Canada's Senate revives an old, great debate: its own existence

The Canadian Senate has shot itself in the foot. For a month it has been blocking a bill from the elected House of Commons and there are renewed cries for the abolition of the unelected upper house. But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney may settle for clipping its wings.

The immediate problem is that the Senate blocked a $19.3 billion borrowing bill passed by the House of Commons in December. The Senate says it is showing its independence. Its critics say it is showing the folly of its very existence.

The Senate, patterned on the House of Lords in Britain, has the right to block bills, but the House of Commons will eventually get them passed because, after a 180-day waiting period, the Commons holds sway. Mr. Mulroney plans to reduce that waiting period to 30 days.

The Commons also has the right to abolish the Senate if it wants to.

Mulroney asked the minister of justice, John Crosby, to draw up a constitutional amendment to curb the powers of the Senate. The Senate cannot veto a constitutional amendment but it can delay its adoption.

Minister of Finance Michael Wilson described the senators as a bunch of ``has beens'' who are ``playing fast and loose with the taxpayers' money just to play a parliamentary game.''

The Senate is loaded with Liberal senators, hardly surprising since senators are appointed by the government of the day and Liberals held power for all but nine months between 1963 and 1984. Seventy-two of the 104 Senate seats are held by Liberals.

Liberal senators, led by former finance minister Allan MacEachen, seem to delight in embarrassing the Conservative government.

``Our objective is not the systematic obstruction,'' Senator MacEachan said. He feels the Senate is finally filling the role it should play and that it had not done its job properly in the past.

All this has led to a revival of the great Canadian debate: Should the Senate be abolished?

Yes, said the Toronto Sun, a populist tabloid. In an editorial the Sun said the Senate had outlived its usefulness.

One Conservative senator, Lowell Murray, said the Liberal senators were seeking revenge for their party's drubbing at the polls last September. He told senators they could be signing their own ``death warrant'' by raising calls for the abolition of the Senate.

What many reformers want is an elected, not an appointed, upper house similar to the Senate in the United States.

Canada's Senate is seen by many as a rest home for old political warhorses. MacEachen, for instance, was appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau just before he left office last summer. The MacEachen appointment was just one of a slew of patronage appointments that hurt the Liberals in the fall general election.

Mulroney has never advocated abolition of the Senate. He recognizes its value as a reward for faithful political service. And if he stays in office long enough, he can eventually get his own back. Senators have to retire at age 75. As they do, the Conservatives can fill the upper chamber with their own men and women. -- 30 --

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