Mr. Speaker, we are discussing Senate reform, which would see senators appointed for eight years. We have to ask ourselves the following question: should changes affecting the essential characteristics of the Senate be made unilaterally by Parliament or should they be part of the constitutional process involving Quebec and the provinces?
The Supreme Court of Canada has answered that question. In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the capacity of Parliament, on its own, to amend constitutional provisions relating to the Senate. Its decision Re: Authority of Parliament in Relation to the Upper House , 1 S.C.R. 54 establishes the principle that major changes, affecting the essential characteristics of the Senate, cannot be made unilaterally. As hon. members can see, the Supreme Court has ruled on this issue.
Any reform affecting the powers of the Senate, the method of selecting senators, the number of senators to which a province is entitled or the residency requirement of senators can only be made in consultation with the provinces and Quebec.
Let us see how certain political players have looked at this issue. In 2007, the former Quebec minister for Canadian intergovernmental affairs, Benoît Pelletier, not exactly a sovereignist, reiterated Quebec's traditional position as follows:
|| The Government of Quebec does not believe that this falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Given that the Senate is a crucial part of the Canadian federal compromise, it is clear to us that under the Constitution Act, 1982, and the Regional Veto Act, the Senate can be neither reformed nor abolished without Quebec's consent.
That is what a Liberal government member said about the issue in 2007. That same day, the National Assembly—every single MNA, including members of the Parti Québécois, the ADQ and the Liberals—unanimously passed the following motion:
|| That the National Assembly of Québec reaffirm to the Federal Government and to the Parliament of Canada that no modification to the Canadian Senate may be carried out without the consent of the Government of Québec and the National Assembly.
This is not just about consultation. I know that Canada's Conservative would like to have full control over the Senate and appoint senators for eight-year terms, but for that he needs to do more than just consult with Quebec and the provinces. He needs to obtain consent from the provinces, specifically from seven provinces representing more than 50% of Canada's population.
Traditionally and historically, Quebec's position on the Senate and possible Senate reform has been very clear. Since the unilateral patriation of the Constitution, successive Quebec governments have all agreed on one basic premise: they have made it very clear that there can be no Senate reform until Quebec's status has been settled.
In 1989, Mr. Bourassa, the former Quebec premier, said that he did not want to talk about Senate reform until the Meech Lake accord was signed.
In 1992, Gil Rémillard said that Quebec would not sign an agreement on Senate reform until it was satisfied with the results of negotiations on distinct society, power sharing and federal spending power. More recently, Quebec's Liberal government—a federalist government, I should point out—participated in the Special Committee on Senate Reform in 2007. It wrote the following in its May 31, 2007, submission:
|| The Government of Quebec is not opposed to modernizing the Senate. But if the aim is to alter the essential features of that institution, the only avenue is the initiation of a coordinated federal-provincial constitutional process that fully associates the constitutional players, one of them being Quebec, in the exercise of constituent authority.
|| The Government of Quebec, with the unanimous support of the National Assembly, therefore requests the withdrawal of Bill C-43 [a bill proposing an elected Senate]. It also requests the suspension of proceedings on Bill S-4...
Bill became Bill and then Bill on Senate term limits.
This is the fourth time the government has tried to bring a Senate reform bill before the House. The Liberal government spoke out against this for constitutional reasons.
And do not forget that on November 7, 2007, the National Assembly unanimously passed its motion. I think it is clear that if Ottawa wishes to reform the Senate, it must reopen the constitutional debate, sit down with Quebec and the provinces and negotiate with them in order to come to an agreement. It cannot act unilaterally. As I said before, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on this issue.
if it truly wants to recognize Quebec, the government must also make sure to take a second issue into account. We know only too well that the Conservative government does not want to recognize Quebec. If it recognized the Quebec nation, it would also recognize the various political figures that have spoke about this issue.
We also want Quebec's political weight in the House of Commons to be maintained. But the Conservative government wants to increase the number of seats by 30, including 20 in Ontario, which would reduce Quebec's political weight. We are told that we will always be guaranteed 75 members. But 75 out of 308 is not the same as 75 out of 338.
Furthermore, the entire population of Quebec opposes this. We are very surprised and very frustrated by the actions of this government, which finally decided to recognize the Quebec nation. That was a sham; it was nothing but empty rhetoric. It does not really mean anything at all. When this government can diminish Quebec's political weight and ignore Quebec's wishes to not reform the Senate for constitutional reasons, it will do so. This is nothing but smoke and mirrors.
