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2014-04-25 at 16:07

PM disappointed

By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
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OTTAWA - Stephen Harper says he's disappointed in today's Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform, which he denounces as a "decision for the status quo" that virtually "no Canadian" can support.

That said, a defeated-sounding Harper says the federal government will respect the decision, which unequivocally slammed the door on reforming or abolishing the Senate without reopening the Constitution.

"This is a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian," Harper told a business audience at an event in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

"Given the Supreme Court has said we're essentially stuck with the status quo for the time being, and that significant reform and abolition are off the table, I think it's a decision that I'm disappointed with (and) that a vast majority of Canadians will be very disappointed with."

There is no consensus among the provinces on either reform or abolition of the Senate, nor is there a desire "among anyone" to reopen the Constitution and have "a bunch of constitutional negotiations," he added.

"But obviously, we will respect that decision."

The high court says Harper's hope to impose term limits on senators and create a "consultative election" process to choose nominees cannot be done by the federal government alone.

Instead, such reforms would require constitutional amendments approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.

The unanimous decision also says abolishing the Senate, something Harper has threatened to do if his reform agenda is stymied, would require the unanimous consent of all 10 provinces,

Harper sought the top court's advice after a number of provinces strenuously objected to the federal government's plans to proceed unilaterally with its reform proposals.

The court says the Senate is key to the political bargain struck at Confederation and can't easily be tinkered with as a result.

"The Senate is one of Canada's foundational political institutions," said the ruling, which was attributed to the court as a whole. "It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation."

In creating the Senate, the court said the Fathers of Confederation deliberately chose an appointed chamber, which was supposed to be independent, free of partisanship and able to apply "sober second thought" to legislation without blocking the will of the elected House of Commons.

Turning the Senate, directly or indirectly, into an elected chamber "would fundamentally modify the constitutional architecture ... and, by extension, would constitute an amendment to the Constitution," the court said.

"They would weaken the Senate's role of sober second thought and would give it the democratic legitimacy to systematically block the House of Commons, contrary to its constitutional design."

The federal government had argued that consultative elections wouldn't be binding and, since the prime minister would remain free to appoint whomever he pleases, the change was simply a housekeeping matter.

While it acknowledged the prime minister could, in theory, ignore the results of senatorial elections, the court said: "The purpose of the (reform) is clear: to bring about a Senate with a popular mandate. We cannot assume that future prime ministers will defeat this purpose by ignoring the results of costly and hard-fought consultative elections."

Similarly, the court said imposing a limit on the term of senators, who currently serve until age 75, would also fundamentally change the constitutional architecture, interfering with senators' independence.

No matter how long the fixed term, a limit would "imply a finite time in office and necessarily offer a lesser degree of protection from the potential consequences of freely speaking one's mind on the legislative proposals of the House of Commons."

The Harper government also asked the court if it could unilaterally repeal the constitutional requirement that a senator own at least $4,000 worth of property in the province he or she is appointed to represent.

The justices found the federal government could do that for every province but Quebec.

Since Quebec is the only province where senators are appointed to specific electoral districts, the province's consent is required to change the property qualification, the ruling said.

The Canadian Press
© The Canadian Press, 2014

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