Stephen Harper says Senate reform is off the table

Significant reform of the Senate as well as the question of whether the upper chamber can be abolished are "off the table," Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.

Top court decision supports 'status quo,' prime minister says, and 'virtually no Canadian' agrees

Senate reform can't be done by Ottawa alone: Supreme Court

10 years ago
Duration 4:27
Canada's top court says 7 provinces with half the population needed for any reform

Significant reform of the Senate as well as the question of whether the upper chamber can be abolished are "off the table," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, speaking in Kitchener-Waterloo Friday.

"The Supreme Court has said these are only decisions the provinces can make," Harper said, referring to the top court's advisory opinion that Senate changes cannot be accomplished without the consent of some or all of the provinces along with the federal government.

"So essentially this is a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian," Harper continued. "We are virtually stuck in the status quo for the time being."

Saying he was disappointed by the Supreme Court's conclusions, as he thought "the vast majority" of Canadians would be, Harper added he would respect the court's decision.

Harper also said while there could be no consensus among the provinces on abolition, there was also no desire to reopen the Constitution for a "bunch of constitutional negotiations," signalling he is unlikely to pursue the notion of a nation-wide referendum on abolishing the Senate.

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Constitution would have to be re-opened

Even if an abolition referendum garnered approval in all 10 provinces, the Constitution would still have to be re-opened for an amendment. The provinces would likely start demanding other amendments, a process that has proved, in the past, to be divisive and prone to failure.

During a news conference on Parliament Hill Friday, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre confirmed the government has no plans to hold a referendum on Senate reform or abolition.

But some Conservative MPs disagree. Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai tweeted Friday he supports fellow MP Maxime Bernier's call for a referendum on Senate abolition.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, speaking from Kingston, said Harper has always known a constitutional amendment is necessary for any of the major changes to the Senate suggested by the government, but did nothing about it for 10 years.

Asked whether he could personally convince the provinces to agree on changes to the Senate, Mulcair replied, "Contrary to Mr. Harper, I've never stopped trying," explaining he's been continually talking to provincial premiers.

He also mentioned his Roll Up the Red Carpet tour over the summer in which he collected thousands of signatures from people who want to see an end to the Senate.

He said he will not stop his crusade to see the Senate abolished.

"We're not going to raise the white flag on this one," he said.

Mulcair added Harper is "exactly like Brian Mulroney before him, exactly like Jean Chrétien. These are all people who realize that the Senate's a great place to name your bagmen, your henchmen, your political cronies."

Provinces react

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall used the same word Harper employed: "stuck".

In a statement, Wall said, "Canadians are stuck indefinitely with an unelected, unaccountable, upper house, a principle feature of which is a representational bias against Western Canada."

Wall called the Senate anachronistic and embarrassing. He went on to say because the court decided an abolition referendum would need every province's consent, the exercise would be "a probable waste of time and taxpayers' money."

His statement suggests a possible solution: "Successive prime ministers [could] refuse to appoint senators until the chamber is empty."

The Prime Minister's Office, answering a question from CBC News, said in a BBM message, "The PM [prime minister] has no intention to appoint new Senators at this point"

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne issued a statement Friday saying she was "pleased the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the federal government must work with the provinces," adding she thinks the Senate plays a valuable role as a chamber of sober second thought.

The attorney general and minister of justice for British Columbia said in a statement they were pleased "British Columbians should have a say in any decision to reform the Senate." However, they noted that in their recommendations to the court, they did not feel unanimity was necessary to abolish the Senate. They also did not offer any endorsement of the Senate's value.

The top court said senators cannot be chosen by means of elections, but made no comment about the legitimacy of several Alberta senators who won elections in their province before taking seats in the upper chamber.

Senator Doug Black, who placed first in an Alberta Senate nominee election in 2012, and was appointed to the Senate in 2013, said in a phone interview, "I would think the province of Alberta is well within its constitutional legal rights to do what they have been doing."