Friday was a difficult day for the federal Conservative party, as its hopes for Senate reform were dealt massive blow by Canada’s top court.
The Supreme Court slammed the door on reforming or abolishing the Senate without first reopening the Constitution. As The Canadian Press reported, the high court said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s desire to impose term limits on senators and create a “consultative election” process to choose nominees cannot be done by the federal government alone. Instead, such a constitutional amendment would need the consent of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.
And any talk of abolishing the Senate would be moot unless all 10 provinces gave unanimous consent. Given the fact that provincial stances differ over the Senate and any potential reforms, it seems Canada will be stuck with the status quo for the foreseeable future.
It’s no secret that Harper has never been a fan of the Senate. He has been demanding its reform or abolition for decades. But the ruling now essentially hamstrings his government from making changes. That is both problematic and fortunate.
Given the headaches that plagued the Mulroney Progressive Conservative government over the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, both of which required constitutional amendments and provincial support, we simply don’t believe this Conservative government has any appetite to become mired into a new push to amend the Constitution.
And though he regrets the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s pretty clear that our prime minister thinks Canadians have no appetite for it, either. He told media there is no desire “among anyone” to reopen the Constitution and have “a bunch of constitutional negotiations.”
While this comes as a big disappointment to Harper, his government will still be able to point to the courts as the main stumbling block to Senate reform — and fairly so. However, though the Conservatives are now washing their hands of the issue, the problem of Senate reform remains, and the status quo is not good enough.
As reported, the court said the Fathers of Confederation deliberately chose an appointed chamber when the Senate was created, which was supposed to be independent, free of partisanship and able to apply “sober second thought” to legislation without blocking the will of the elected House of Commons.
Canadians should be relieved that no one federal government can easily make sweeping changes to one of this country’s founding institutions. Had the Supreme Court ruled in the Tories’ favour, Canada would suddenly find itself in a quagmire of legal and political wrangling that would strike at the core of our political system, and ultimately damage our political institutions.
But the dream envisioned by our founding fathers has not been fully realized. Considering the ongoing scandals that have plagued the Senate over the last few years that have brought the upper house and its appointed senators into disrepute, there is a need for change and improvement.
Partisanship is ever-present in the upper house, just as it also guides the House of Commons. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to kick Liberal senators out of the Liberal caucus was a move in the right direction, but until all parties do the same, the effect is basically meaningless.
And as three disgraced senators proved, there needs to be a more transparent system of financial accountability between the Senate and the public.
The future of our Senate is a discussion that Canadians must have at some point, sooner or later. This is true even if Canadians have no appetite for such discussions.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 26, 2014