Provinces would voluntarily hold elections for Senate nominees and those appointed to the upper chamber would be limited to a nine-year term under new legislation proposed Tuesday by the federal government. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is continuing his efforts to reform the Senate with the introduction of the Senate Reform Act.

The two key proposals relate to how senators are chosen and how long they serve. There is currently no fixed term limit for senators, but they have to retire at age 75.

The new bill proposes that term limits be set at nine years. For those senators appointed by Harper since 2008, the limited term would start from the date the bill is passed. Senators appointed before 2008 would be exempt from the new limit and could serve until age 75. The term wouldn't be renewable, so once senators serve nine years they wouldn't be able to run for re-election.

Could serve term in pieces

The bill allows for an "interruption" in the nine-year term, which means a senator could leave and later "be summoned again." This is what happened with Conservatives Fabian Manning and Larry Smith, who both resigned from the Senate to run for seats in the House of Commons in the May 2 election.

They both lost and were quickly reappointed by Harper. Josée Verner, a former cabinet member who was also defeated in the election, was appointed at the same time.

The Senate reform bill says that when making Senate appointments, the prime minister would consider names from a list of nominees from the provinces and territories and that the list would be formulated based on an election.

Ottawa cannot force the provinces and territories to hold Senate elections without changing the Constitution. As a result, the government is proposing a voluntary scheme. 

Provinces and territories that hold elections would see their nominees appointed when vacancies arise.

The bill outlines in detail what kinds of election processes would be suitable. They could be held in conjunction with provincial elections, provincewide municipal elections or at another date determined by the province or territory. The bill envisions previously established elections agencies overseeing the process and proposes no provision for the federal government to foot the bill.

Within government's authority, minister says

While some critics say even this scaled-back reform bill goes too far and is unconstitutional, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal says it's within the government's authority to make the changes.

"This is a voluntary framework and we encourage all provinces to hold these democratic processes," he told Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics. "It's well within Parliament's authority to bring these reforms forward."

Opposition MPs say there are too many problems with the legislation. A major problem, they say, is that giving the Senate an elected mandate would create gridlock between the two chambers, with no mechanism to solve disputes.

"Canadians better be aware that we are very much on the brink of a radical revolution in the way that we do politics here on Parliament Hill," Dave Christopherson, the NDP's democratic reform critic, told Solomon. "The safe move would be to get rid of the Senate because we know what we have left and how it works: the House of Commons, warts and all.

"This is not a small matter."

Liberal MP Stéphane Dion says Quebec is going to challenge the legislation in the courts anyway so the government should refer it now to the Supreme Court.

Dion says the bill doesn't fix the inequality between provinces with large populations, such as Alberta and B,C., but only six seats, and provinces with much smaller populations but more seats.

"I expect a strong disagreement across Canada on this bill," he said.

Some provinces concerned

Premiers such as Saskatchewan's Brad Wall have expressed concern about provincial legislatures being forced to pick up the tab to cover the cost of electing senators to serve in Ottawa.

Candidates for the Senate would be put forward by provincial or territorial political parties, but individuals could also stand as independent candidates. Once elected, nominees would be eligible for appointment to the Senate for six years. If that period expired before a vacancy came up, they would have to run for re-election at the next available opportunity.

The government has tried before to reform the Senate but previous bills, introduced in both the upper and lower chambers, moved slowly in the minority Parliaments and died on the order paper when elections were called.

Harper now has a majority in both the Commons and the Senate but that won't necessarily ensure smooth passage of the legislation.

A previous bill proposed term limits of eight years but some senators wanted longer periods, 12 years or more, and to be "grandfathered" so they would not have to run for election. The bill tabled Tuesday grandfathers only those senators appointed before 2008. 

Conservative Senator Bert Brown wrote to his colleagues last week urging them to show loyalty to Harper and to support whatever Senate reform measures are proposed.

Liberal Senator James Cowan warned that Harper needs approval from the provinces and territories to make the changes he wants, according to the Constitution.

"It's not an easy thing," Cowan said last week.

Some provinces have expressed concern about the costs, and some are opposed to the House of Commons pushing through reforms without their approval. Quebec has indicated court battles could be looming over the Conservatives' plan, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty wants the Senate abolished, not reformed.

Senate Reform Act (Bill C-7)