Harper on Senate reform

From the Inkless email box

From the Inkless emailbox:


An interview with Prime Minister Harper

On January 24th, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took time with Alberta
senators-elect Link Byfield and Betty Unger to discuss Senate elections and
the need to raise the public profile of the issue. Unger and Byfield are
now assembling a national organization to promote Senate elections, with
leadership and membership from all provinces.

Harper: First, I would like to thank both of you for your continued efforts
on Senate reform. You have been actively working with Senator Brown and
other Canadians for the past couple of years on this issue, and we need
people like yourselves putting this forward. As I have found out the hard
way, Senate reform is, at best, a long process that will require vision and

Byfield: Why does Canada need a Senate at all, and why should it be

Harper: Why do we need a Senate at all? I’d say there are at least two
reasons. First and foremost, the Senate exists to provide regional
representation in Parliament. A federation needs a regionally constituted
body, which is why nearly every federal system in the world has always had
a bicameral legislature.

Second, the Senate’s traditional “sober second thought” function is also
valuable, to ensure that a democratic majority doesn’t act capriciously and
without reasonable deliberation.

The reason that the Senate should be elected is that, if it is to exist, it
should be a legitimate legislative body. In the 21st century, legitimacy
cannot be conferred on a legislature without elections. Otherwise the
Senate is just another federally-appointed body among many others.

I had hoped that if I brought in incremental Senate reform legislation –
the government introduced two such bills in the last Parliament – this
would have created a snowball effect. This didn’t happen as the Opposition
rejected the legislation in both Houses. As a consequence, I have decided
to appoint Senators who will support these reforms. But I am under no
illusion; elections are a necessary condition for any real Senate reform.

Unger: Surely the chance of federal progress could come fairly soon, with
just a few more
Conservative seats in the Commons and with this year’s retirements in the

Harper: I hope that’s true.

I had hoped, during the past three years, that the Senate vacancies might
create some pressure for elections at the provincial level. So far we
haven’t seen that. In the Commons, the other three parties remain dead
against reform. But we could be in a position to pass reform legislation
through the Senate in the foreseeable future. That would put real pressure
on the Opposition in the Commons.

Byfield:  Even though your legislation for federal elections may be stalled
for the present, provinces can proceed on their own. Yet apart from
Alberta, only Saskatchewan has committed to a provincial Senate election,
and Manitoba is considering it. Why such reluctance among the rest?

Harper:  I have been somewhat surprised at how little interest the Premiers
appear to have in Senate reform, and I can only guess as to the reasons.
For instance, the Premiers might be hesitant to begin any process that
might take us in the direction of constitutional negotiations.

It has often been speculated that Premiers prefer to see themselves as the
spokespeople for their own regions, and therefore prefer to maintain the
status quo. I still believe we need a regional chamber inside, not outside,
the federal Parliament.

I know that some provinces also worry that federal issues could sideswipe a
provincial election campaign if a Senate election were held during a
provincial writ period. An obvious solution would be combining Senate
elections with municipal elections instead.

Unger: Manitoba is currently in the process of provincial consultations,
and has a Senate vacancy due to occur in June. If the outcome of those
consultations is positive, and Manitoba decides to proceed with an
election, will you let them fill their next vacancy by election?

Harper: If a province has a reasonable electoral process I would respect
the outcome of that process and appoint the winner, as I did in Alberta
with Senator Brown. However, I might appoint Senators on an interim basis –
as I did with Senator Wallin in Saskatchewan – in order to that the vacancy
cannot be filled by someone else. As you know, we are in a minority
situation and the Opposition Coalition has been clear that they would fill
Senate vacancies with people opposed to Senate reform if they got the
chance. [Note: This interview occurred before Parliament reassembled, while
the Coalition threat was still hanging.]

In the specific case of Manitoba and its possible course of action, I would
urge a quick decision,because it has a Senate vacancy opening up this

Byfield: Notwithstanding last month’s 18 new Senate appointments, and
future appointments as more vacancies occur, will you proceed with Senate
reform in this Parliament?

Harper: Yes, I intend to reintroduce both reform bills from the last

The first would permit – but not force – federal governments to consult the
electorate as to whom they think is qualified to represent them in the
Senate. The second bill would limit any future Senate appointment to eight
years. This is an important priority for us, because any reform will be
difficult to get through a Senate of people who can serve up to 45 years!

Byfield: What do you make of Quebec’s claim that Senate elections would be

Harper: The overwhelming weight of expert opinion is that both bills are
fully constitutional. The key to a consultation with the electorate being
constitutional is that it is an option, not an obligation, for the Prime
Minister. That is what our bill does. Obviously I would exercise that
option. The parties of the Opposition Coalition clearly would not.

Quebec’s desire is to replace a federally-appointed Senate with a
provincially-appointed Senate. Canadians, including Quebecers, don’t
believe that replacing federal patronage with provincial
patronage constitutes serious Senate reform. I will only accept
provincially-elected Senators, not provincially-appointed ones.

Byfield: What about the frequent argument that any Senate changes must be
part of a broader compendium of constitutional reforms?

Harper: This is the argument against “piecemeal” Senate reform. People who
use this argument are, of course, opponents of Senate reform. They know
full well that there is no prospect for comprehensive constitutional change
on the horizon.

Unger: Is a stand-alone constitutional question on Senate reform possible,
or would other questions have to be added in?

Harper: A stand-alone constitutional debate or amendment is theoretically
possible. However, once you get into constitutional negotiations it is
inevitable that other issues will be added to the agenda.

Unger: Do you think the national Senate referendum proposed last year as a
resolution by Senator Hugh Segal – to abolish or reform the Senate – should
be reintroduced? Is a referendum a good idea?

Harper: I indicated in the last Parliament that I would support a
resolution seeking a national referendum on the future of the Senate. It
would be useful to mobilize public opinion. But for this to happen,
legislation would also have to be passed through both Houses of Parliament.
This means we would quickly get back to the same problems we have today
with passing Senate reform legislation.

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