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Canada's top court blocks senate reform

OTTAWA--Canada's top court on Friday rejected government proposals to unilaterally reform or abolish its scandal-plagued senate, saying such a move required a constitutional change supported by the provinces.

The ruling is a blow to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who championed elections and term limits for senators but hoped to avoid reopening a divisive constitutional debate to implement reforms.

“The Senate is one of Canada's foundational political institutions. It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation,” the Supreme Court said in its decision.

“The statute that created the Senate ... forms part of the Constitution of Canada and can only be amended in accordance with the Constitution's procedures for amendment.”

Under the current system, senators from various regions of Canada are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and can hold their seats until they turn 75.

Critics say successive federal governments have stacked it with party hacks, organizers and supporters.

Harper expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying: “We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition and no desire of anyone to reopen the Constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations.

“So essentially this is a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian,” he said, adding that Ottawa would respect the court's decision.

The ruling comes amid recent iniquities involving members of the upper chamber.

A trio of senators appointed by Harper were accused of charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for travel and housing expenses in a scandal that has been a drag on the ruling Conservatives' popularity.

The Senate suspended the three members without pay last November after an audit revealed “troubling” expense claims.

One of the three in question is also being investigated by federal police for having accepted monies from Harper's chief of staff to help him repay the funds he had wrongly claimed as senate expenses.

Facing stiff opposition to reforms from several provinces fearing a dilution of their share of senate seats, and from senators themselves, Harper had asked the Supreme Court for its opinion.

The court upheld the existing constitutional amending formula for reforms requiring the consent of Parliament and seven provinces representing half of the population.

Abolishing the Senate, it said, would require unanimous consent of Parliament and the legislatures of all 10 provinces.

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