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How would you reform the Senate?

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In a speech to the Conservative caucus following the spending scandal that cost him two Senators and his chief of staff, Stephen Harper said he wants make the Senate more accountable and reform spending rules. 

SenateShould the Senate be reformed, left alone or abolished entirely? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)But that's not the only change to the Senate the Harper government is pursuing. Earlier this year, the government asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on Senate reform proposals introduced in 2011

And because some parliamentarians want to get rid of the Senate altogether, the government also asked the Court about options for its abolition. 

So, what are the options for Senate reform and how hard would it be to make them happen? 

Abolish the Senate

Calls to abolish the Senate altogether have grown louder with the recent spending scandals involving Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallen and Patrick Brazeau -- all appointed by Stephen Harper -- and Liberal-appointed Senator Mac Harb. (All these senators have left their respective caucuses and now sit as independents.)

As well, the one party that has long called for the Senate to be abolished -- the NDP -- now sits as the Official Opposition. 

However, the Senate was established under the Constitution, and abolishing the Senate would require changing it. Constitutional amendments require the consent of two-thirds of Canada's provinces (at least seven), representing 50 per cent of the population.

Previous attempts to amend the Constitution -- the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, both of which contained Senate reforms -- have failed. 

However, most Canadian provinces have had an upper chamber, called a Legislative Council, analogous to the federal Senate at one time. Most of those Councils were abolished shortly after Confederation, so such change has occurred in Canada. The Legislative Council of Quebec was the last to be abolished in 1968. 

Equalize regional representation

Currently, the 105 seats of the Senate are distributed regionally by the following scheme: 24 seats for the Maritime Provinces, 24 for Quebec, 24 for Ontario, 24 for Western provinces and the remaining seats divided among Newfoundland and Labrador (six) and the territories (one each). 

The fact that New Brunswick, with a population of about 750,000 people, has more seats in the Senate than B.C., with a population of more than four million, was part of the motivation behind the triple-E Senate reform movement of the Reform Party and, later, the Canadian Alliance. 

(The three E's in the plan were equal, elected and effective, that is, having nearly the same legislative powers as the House of Commons.)

Again, though, because the seat distribution is enshrined in the Constitution, only a Constitutional amendment can change it. Both Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord included attempts to redistribute Senate seats more fairly. 

Term limits for Senators

Critics of the Senate say that being appointed a senator is a crushy, well-paid "job for life," and until 1965 that was literally true. Senators originally served until death or resignation. 

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established a mandatory retirement age of 75 with legislation passed in 1965, without reopening the Constitution. However, senators who had been appointed before that bill passed were allowed to keep their seats until they died or stepped down. 

Fast forward to 2006, when Stephen Harper's Conservatives put forth legislation to limit the terms of newly appointed senators much more dramatically, to just eight years. 

However, critics pointed out a flaw in that plan if it were enacted without other Senate reforms. 

If senators' terms were just eight years long, a prime minister who serves more than two terms could appoint an entire Senate. 

Compromise term limits proposed by Liberal senators range from nine to 15 years. The Conservatives' current bill on Senate reform introduced in 2011 proposes term limits, but doesn't include a specific figure.  It has not been called for debate in over a year.

Elected senators

The Conservative Party, and before them the Progressive Conservatives, have been open to the idea of Canadians electing senators directly. 

Alberta held its first Senate election in 1989. The winner was Stan Waters and then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him to a vacant Senate seat. Waters died a year later. 

Alberta held Senate elections against in 2004, but Paul Martin, the prime minister at the time, refused to appoint any of the winners. Stephen Harper, however, did appoint one of the winners, Bert Brown, when an Alberta Senate seat opened up in 2007. 

Both Saskatchewan and B.C. have passed laws allowing for elections for open Senate seats but neither have held such elections, and the B.C. law has since expired. 

However, like the problem with term limits, opponents say transforming the Senate into an elected body creates a new problem. 

Liberal democratic reform critic Stéphane Dion says that the Senate traditionally defers to the election House in conflicts between the two bodies. Dion argues that Senators cannot be elected, and consequently made more powerful, without also introducing some kind of a dispute resolution mechanism to mediate between two elected bodies.

Both Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord included amendments that would have allowed for elections to fill Senate seats, either in a general election or by vote in provincial legislatures. 

The 2011 Senate reform bill would allow for elections. However, the Liberals and some provinces, such as Quebec, believe that such a fundamental change to the structure of the Senate would require consultation with the provinces, essentially reopening the Constitutional debate. 

What plan to reform the Senate would you back? Should the government pursue modest reforms or open the Constitution to make more sweeping changes? Should the Senate be abolished? Or left just the way it is? 

(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)

Tags: Canada, Politics, POV

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