OTTAWA, (Reuters) – Canada’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Parliament cannot enact major reforms to the Senate on its own, dealing a sweeping setback to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s goal of making the unelected upper house more democratic.
The court said Harper’s Plan B – to abolish the Senate if reform proved impossible – must win the approval of the legislatures of all 10 provinces, not just an outright majority.
Parliament has two chambers, the elected House of Commons and the Senate, whose members are named by prime ministers over the years and which rarely blocks House legislation. Before pushing through legislation that the top court might later strike down, the Conservatives had asked the top court to pronounce ahead of time what power Parliament has to make changes.
Effectively, the court killed off or at least severely diminished the prospect of Senate reform by requiring constitutional amendments. Canada’s federal political leaders dare not embark on constitutional negotiations because of fears that opening up such talks could weaken the country’s fragile national unity.
“We conclude that Parliament cannot unilaterally achieve most of the proposed changes to the Senate, which require the consent of at least seven provinces representing, in the aggregate, at least half of the population of all the provinces,” the court said unanimously.
“Abolition of the Senate would fundamentally change Canada’s constitutional structure, including its procedures for amending the Constitution, and can only be done with unanimous federal-provincial consensus,” it added.