The following is a guest post by Steve Clarke, Senior Foreign Law Specialist.
Canada‘s new majority Conservative Government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has introduced a bill (Bill C-7) that would limit Senators to one nine-year term. The 105 members of Canada’s upper house currently have no terms of office and are only obliged to resign upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. Bill C-7 would also require the Prime Minister to review the nomination of persons elected in provincial elections for seats in the Senate, which are allocated by region and province. At the present time, Alberta is the only province that has a law for the popular selection of nominees. The Government contends that it can amend the Constitution respecting the nomination and terms of senators unilaterally. However, the Premier of Quebec has stated that he will contest any such change in court and the leader of the Liberal Party has indicated that such a change would require the concurrence of at least seven of the ten provinces. Thus, if it is enacted, the constitutionality of the proposed Senate Reform Act (which Bill C-7 would become) will likely have to be taken up by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Senate reform has long been a goal of the Conservative Party. This is partly because its strongest base of support, the West, is severely underrepresented – it has only 24 seats divided between four provinces, while the much smaller Maritime region has 30 seats for its own four provinces. This largely historical anomaly has never been corrected although there is no doubt that the Conservative Party hopes to eventually address the difficult task of redistribution.
Abolition of the Senate does not appear to be part of the Conservative’s agenda. Upper chambers have been eliminated in other Commonwealth nations such as New Zealand. However, the leader of the New Democratic Party, now in the position of being the Official Opposition for the first time, has proposed that a referendum should be held to determine whether the country wants to keep the Senate. Supporters of the chamber of “sober second thought” argue that it places a desirable check on the House of Commons and has a history of conducting thorough and thoughtful studies on laws, bills, and government policies.