Tories Push for Senate Term Limits

Senators are at an impasse over SENATE reform, and Peter Van Loan, the government House Leader, is talking as though Canadian democracy is under siege.

Tories Push for Senate Term Limits

Senators are at an impasse over SENATE reform, and Peter Van Loan, the government House Leader, is talking as though Canadian democracy is under siege. The problem is that Liberals in the upper chamber, where they hold the majority, refuse to pass a Conservative bill that would limit senators' terms to eight years, instead of letting them enjoy their patronage posts, as they do now, until they turn 75. The Liberals want the bill referred to the Supreme Court, to see if the federal government has the constitutional power to make the change without provincial assent. The Tories say that's unnecessary and obstructionist. "If you have a situation where the Senate refuses to carry out its constitutional obligation to deal with government bills," Van Loan fumes, "then you're provoking a constitutional crisis."

If it's a crisis, though, it's a familiar one. This is how appointed senators function: they do what the elected government of the day asks of them, until they decide not to. In recent times senators have blocked the GST and free trade, and refused to pass House bills on issues ranging from abortion to streamlining federal agencies. Back in 1961 an editorial writer for the Toronto Telegram, which is long gone, assailed the Senate, which survives, as a "Bourbon relic" over its refusal that year to pass prime minister John Diefenbaker's bill to fire the Bank of Canada governor of the day.

Although the relic remains intact, the competing camps on what to do about it have changed. The main division used to be between those who wanted to abolish the Red Chamber and those who hoped to fix it. Now, it's between those who propose incremental change and those who say it has to be wholesale reform or nothing.

Prime Minister Stephen HARPER leads the incrementalists. His plan calls for passing the term-limits law first, then another bill, now before the House, that would see prime ministers appoint senators based on "consultative" votes, instead of just naming whatever loyal party servant was due for a juicy reward. Further changes requiring provincial agreement would, according to the Tory strategy, follow in due course. "The big issue is to force people to come to the table," said Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk, "and I think these two reforms will bring people to the table."

But Harper's critics say his first two steps would dangerously increase the Senate's legitimacy, with no assurance of a deal with provinces on further vital reforms later. Why dangerously? They argue that senators chosen by the voters and serving for limited terms would inevitably defy the House by acting more independently more often. Thus, it is vital, at the same time, to limit their powers and fix the imbalance in representation that now sees, for instance, 10 senators each from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and only six each from Alberta and British Columbia.

The problem with this all-or-nothing position, however, is that redefining the Senate's role and altering its seat distribution would require broad provincial support for a constitutional amendment. And ever since the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords flamed out, proposing that sort of grand deal is widely derided as politically naive. The incrementalists hold that only after senators start being elected, and their standing with voters rises, will premiers realize they need to cut a deal to update the Senate's function.

Patrick Monahan, dean of Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School and an influential backer of Harper's plan, admits there's a risk the reform bid will stall halfway - boosting the Senate's legitimacy without ever restricting its effective power. "It's a real danger, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But the alternative is to keep this chamber without any reforms whatsoever, and the reforms the Prime Minister is suggesting could lead to something more positive."

After some confusion, Liberals appear to be moving squarely into the all-or-nothing camp. "Until you deal with distribution and powers, you shouldn't give the Senate more legitimacy," says MP Stephen Owen, the party's democratic reform critic. "We shake and shudder under the ghosts of Meech Lake and Charlottetown. But, come on, we're a mature democracy - let's open up the Constitution and get on with it." Owen, a Vancouver MP, focuses on the issue of low Western representation. "It's inconceivable to me that somebody from Alberta, like the Prime Minister, would want to improve the Senate's legitimacy without changing the distribution."

Four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, are against Harper's combined bid to institute term limits and voting for senators. Buoyed by that provincial support, the Liberals are digging in. There's even talk of the Senate sitting into July unless a way out of the deadlock is found. Anyone concerned about senators missing out on their summer break, though, might take solace from these numbers: they earn $122,720 a year, and their regular schedule calls for them to sit for 90 days in 2007.

Maclean's June 25,2007