Supreme Court shoots down senate reforms

Politics: Sen. Scott Tannas says senators need to push for change

By: Don Patterson

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 03:08 pm

Sen. Scott Tannas
Sen. Scott Tannas
Wheel file photo

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Canada’s top court ruled the federal government can’t overhaul the senate without getting support from the provinces.

The Supreme Court ruled last week proposed legislation to set term limits for senators and open the door to expanding the Alberta model for electing senators was unconstitutional.

Sen. Scott Tannas said the decision means the Senate is here to stay and efforts now need to focus on finding ways to change it.

“That is the clearest thing, that as Canadians, the Senate is a fact that we can’t wish away,” he said. “So, we’re going to have to focus on what can be done to make the senate more valuable, more effective, without constitutional change.”

The court unanimously ruled the senate is one of Canada’s foundational political institutions, created under the Canadian Constitution and can only be changed under rules for constitutional amendments.

Establishing term limits and consultative elections, as done in Alberta, would require support of the House of Commons, the Senate and at least seven provinces that make up at least half of Canada’s population. Abolition of the senate would require the approval of all 10 provinces.

Tannas isn’t sure if the provinces can agree on changes like term limits without opening the door to a larger debate on constitutional reform.

“It seems like a reasonable ask, but I’m not sure that any of the provinces are prepared to make any changes to the constitution without engaging their laundry list of items that they want to see in constitutional change,” he said.

While Tannas doesn’t see an appetite among the provinces to open the door to constitutional debate, he said there is a significant interest among Canadians for senate reform.

Tannas said it’s now up to senators to drum up public support to get the provincial governments on side.

“I think that’s going to be the job of senators, first and foremost is we’re going to need to work at transforming the institution, updating it and making it more effective,” he said.

Tannas argued the Alberta model for senate elections could be expanded and used in other provinces.

Senators from each province are appointed by the Prime Minster. In Alberta, individuals are elected to be appointed to represent the province in the senate. Tannas was selected as a senator in waiting in the 2012 provincial election.

Tannas said he believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper will continue to appoint elected senators, but there is nothing to compel a future prime minister to do so in the future.

However, he said it can become an accepted practice over time if Canadians push for it and the process can achieve some level of senate reform without the need for constitutional change.


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