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December 12, 2008

Stephen Harper seeks to rig Senate

CANADA - Constitutional experts and opposition parties are furious today and condemned Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plan to fill every empty Senate seat in advance of his government's possible defeat in January, a blatant attempt to rig the Senate in his favour. Harper wants to name the new senators before Christmas – likely all of them in one fell swoop.

Constitutional scholar Desmond Morton called the move a scandal in view of the precarious position of Harper's minority government. "He has the power to do it, but he shouldn't have the gall," said Morton, a professor emeritus at McGill University.

"I think it's more in keeping with the principles of parliamentary democracy that a potentially lame-duck administration should not make appointments," said constitutional scholar Ned Franks and Queen's University professor emeritus. Harper should have waited to appoint Senators and do so before the Commons, he says. "There's no problem with him doing it. It's according to the past tradition of the prime minister using his personal discretion to choose appointments. There's no problem there, but the timing is a bit suspect."

A senior government official, briefing reporters on background, said "part of the reason" for rushing to name Senate appointments now "is clearly related" to the NDP-Liberal coalition, which the Conservative government believes would put its own partisans into the current 18 vacancies and block Senate reform if it ever got into power. Another 11 vacancies in the 105-seat chamber are expected to open up next year, which would allow Harper to stack 29 more Senate seats in his favour.

Even if Harper does not succeed in securing an outright majority in the Senate, he could get what an official called a "functioning majority," because "not all members of the Senate are terribly active." Some of the Senators are elderly and occasionally have health problems.

Harper is also planning to name people clearly committed and willing to abide by the Conservative party's goal of limiting Senate terms to eight years, and to standing for election. Normally Senators are appointed for life (or until they reach age 75 or step down) and paid $130,400 a year.

The purpose of the Senate is to follow the will of Canadians, fine tune and improve new legislation and overturn corruption in the House of Commons. Stacking the Senate in one political party's favour would ruin its purpose.

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