If the government was serious about democratic legitimacy, it would ensure that Quebec maintained its current representation in the House of Commons, that is, 24.35% of the seats. If 30 more seats are added, Quebec's representation would drop to under 22%. It is crucial that Quebec be represented not only based on its demographic weight, but also based on its historical significance and its social, economic and cultural distinctiveness. That is why we want Quebec's political weight to be preserved, and do not want to be left with just 75 seats. It is also because of Quebec's historical significance and because the Conservative government recognized the Quebec nation. If it wants to show consistency, it must ensure that the Quebec nation's representation is proportionate to its historic, economic and cultural significance, proportionate to its weight and what it is.
Moreover, the Conservative government is contradicting itself. On the one hand, it claims that it wants to increase the legitimacy of institutions, but on the other hand, it is trying to muzzle Quebec by introducing bills that will reduce the political weight of the Quebec nation. Clearly, the supposed recognition, as I mentioned earlier, was nothing more than empty rhetoric, since the Conservatives are incapable of taking any concrete action that would suggest true recognition.
It must be said that since the creation of the Canadian confederation, Quebec’s weight has declined constantly. I would point out that Quebec had 36% of the seats in 1867; if this bill were adopted, that would fall to 22.4%.
The members of the National Assembly are also in favour of the principle of maintaining Quebec’s weight. On Thursday, April 22, all members of that body, federalist and sovereignist, voted unanimously in favour of a motion against decreasing Quebec’s weight. Similar measures were adopted when previous bills were introduced by this Conservative government, which was trying to dilute the weight of Quebec. As well, the Quebec people also reject this bill, which would diminish the weight of Quebec. In fact, an Angus Reid poll conducted on April 7 shows that 71% of the population of Quebec opposes Bill , which seeks to diminish Quebec’s weight. Now, 71% is a lot of people.
So the consensus in Quebec is that it is important to maintain Quebec’s relative representation in this House. That includes all of the members of the National Assembly and the 49 members of this House, two thirds of the members for whom Quebeckers voted. We are elected representatives, and we have democratic, popular legitimacy. This government’s refusal to take Quebec’s demands into account is only the last in a long series of examples demonstrating that recognition of the Quebec nation means nothing to this government.
If it were truly serious when it talks about reforming the democratic legitimacy of institutions, the government would abolish the Senate and ensure that the weight of the Quebec nation, which has been officially recognized, is kept at 24.3%. In addition, as I said before, it would reform the democratic legitimacy of institutions by ensuring it has the support of seven provinces that together represent 50% of the Canadian population and acknowledging that a majority of Quebeckers oppose these issues.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to one of my favourite subjects, our Senate.
When this bill was first brought forward, my response publicly was, “big hairy deal”, and it stands. Quite frankly, my constituents and most Canadians do not give a tinkers about how long people get to be senators once they have been appointed to the Senate. The issue is how they get into the Senate. Whether they are in there 40 years, 30 years, 8 years or 2 years, they are still free to do whatever they want and there is not one power on this planet that can hold them accountable.
We will go along with it but I want to be quite frank. One of the reasons I am pleased to support this bill is that I am hoping, if there are enough senators rotating through the door and there is publicity around each one, that ultimately the Canadian people will finally say “Enough”.
We go through these spats where there are appointments and then nothing happens for a long period of time and people forget about it, for good reason. Then all of a sudden there is another round and there is a huge increase.
If that is happening two or three times a year, that might start to get to people as they see this happening over and over again, especially when they realize that most of the people going in there are either celebrities, meant to help the government be inoculated from its appointments, or they do not know who they are but they know it sure is not them or anybody they hang around with or have a beer with or play hockey with or go to work with. They know it will be somebody well connected and, in many cases but not all, it will be for, in my opinion, partisan reasons.
Well, let us look at the news release. It says in here, right off the bat, from the minister introducing the bill, ”Our government is committed to moving ahead with reform of the upper house to--”, and get this, ”--increase the democratic legitimacy of the Senate”.
Before something can be increased, it has to be there to start with and then it can be increased. Right now there is no democratic legitimacy to be found anywhere in that other place or the appointment process that gets people in there.
Then the minister said, “This bill is a step forward and creates a solid basis for further reform”.
That is nonsense. It does no such thing.
Mr. Speaker, I will signal to the minister that we will be supporting this bill at second reading, as I have indicated to him, to get it to committee. It is just not a big deal to us. Fine, 8 years or 20 years, they should not be there by appointment anyway. Therefore, if they are there for a shorter period of time, I guess that is a little better. That is about where we are with this thing.
Now the preamble, which is the part we need to sort of swallow in order to get it to committee, reads:
|| WHEREAS Parliament wishes to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate within Canada’s parliamentary democracy as a chamber of independent, sober second thought.
Now we are getting to some of my favourite parts when we talk about the Senate. I will not talk about sober second thought. I will leave that be because it is a personal matter for those who might have a problem living up to that standard. However, “independent”, give me a break. I keep hearing this over and over, “independent sober second thought”, independent this, independent that. What a lot of nonsense.
