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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is applauded by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice and other caucus members while responding to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006.(CP / POOL / Chris Wattie)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is applauded by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice and other caucus members while responding to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006.(CP / POOL / Chris Wattie)

Opposition leader Stephan Dion asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006.(CP / Fred Chartrand)

Opposition leader Stephan Dion asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006.(CP / Fred Chartrand)

PM delivers Senate news with election-style talk

Updated Wed. Dec. 13 2006 11:20 PM ET

CTV.ca News Staff

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered the news about his Senate reform initiative with an election-style pep talk to his Conservative caucus. 

"Our economy is strong. Our administration is clean. Our country is united and the world is spreading the word, Canada is back," he said Wednesday, the last day of Parliament before the Christmas break.

The Conservatives allowed the media to observe and record this particular caucus meeting.

Harper's initiative would allow voters to choose Senators in vacant seats. He would then appoint the winner to the upper house. Senate appointments have always been the prerogative of the prime minister.

"Imagine that after a century and a half, democracy will finally came to the Senate of Canada," he said to applause.

The opposition leaders largely heaped scorn on Harper's proposal.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion called the plan "completely irresponsible." He said changing the Senate would require re-opening the Constitution and he panned the idea of having two elected chambers of Parliament.

"The very moment the two chambers would be elected, they would have (the) same behaviour, a greater likelihood that you would have a stalemate without some kind of dispute mechanism," he told reporters.

"It will give the Senate more dysfunctionality and they'll be able to monkey with the business of the House of Commons even more then they have up to now," NDP Leader Jack Layton told reporters.

"We don't want to start a new constitutional round," added Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

Liberal senators were among those who added their voices to the criticism.

"We've had it since Confederation and it does very good work," said Sen. Art Eggleton, a former Liberal cabinet minister.

"This is silliness quite frankly. Mr. Harper should be focused on the environment, on Afghanistan," added Sen. Terry Mercer.

In the provinces, Alberta's premier-designate Ed Stelmach, a Progressive Conservative, pronounced himself onside with Harper.

"I believe what Prime Minister Harper is doing is opening up consultation in terms of how to bring about Senate reform and we're going to work with him,'' Stelmach told reporters in Edmonton. "We have been supportive of Senate reform for many, many years and will continue to do so. I'm awaiting the details of his proposals.''

Saskatchewan's NDP Premier Lorne Calvert wants a Senate that is equal and effective before worrying about electing members for it.

"From my perspective, representation is what's most important," said Gordon Campbell, the Liberal premier of B.C..

How it would work

The bill, if passed, would amount to essentially a plebiscite in the next general election.

There are currently 10 Senate vacancies in the 105-seat Senate, so under the proposed bill voters would be asked who they would like to see fill those spots in their provinces and territories.

"Elections Canada will oversee the vote," said Harper. "If need be we'll use a plurality voting system at first and then move to a preferential system of proportional representation."

Under a plurality system, a party could win 10 per cent of the national vote, but unless it wins the most votes in any one district it gets no seats.

For years, Harper has been pushing for reform of the 105-seat Senate -- often referred to as the house of "sober second thought."

But a complete overhaul of Senate powers and they way in which its members are appointed would require a change to the constitution.

Neither the governor general nor future prime ministers would be bound to the proposed bill since it has no constitutional bearing.

The big question is whether the bill will pass. Harper already has legislation in the works to limit Senators' terms to eight years; but like many other government bills, it's still stuck in the Senate where Liberals hold a majority.

Harper noted that the bill was being introduced the day after the government's Federal Accountability Act received royal assent.

But he acknowledged getting this one passed won't be easy. He said the Liberals like the Senate "just the way it is" and that they recently defended senators having 45-year terms.

"A democratically elected and genuinely accountable Senate may not serve the interests of the Liberal party; but it will serve the Canadian people, and their interests come first to this government," he said.

"Just as the Liberals opposed the accountability act, the federal budget, the GST cut, child-care allowance, softwood lumber deal, the tax fairness plan -- do you see a theme here?

"I don't expect them to embrace Senate elections without a fight."

With a report from CTV's Robert Fife and files from The Canadian Press

 

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