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Hébert: Harper poised to put Senate reform on ice


Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star file photo The ranks of those who would simply do away with the Senate have grown steadily since Stephen Harper first came to power, writesChantal Hébert.

Under the guise of a projected Supreme Court reference on Senate reform, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be about to bury his party’s grand plan until at least the next federal election and, possibly, for all time.

The only certainty about Harper’s bid to limit Senate terms to nine years in an elected upper house has always been that it would eventually land in the lap of the Supreme Court.

From Day One, provincial opposition — in particular but not exclusively from Quebec — to a unilateral federal move on the Senate guaranteed that the issue would make its way to the top court.

On that basis, a reported move by the federal government to seek the Court’s vetting rather than continue to insist to put the cart before the horse would be about five years overdue. Over that time, the constitutional and legal questions arising from Harper’s proposed reform have not changed one iota.

The Conservative thinking on the issue, on the other hand, has greatly evolved — to the point that it is no overstatement to label it a change of heart.

Some key supporters of Harper’s incremental approach to Senate reform changed sides along the way.

Harper’s ex-chief-of-staff Tom Flanagan has come around to the view that the status quo is preferable to the limited reform that is possible without going the full constitutional route.

So has Roger Gibbins, a moving force on the file over his lengthy tenure as the head of the influential Canada West Foundation.

They (rightly) worry that giving the Senate the enhanced legitimacy of an elected house without making it more reflective of the demographics of the country only stands to enshrine Western Canada’s democratic deficit in Parliament.

“To the extent that the Senate becomes a more influential body — and that’s uncertain — but to the extent that it does, it would shift power into Atlantic Canada and away from the West,” Gibbins explained in an interview earlier this year

With Western Canada finally in the power loop on Parliament Hill, other leading voices in the region question the very usefulness of the Senate.

Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall seems to have so little time for the institution these days that it is no longer inconceivable to imagine the conservative premier joining Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty and the federal NDP in the camp of the abolitionists.

The ranks of those who would simply do away with the Senate have grown steadily since Harper first came to power.

On average, it takes about two years for the Supreme Court to deal with a reference. Going that route would put Senate reform on ice in Parliament until the tail end of the current Conservative mandate.

There is no consensus as to the possible outcome of a reference, but the odds that the Supreme Court would endorse it in its entirety are described by legal experts as low.

The prime minister might well need backing from the Court to convince some of his own appointees to live up to their initial commitment to give up their Senate seats before they reach the current mandatory retirement age of 75.

The deadline to test that resolve is 2018, when the first contingent of Harper senators will reach the nine-year mark. (Conservative Senator Bert Brown was appointed in 2007 but must retire when he turns 75 next year).

As a footnote: Jean Charest must think that premier-elect Pauline Marois leads a charmed life. For six years, his federalist government pleaded in vain for a federal reference on Senate reform. Last May, the Quebec government announced it was taking the matter in its own hands via the province’s top court.

On the heels of Friday’s federal announcement that the Parti Québécois’ anti-asbestos stance has forced the Conservatives to abandon the controversial industry to its fate, one could not blame many Canadians otherwise of the sovereigntist persuasion for wondering whether Marois’ narrow election victory does not have an upside after all.

thestar.com – News

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