Senate dissent shifts reform bill to House

The Conservatives' long-promised Senate reform is coming — but the bill will be introduced in the House of Commons, not the Senate, after complaints by some sitting senators, CBC News has learned.
Gov. Gen. David Johnston delivers the throne speech in the Senate Chamber on June 3, 2011. A bill to reform the Senate, a key measure of the throne speech, will be tabled in the House of Commons, CBC News has learned.

The Conservatives' long-promised Senate reform bill will be introduced in the House of Commons, rather than the Senate as was first planned.

The legislation has been delayed in part because of the possibility of back-to-work legislation to deal with labour disruptions at Air Canada and Canada Post.

But CBC News first reported, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to make it a Commons bill because of grumbling from some of the senators he appointed. The substance of the bill will be largely the same, but won't have the symbolism of senators voting on their own reform first.

Analysis: Senate reform

"An unelected Senate is simply not acceptable in a modern democracy."

That's what the 2011 Conservative platform said, and next week Stephen Harper's majority government will move to make good on its campaign commitment by re-introducing legislation that died on the order paper in previous minority Parliaments.

But the road to a reformed Senate isn't one the Conservatives can travel alone, despite having a majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate itself. Even setting off down that road will cost Harper's government valuable political capital in federal-provincial relations.

Will the reforms be worth the grief their debate will provoke? What progress is even possible?

Read the full story

Many senators expressed their concerns during a meeting on Tuesday with the minister of state for democratic reform, Tim Uppal.

In a letter to Conservative senators obtained by RDI, Bert Brown noted that Uppal had been "showered with complaints about Senate elections and a nine year term," and urged them to show loyalty to Harper.

"Those of us who came to the Red Chamber [via Harper appointments] were there to get a majority vote for reform. Those in the Senate before Harper became Prime Minister need to realize that, had he not made appointments, the Conservatives appointed by [Brian] Mulroney would now be a very small group struggling to do anything!" the Alberta senator wrote.

Some senators were hoping to be "grandfathered" so they would not have to run for election. Others didn't like the 8-year term limit proposed in a previous piece of legislation, instead wanting terms to be 12 years or more.

The compromise in the legislation is a term of 9 years.

Elections will be voluntary for provinces who wish to hold them. That would suggest that only the Harper-appointees from provinces willing to hold the elections would have to resign to run for re-election.

Ontario Conservative Senator Don Meredith, who was appointed last year by Harper, denied the Conservative Senate caucus was divided on the reform bill.

"Right now we're looking at this legislation and I think it's important that there's a unified front on this — there's no split in our caucus on this at all," he said.

Meredith said he supports term limits.

"If it's nine years that I'm here then I want to make that the best nine years of my life in terms of contributions to the people of Canada," he said.

But Senator James Cowan, the Liberal Opposition Leader in the Upper Chamber, said legislation isn't enough.

"The problem is Mr. Harper has been talking about Senate reform as if ... term limits and an elected Senate is something that can be done by act of Parliament and it can't, it has to involve the provinces," he said.

"We've been telling Mr. Harper since he became PM that if he wants to proceed to impose term limits or turn the appointed Senate into an elected Senate, neither of which we're necessary opposed to, then he needs to consult with the provinces and he has to get the approval of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population — that's what the Constitution says. Mr. Harper may not like it, but that's what the Constitution says," Cowan added.

"It's not an easy thing."

It's not clear exactly when the Senate reform bill will be introduced in the House, though the hope is that it will still happen before Parliament breaks for the summer.

Quebec has said it will mount a legal challenge to any attempt to unilaterally reform the Senate.