It’s one small step for Senate reform, and one giant leap for partisanship.
One hundred years after it was first suggested, Canadian senators will, for the first time, have a fixed term. At least unofficially.
The Yukon’s newest senator, former Yukon Party MLA Dan Lang, was more than happy to accept the limit, he said.
“I don’t think I would have wanted it to go on any longer,” he said.
Lang is one of a record-breaking 18 Senate appointees who are, for the most part, former Conservative politicians or fundraisers.
But the term-limit agreement is just an agreement between them and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Constitution still says they can serve until the age of 75.
The appointments remain unprecedented in the fact that the new senators have all pledged publicly to support senate reform from within the body itself.
But it’s not clear how the “Trojan” senators will be able to do it alone.
The government can make some changes in the power and structure of the Senate through both houses of Parliament, said Senator Jim Cowan.
“But if you want to change the Senate in a fundamental way, you have to go through the constitutional-amendment process,” he said.
That requires a consensus of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population, he said.
Earlier this year, Harper pushed a bill through the House of Commons seeking to amend senators’ terms to eight years.
“When the proposal got to (the Senate), the opinion and the witnesses we had said that it really is a fundamental change,” said Cowan.
“If you were to pick some other terms, like 12 or 15 years, maybe not. But eight years is too fundamental a change,” he said.
The senators asked Harper to seek the Supreme Court’s opinion, said Cowan.
“There’s not much point in appointing people and then finding out it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
But the government felt the bill was fine as is and refused to go to the Supreme Court.
The bill died when the Parliamentary session ended.
“If they court says it’s OK, we’ll pass it,” said Cowan.
“We’re not opposed to term limits,” he said, “But to go from life to eight years is unconstitutional.”
So if the Conservative senators want to entrench their eight-year terms in the constitution, redistribute Senate seats according to the most recent population data, give senators new powers or have senators elected, they are going to need wider approval.
Debate over senate reform over the last year have shown that some provinces prefer abolition (Manitoba and British Columbia), some are wary of the consequences (Ontario), and some downright opposed to it (New Brunswick.)
Either way, real constitutionally entrenched Senate reform is a long way off.
But that didn’t stop Conservatives from boasting about coming reform.
“I am fundamentally opposed to the existence of the Senate as it is now,” Darrell Pasloski, the Yukon’s Conservative candidate in the last federal election, said in an interview.
“But if you want to make Senate changes, any changes you have to make have to be approved by the Senate,” he said.
“Before you change it, you have to join them.”
There should be elections down the road, said Pasloski.
“What I’ve heard throughout the territory is that there is a strong consensus that this second house has to be accountable,” he said.
“It just can’t be a place where you park people.”
“We’re working toward an elected Senate,” he said.
This is the long-term goal. But in the short term, they’ve got to rally support for the government before a crucial January confidence vote in the other house.
While Senators have no power in regards to the coalition, they will support the Conservative by other means.
“It’s going to be my responsibility to serve the government of the day,” said Lang.
A staple of Yukon’s politics from 1974 to 1992, Lang was an integral part of the devolution of power from Ottawa to the territory.
Serving five terms as a Progressive Conservative MLA for Porter Creek, he held ministerial roles in tourism, economic development, renewable resources, housing, government services, and other positions.
Lang’s experience was certainly what got the prime minister’s attention, said Pasloski.
“Danny has put in dedication to the Yukon as an MLA and as a cabinet minister,” he said.
Lang will also be leaving behind his work in the real estate business.
“This is a full-time job if you do it right,” said Lang.
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