Senate should vanish if it's not reformed: Harper

If his government's efforts to reform the Senate are stymied, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday, the upper chamber should be abolished.

If his government's efforts to reform the Senate are stymied, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday,the upper chambershould be abolished.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledges a standing ovation following his speech before the Australian Parliament in Canberra, Australia on Tuesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"The mandate to govern when it is given directly by the people is a great honour and a great responsibility," Harper said in a speech to Australia's joint houses of Parliament that included praise for its elected Senate. "It's the very essence of responsible government and it is the minimum condition of 21st-century democracy."

Australian senators are elected to six-year terms, with half the house facing renewal in elections held every three years.

The prime minister noted that Canadian senators are appointed and can "warm their seats" for as long as 45 years.

Harper is the latest prime minister to tackle the issue of Senate reform, atouchstone of the old Reform party and part of the roots of the Conservative government.

An overhaul of the Senate, such as the uneven distribution of senators, would require constitutional reform, which would require the consent of seven provinces containing at least 50 per cent of the population.

But Harper's government has looked at smaller changesit believes wouldmake the Senate more effective and independent body and that would only require passing a bill through Parliament.

Tories want limited Senate terms

The Conservativeswant to limit Senate terms to seven years, and have provinces arrange referendums to fill vacant Senate seats.

However, critics of the plan have warned it risks giving legitimacy to the Senate but leaves Western Canada sorely under-represented.

Harper suggested that if he can't reform the upper chamber, he would like to see it disappear from Canada's parliamentary system.

"Canadians understand that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change or — like the old upper houses of our provinces— vanish."

Harper was the first Canadian prime minister, and just the sixth foreign leader, to address Australia's joint houses of Parliament in the capital, Canberra.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office emphasized that this is the first time that Harper— or any Canadian prime minister— has publicly raised abolishing the Senate.