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BC to introduce senate bill despite Supreme Court's deliberations

The British Columbia government plans to push ahead with legislation to allow for senate elections even though the country's top court is about to consider whether such a change would be legal.

If the provincial government really wants to improve democracy, there are higher priorities, starting with fixing the law requiring election advertisers to register even if they are spending no money, said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

For several years the B.C. government has been supportive of electing senators. A private members' bill introduced by government MLA John Les last year on electing senators didn't pass, but Justice Minister Shirley Bond has said the government will introduce similar legislation in the session set to start next week.

But last week the federal government said it is referring its bill C-7, which deals with senate reform, to the Supreme Court. The bill's measures include allowing provinces to elect senators and limiting senate terms to nine years.

The federal government is asking the court whether it can make those changes unilaterally or whether it's a constitutional change needing the agreement of the majority of the provinces.

B.C. will proceed with its changes despte the federal uncertainty, according to an emailed statement from justice minister Shirley Bond.

"Our government has made it clear that having a senate with democratic legitimacy makes sense," Bond said. "While the federal bill on senate reform is undergoing constitutional review we know that if the bill is upheld, provinces and territories would still be responsible for holding their own nominee elections - and it would be up to each province/territory to decide whether or not do so."

Even if the court does not uphold the bill, provinces and territories could still hold elections to nominate senators, she said, noting the prime minister "would not be required by law to consider the nominees."

B.C. will continue to prepare for elections for senate nominees, she said. "British Columbians should have real input into choosing the people who represent our province in the senate."

FIPA's Gogolek said B.C. should wait for the Supreme Court's opinion before it moves ahead. "There isn't a rush."

It's a bigger priority to fix the provincial law that requires groups or individuals to register if anything they plan to say or distribute during an election period might be considered election advertising. While other jurisdictions allow spending of $500 or $1,000 before registration is required, B.C. has no such allowance.

FIPA has filed a civil claim in the B.C. Supreme Court seeking to have the law changed, but Gogolek says they'd prefer the government to pass a law making the change. "Anything that would get in the way of this, we have a problem with."

Gogolek noted that when Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently filled five senate vacancies, he left a vacant B.C. senate seat open.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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