December 22, 2008 / 6:02 PM / in 9 years

Harper riles opposition again with Senate move

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose minority Conservative government could be brought down soon, angered opposition parties on Monday by naming 18 people to Parliament’s unelected Senate chamber.

<p>Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to the media in Toronto, December 20, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>

Harper had promised not to make any more appointments to the Senate, which he wants to turn into an elected body. The Senate, the less powerful upper house of Parliament, is now dominated by the opposition Liberals, whom Harper accuses of blocking, or watering down, government legislation.

Government officials had telegraphed Harper’s appointments, arguing that if the government were brought down in the House of Commons over a budget set to be delivered on Jan 27, his rivals would then be able to stuff the 105-seat Senate with their own candidates.

Last month the Liberals signed a coalition deal with the left-leaning New Democrats to bring down Harper on the grounds he was mismanaging the economy. Harper escaped a confidence vote by having Parliament suspended.

“Our government will continue to push for a more democratic, accountable and effective Senate. If Senate vacancies are to be filled, however, they should be filled by the government that Canadians elected rather than by a coalition that no one voted for,” Harper said in a statement.

David Christopherson, a legislator for the New Democrats, accused Harper of breaking his word on making Senate appointments and said the move would cost C$8 million ($6.6 million) at a time when the economy was suffering.

“Mr. Harper should be focused on the 71,000 Canadians who lost their jobs last month,” he said in a statement. “These 18 patronage appointments show that when it comes to job creation, Mr. Harper cares more about rewarding his Conservative friends than creating jobs for Canadians.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp said it was the largest number of senatorial appointments made in a single day in Canadian history. A senior Harper aide told reporters that the prime minister would also move to fill 11 more vacancies in the Senate when they open up over the next year.

Opposition parties say Harper does not have the right to make such appointments when Parliament is suspended.

“There were so many vacancies in the Senate that it wasn’t able to function,” said Steven Fletcher, the junior government minister in charge of democratic reform.

“We had an unelected body blocking legislation from an elected body -- the House of Commons -- and it wasn’t a sustainable situation,” he told CBC.

The Conservatives won a strengthened minority in an Oct 14 election and he called on his rivals to work together to tackle the global financial crisis.

The spirit of cooperation only lasted until late November, when Harper moved to cut public financing for political parties, a step that would have hit opposition parties particularly hard.

Harper said the senators had all pledged to support eight-year term limits and other Senate reform legislation. Senators currently serve until the age of 75.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway

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