National News

Small step toward Senate democracy proposed

By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Canada's Senate may never become an elected parliamentary chamber, but a move is afoot to bring at least a measure of democracy to the appointed upper house.

Terry Mercer, an independent Liberal senator, is proposing a constitutional amendment to have the Speaker of the Senate elected by senators, instead of being appointed by the prime minister.

It's a timely proposal since the current Speaker, Conservative Sen. Noel Kinsella, is slated to retire at the end of November.

And Mercer says it's eminently more achievable than Prime Minister Stephen Harper's more ambitious proposals to elect all senators and saddle them with term limits.

Harper's plans were effectively nixed last spring by the Supreme Court, which advised that his reforms would change the fundamental character of the Senate and, as such, would require a constitutional amendment approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.

Mercer says legal experts assure him his proposal, being more housekeeping in nature, would require only the approval of the Senate and House of Commons.

"The Supreme Court has told us that we can't amend how the Senate is appointed, how certain other things are done," Mercer said in an interview.

"But there's a couple things we can do ourselves and this is one, the way we can democratize the selection of the Speaker."

MPs have been voting by secret ballot for the Speaker of the House of Commons since 1986 and Mercer said it's about time senators did the same.

"We, as members of the Senate, should have a say as to who the Speaker is. The Speaker is an important person in the parliamentary system ... and needs to be someone that we all have faith in."

Mercer introduced his constitutional amendment in June, just before Parliament broke for the summer.

"Why should the choice of the chair of our chamber be at the behest of the prime minister of the day? Doesn't that make us less independent?" he told the Senate as he opened debate on his proposal.

Moreover, he argued the Senate needs to show it can reform itself to counter Canadians' jaded view of the chamber, which has been rocked by scandal over improperly claimed expenses by some senators.

Mercer is now hoping the Senate will deal with his amendment quickly when Parliament resumes next month and send it off for Commons approval in time to elect Kinsella's successor as Speaker.

He said he's heard from a number of Conservative senators, including "even strong Harper loyalists," who like the idea of choosing their own Speaker rather than leaving it up to the prime minister.

The Senate Speaker has always been somewhat more partisan and less of a neutral referee than his counterpart in the Commons. Kinsella, for instance, attends Conservative caucus meetings and can take part in debates and vote on any matter before the Senate that he chooses.

Mercer's proposed amendment would allow the Speaker to vote only to break a tie — the same limitation placed on the Commons Speaker.

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