Top court hears final plea to allow easy path to Senate reform

Don’t make it impossible to change Canada’s scandal-plagued Senate.

OTTAWA — Don’t make it impossible to change Canada’s scandal-plagued Senate.

That was the underlying message to Supreme Court justices Thursday as they wrapped up a historic hearing that will decide how — or if — the much-maligned upper house can be reformed or abolished.

In the final word at the three-day hearing, the federal government urged the justices to accept its argument that modest reforms — to allow for non-binding elections and term limits for senators — can be implemented easily by Ottawa alone, without any input from the provinces.

“This is not a narrow-minded, literal approach (to the Constitution), as has been repeatedly said (by provinces) in these proceedings,” federal counsel Robert Frater insisted.

“It is a comprehensive approach that should permit meaningful action on reform to the Senate instead of another 135 more years of talk.”

His argument got partial support earlier Thursday from one of two lawyers appointed by the court to provide independent advice on the matter.

John Hunter said the federal government alone should be able to create a process to allow consultative elections for senators, provided that the results are not binding and the prime minister remains free to appoint whomever he or she chooses.

He argued that this would simply amount to another form of consultation for the prime minister, who can already consult whomever he or she pleases about Senate appointments.

“The reality is that those who would oppose this would really say the prime minister can get sources of guidance from any source he or she wishes. He can talk to his friends, political party activists, he can read petitions, he can use a ouija board,” Hunter said.

“The only thing he can’t do is consult the electorate and that’s a rather remarkable proposition.”

The other lawyer appointed by the court, Daniel Jutras, disagreed. He joined the vast majority of provinces in arguing that creation of a Senate election process would require a constitutional amendment supported by at least seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population.

Jutras and Hunter were in sync on other issues before the court. They both sided with most provinces in arguing that 7-50 approval would be needed to impose term limits on senators and that unanimous provincial consent would be necessary to abolish the red chamber entirely.