There is a government leader in the Senate. That does not sound too independent. That sounds pretty tied to the government. The person gets extra money for that job, very similar to the government House leader here. The purpose is to shepherd government bills through the chamber. It sounds partisan to me. How could it not be partisan?
On the other side of the House, and it sounds a lot like our House, there are people opposed to them. What is interesting is that every Wednesday a good number of senators do not have the morning off. I would not go so far as to say that they all work but I would go so far as to say that quite a few of them go to caucus meetings.
I do not think I am divulging any secrets on behalf of any caucus here but does everyone know what happens at caucus meetings? We talk about politics and it is partisan politics. Those members attend the Conservative and the Liberal caucuses because those are the only two caucuses they belong to.
I want to get it on the record that there are some senators who are truly independent. In fact, I respect most of them. I wish I did not. It would make it easier, but I do. I acknowledge that upfront. I am talking about the system, that house and democracy, not individuals.
However, on Wednesday morning, the senators go off to their respective caucus meetings and they participate and agree on political strategies. That is not independent by any stretch. Many of them are political operatives who use taxpayer money to go and do who knows what, because they are not accountable to anyone. We know that many of them are doing partisan work on the $131,000 a year that the Canadian taxpayers are giving them. I will not even get into their travel, their offices and everything else.
Not only that, many of them participate in our elections, which in and of itself should not be a problem except they are the ones who want to stick label on themselves and say that they are independent, that they do not have anything to do with dirty partisanship, that this is why the need to maintain that house so they can have that sober, independence, once removed from the partisan antics of the House review. That is nonsense, my fellow Canadians. It does not exist.
This is the biggest charade perpetrated on one of the most modern, mature democracies of all time. Putin only appoints governors. In Canada we appoint the whole upper house.
Then the minister rolls in with a bill, saying that it is on its way to reform, that things will change. At that moment, we would expect things would really change. Maybe we will apply proportional representation to the federal election and apply it to the House or maybe take those seats and put them here and have proportional representation as well as a mixture of first past the post, something that really addresses the issue and the deficiencies in our system
What did we get? We are going to limit the best free ride there is in the world, in my opinion, to eight years. I do not know what is so magical about eight. I know there are certain numbers in certain cultures that have great significance and I respect that, but I am not aware of what eight means to us.
I hear a member heckling that it is better than 25. It is not nearly better enough. When the government came to power, it said that it would change the Senate. Remember when it talked about that? Remember the Reform Party? That is how it got here. It said that it had to do something about the Senate, the triple E. Now the Conservatives have power and they will limit terms to only eight years. That is eight years of participating in the law-making of Canada with no accountability.
That is probably the thing that offends me the most. I want to know what senator will to step forward and say that he or she is the senator who represents Hamiltonians, that senator will be in Hamilton at all the public meetings so the people of Hamilton can tell that senator what they think. How many public meetings do senators hold? How many times does the media go to them and hold them to account in a scrum and ask them why they voted a certain way?
I will give a very small issue, but it is meaningful to my constituents. A bill was passed in the House when I first arrived here. Forgive me if it is mundane, but it matters if it concerns some people. The bill dealt with trains that idled. Measures were put forward about protecting residents so they did not live too close to trains that would idle all night long.
As a former city councillor, and for anyone else who has served on council, we are dealing with the issues that affect people where they live. I supported the bill, having had experience with railways, trying to get fences and silly things. The Senate was lobbied by the railways and it changed the law and took it out.
More than anything, I wanted to bring those senators, or at least one of them, to Hamilton to meet with my constituents and explain to them why they voted the way they did. That did not happen, and it will not happen.
Who holds them accountable? Who puts the microphone to their mouths and asks them why they did or did not do or say something? We are rightfully asked those questions because we are held accountable.
The bill proposes nothing to change any of that. This is all just window dressing so the government can get by when it is asked about what it did about the Senate when it made such lofty promises.
We would like to start at square one. Let us go to the Canadian people with a referendum and ask them straight up if they want a Senate, yes or no. If they say they want a Senate, do they want it reformed. If they do, then we have marching orders and we go about it. If they say they want to keep it the way it is, we have our marching orders.
There is no other word for this but nonsense. The government is pretending that it is making a big change when in fact there is nothing here. We have no real ability to get our arms around it. Senators are independent. They sit in the upper house. We are in the lower house. We are merely the elected people.
We should start at the beginning and get a mandate from the Canadian people about what they want to do with their Senate. There are options. Abolishing it is our first choice. However, if the Canadian people say they like it because it provides some offset for regional differences, where rep by pop is not doing the job completely because we do not have a pure rep by pop, that is quite legitimate.
There are good reasons to have representatives who get here through other means than the one we have. A lot of people believe proportional representation would give us a much better democratic system. They believe it would be more reflective and might increase voter turnout. They believe it would tell young people that their votes do matter. New Democrats believe that too.
