OTTAWA — For the fourth time in as many years, the Harper government has introduced legislation to impose eight-year limits on the terms of senators.
A bill introduced in the House of Commons on Monday would limit senators to a single, non-renewable term and would apply to all those appointed since October 2008.
Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, says legal experts have assured the government that term limits can be imposed without a constitutional amendment.
But several provinces, including heavyweights Ontario and Quebec, object to the measure, saying the changes require provincial approval.
This is the fourth version of the reform bill the government has introduced in since 2006. Previous versions were either stalled by the Liberals or killed by prorogations.
Senators, who must be at least 30 years old to be appointed, can serve until 75, meaning a term could run as long as 45 years.
“Our government believes that setting term limits is an important first step in increasing the democratic legitimacy of the Senate,” said Fletcher.
“Canadians are rightly questioning how senators with no democratic mandate can serve terms for up to 45 years.”
Lowell Murray, a Progressive Conservative appointed by Joe Clark, is the longest-serving senator, with more than 30 years in office. Liberal Peter Stollery, a Trudeau appointee, will hit the 29-year mark this summer.
Fletcher said polls show strong public support for term limits.
“We agree with Canadians that it’s time the Senate reflected the values of the 21st century,” Fletcher said.
He said he hopes the opposition parties will support the measure. The Liberals support term limits, but have argued for longer terms.
David Christopherson of the NDP called the bill a “big hairy deal,” saying it just tinkers with a bad situation. The New Democrats prefer either abolition or an elected Senate.
However, Christopherson said his party may support this bill.
“If it goes the way it looks, we’ll support it only because there’s no real argument not to,” he said. “Having an unelected person there, it’s probably better that they’re only there eight years instead of 15 or 20.”
The Tories now have a plurality of Senate seats. Prime Minister Stephen Harper filled a number of vacancies earlier this year, erasing long-standing Liberal control of the upper house.
Fletcher also said the government plans further Senate tinkering, including legislation to consult Canadians at the polls about the choice of senators.
That’s a compromise between a system of direct election of senators — which likely would require a full-blown constitutional amendment — and the present direct appointments.
“Consultations” with the voters would allow them to support would-be senators, but the power of appointment would remain with the prime minister, allowing the government to argue there’s no major change needing constitutional change.