conservatives have their majority, and passing the bill should be clear sailing.

Yet more than a year after it was introduced, Bill C-7 still hasn't made it through second reading – approval in principle – and the government will not commit to when, if ever, the bill will be passed and sent to the Senate.

There are two reasons for the delay. One reason is not the government's fault. One reason very much is.

The NDP and Liberals are opposed to the bill. Whenever it comes up for debate, they put forward the necessary speakers to run out the clock.

"Senate reform is a long-standing commitment of the government," Kate Davis, spokeswoman for Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Tim Uppal, said in an e-mail. The current bill "has been before the House on seven different occasions and has received nearly 20 hours of debate."

There are two ways for the government to deal with this de facto filibuster: impose time allocation or simply allow the bill to be debated until the opposition runs out of speakers.

Time allocation on something as important as reforming Parliament would be unconscionable. But there is no good reason why the Tories could not press the legislation forward by allowing sufficient time for everyone to have their say and then holding a vote. That's what majority governments do.

The real problem, according to knowledgeable observers who exchanged candour for anonymity, is with the Tory Senate caucus. A number of senators, including some of those appointed by Mr. Harper himself, object to the nine-year term limit. They appear to have concluded they are indispensable.

How many rebels are there? It's hard to calculate, but everyone agrees that Mr. Harper has the votes to get the bill through the Senate – if he really wants to.

That, however, would come at the political cost of upsetting at least part of the caucus. So the Prime Minister is instead practising a political sleight of hand: assuring his western base of his support for Senate reform by pointing to the bill, while allowing it to lie neglected on the order paper and blaming the opposition.

There are Conservative voices in the West who are rethinking their support for Senate reform. People like Roger Gibbins, recently retired from the Canada West Foundation, now believe that making the Senate more powerful through elected members without redressing the imbalance of seats that penalizes western provinces might be a mistake. After all, Senate reform was supposed to be about increasing the influence of the West in Parliament. But the West is plenty influential now, what with a prime minister from Calgary and all.

If Mr. Harper agrees that the current bill fails to fix the underlying problem of an unequal Senate, which would require a constitutional amendment, then the logical alternative is to withdraw the bill.

If he still believes that limited Senate reform is better than none at all, then one would expect him to stick to his guns. He appears, however, to prefer neither course.

Support for Senate reform remains strong among Canadians. The latest Angus Reid poll has 72 per cent of Canadians saying they would like the opportunity to directly elect senators. And 71 per cent also say they would support a referendum on the future of the Senate.

If the Prime Minister wishes to test support for his proposed reforms, he could always put the matter to a national vote.

There are, in short, several alternatives, other than simply doing nothing. If it sinks in among Conservative supporters that nothing is what the Prime Minister prefers to do, we can only wonder what they'll think.