Canadians will choose senators under new bill

Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a Senate reform bill Wednesday that gives all Canadians a say about who represents them, but doesn't allow for full elections.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a Senate reform bill Wednesday that gives Canadians a say about who represents them.

The bill, which falls short ofallowing full Senate elections,calls for voters to choose preferred candidates to represent their provinces and territories.

The prime minister would make the final decision, based on voters' choices.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has lashed out against the bill, calling it irresponsible, but Harper says it is a step forward.

"This bill will allow us to move to a new era in Canadian democracy," Harper told his cheering caucus at a meeting Wednesday morning in Ottawa.

"Imagine that after a century and a half, democracy will finally come to the Senate of Canada."

Under the current system, the prime minister selects senators without having to seek anypublic input. The prime minister passestheselection on to the Governor General, who makes the official appointment.

There are Senate elections in Alberta and British Columbia, but they are non-binding and theresults are traditionally ignored by the prime minister.

The new bill, if passed into law, would allowHarper to make changes to the Senate without reworking the Constitution, which would require co-operation from the provinces.

Tory House leader Rob Nicholsonsaid the proposed changes to the Senate are similar to those already in place in Australia. Voters would be asked to rank their favourite candidates in order of preference.

Nicholson said therewill be no limit on the number of people who can run for the Senate and the qualifications to bea senator won't change.

"We're not attempting to change the Constitution," Nicholson said. "This expands the group of people the prime minister consults with."

NDP Leader Jack Layton said it would be confusing having elected and appointed senators in the same place.

"The proposal we see here is very much a piecemeal plebiscite that's not going to make things more accountable. In fact,if anything, it's going to make the Senate more dysfunctional."

Harper said he expects the Liberalsto opposethe bill. He said they have given his government a hard time with almost every change, from cuts to the GST to the new Accountability Act.

"I don't expect them to embrace Senate reform without a fight," he said. "If they wanted Senate reform, they would have done it themselves."

Dion calls bill "completely irresponsible"

Dion said changes to the Senate should address more pressing concerns.

He said the current system doesn't make sense because a province like Nova Scotia is represented by 10 senators, while a province like Alberta, with about five times the population, only has six senators.

"I think what the prime minister wants to do is completely, completely irresponsible," Dion said in French, speaking to reporters a few hours after Harper's caucus meeting.

"We would be electing senators with the current distribution and the current distribution does penalize provinces, particularly the western provinces."

Activist says bill 'a long time coming'

Bert Brown, an Alberta man who has been fighting for Senate reform for more than 20 years, said Harper's bill has been a long time coming.

When Alberta decided to hold its own Senate elections, Brown ran in three such races and won twice, but the government never appointed him to the Senate.

Brown says Harper should start the election process immediately and fill a dozen vacant seats.

"They could just have a very simple message of going to their electorate and saying people can run for the nomination process, and go forward and have an election," he said. "It's not a painful process. I've been through it three times."

Harper has talked of Senate reform for years. He officially promisedchange in a speech in Vancouver a year ago, when he laid out his party's platform for the January 2006 election and called the appointed Senate a "relic of the 19th century.

"We need a ballot with senators' names, and seats with senators that have been elected," he told his supporters at the time.