Proposed Senate changes leads to worry about Yukon’s vacant seat

‘We try to act as a backup for our MPs, to take up the slack; we’re more hands on.” With that, outgoing Yukon senator Ione…

‘We try to act as a backup for our MPs, to take up the slack; we’re more hands on.”

With that, outgoing Yukon senator Ione Christensen explained the importance of filling her now-empty seat in Canada’s upper house.

And in a surprise move this week, the Yukon Party government has echoed the 73-year-old senator’s sentiments.

“We want representation in the upper chamber as quickly as possible,” said Premier Dennis Fentie in an interview Monday.

“We only have one Senate appointment. It’s a loss for us.”

But there’s a roadblock.

In the past, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would appoint Christensen’s replacement from a short-list of candidates, probably provided by the Yukon government.

That process could be headed for the history books, however, as Harper introduced a bill recently that could see senators elected through plebiscites held during federal, provincial or territorial elections.

The resulting confusion about appointments — mixed with the fact that the territory just held an election and an early federal election is still only a possibility — has some worried the Yukon’s Senate seat could remain empty for quite some time.

Fentie is pushing to find a solution as fast as he can.

“What I’d like to do is ask the prime minister what it is he thinks we should do,” he said.

“So, the question will be asked: ‘Is there something we can do to ensure that representation is expedited so that we have a senator in place?’”

Fentie wished Christensen well and said she was a “staunch champion” on Yukon issues, particularly when representing the territory’s placer mining industry.

But aside from the Yukon’s worries about our seat, it appears Canadians generally support Harper’s overhaul of the selection process.

A new Decima Research survey commissioned by the Canadian Press found that 64 per cent of respondents support  being able to select senators through plebiscites or elections.

And 72 per cent of respondents were supportive of term limits for senators, a bill that Harper introduced earlier in the year and that is now being reviewed in the upper house.

Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell wants an elected Senate.

But he feels Harper’s plebiscite approach avoids the Constitution, which has set rules in place for changing the Senate-appointment procedure.

He also finds Fentie’s sudden interest in the seat surprising, he said.

“He never seemed to show much interest in the Senate previously,” said Mitchell. “I believe his current position is at odds with his previously stated position on the Senate.

“Perhaps he has someone in mind that he would like to see appointed?”

Indeed, during his days in the NDP, Fentie appeared to see the upper house a bit differently.

In 1998, Fentie described the Senate as “merely a vehicle with which to repay political favours.”

“I don’t think that’s what the body was intended to be, and I believe that is a very clear reason why we should abolish it,” he said during question period on April 15, 1998.

The Yukon NDP still shares their former MLA’s position.

“I’m sure she (Christensen) did lots of good work, but I’m not losing any sleep over the fact she’s retiring and we may not have a senator for two or three months,” said acting NDP leader Steve Cardiff.

“My own personal point of view is that they should get rid of it.”

Cardiff said the Senate costs too much money for the amount of work it contributes, that it is currently open to abuse and to patronage appointments, and that it needs to be overhauled.

And if Harper’s government falls in the next election before the new bill is passed, “then we’ll be back to square one,” he said.

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