I am the last one any member would probably expect to say this, but there ought to be a member of the Green Party in the House. That party cannot get here because of our system. It does not win in my riding, but it does get a respectable turnout. With all the votes the Green Party received across Canada, it seems reasonable to me that it would be entitled to a seat. Under our current system members of the Green Party cannot get here, never mind get into the Senate. I do not know how they would even begin that process.
Almost $100 million a year is being spent on a body that is unelected and unaccountable. All we are going to do with this legislation is limit a senator's term to eight years instead of a maximum of 30 or 40 or some other outrageous number. That is what is before us today.
We will go along with it because it would not seem to do any great harm. I am not aware of any great increase in costs, although if we were to hear that, we could change our mind. The bill would not really change anything.
Maybe if there were enough people going in and out and the revolving door was reported in the media more often, maybe people would begin to ask why we would allow this to go on, pretending there was independent sober second thought. It does not exist.
That is what frustrates us more than anything, particularly from a government that slammed the Senate in every way possible in its election platform. If I am right, that very same has appointed more senators than anybody else in the history of Canada. That is an Olympic flip-flop.
To try to make up some of that ground, the poor minister has been tasked with trying to make the look like he is honouring the pledges and promises he made. I know the minister on a personal basis. He is doing the best he can. However, let us not kid ourselves. He can only do what he is allowed to do. It is the same in every government. I am not putting him down for that. This bill is a loser. This dog will not hunt. I could use whatever cliché I wanted, but the bill does not mean much at all.
The government does itself a great disservice when it talks about laying the cornerstone to increase the democratic legitimacy. Let us try beginning with some legitimacy before we get to increasing something that is not even there.
I would like to see the media attempt to hold the senators to account. I would like to see a big deal made out of them standing on privilege, saying that they do not have to answer to the media. I would like to see senators go public, take the platform, hold a news conference and tell the country why they do not have to answer a single question, or be accountable for their voting or go into our ridings and talk to our constituents.
On the books, and to the best of knowledge it is still there, senators get to self-declare. They can declare as a partisan or not and they can declare what they represent. Are they from a province, a part of a province, a riding? We have a senator who designated himself a representative for Yonge and Bloor, one corner. That is pretty good. He receives $131,000 a year and he represents a corner and he does not even have to go there or be with people. It is beautiful. And I will not even get into the senator who was in Mexico forever and ever and nobody noticed for the longest time.
I would like to see that happen. That would certainly change the dynamics around here. Every time there is a vote in there and it is controversial, I would like to see a scrum waiting outside the Senate, the same way there is for us. I will not tell anyone accountability is fun. No one likes to be grilled, but we get grilled. We all answer.
I am not suggesting we are perfect, but we do live by a set of rules that truly are democratic. We really are accountable. We really do have to go to public meetings and talk to people. We really do have to meet with the media and tell it what we are doing, why we are doing it, how we voted, why we did not vote differently and what we did with our time. Senators do not have to do any of that. Why do we let them get away with it? Until we can change things at the very least on a personal level let us start making them accountable. I would like to see some bills like that.
The minister has a number of bills in the House and we will be on our feet. I will have great fun with the Senate because I will get to say all these things over and over again because it makes me crazy.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for .
I am pleased to stand and debate Bill , the Senate term limits bill. I will attempt to be a little less angry than the last member who spoke.
Bill proposes to amend the Constitution to establish term limits for senators. Specifically, the bill proposes that senators serve a single term of eight years.
Parliamentarians already had the opportunity to study the bill in some detail since it was first introduced in the last Parliament. In fact, two separate committees undertook studies of Bill S-4 which was similar to the bill before us today.
The call for change is certainly not new. Over the years there have been numerous proposals for term limits for senators and I believe there is now a general consensus that term limits are a good idea.
There remain a few skeptics. For example, concerns have been raised that term limits will somehow undermine the fundamental nature of the Senate, in particular, its capacity to provide sober second thought in the review of legislation. It is argued that an eight-year term is not long enough to allow senators to gain the experience to effectively carry out their functions in reviewing legislation. I would like to use my time today to address this concern.
I believe that if we look at previous proposals for term limits in the Senate and we examine the term limits in other jurisdictions, we can be confident that an eight-year term is more than sufficient for senators to exercise their constitutional responsibility.
Bill is far from being the first proposal to limit the tenure of senators. In fact, the only significant constitutional amendment relating to the Senate in our history was when Parliament amended the Constitution in 1965 to reduce the tenure of senators from that of life to a mandatory retirement age of 75.
However, the 1965 amendment still allows senators to serve as long as 45 years. That is why there have been so many proposals to implement additional limits on Senate tenure since 1965.
In 1980, the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee proposed that senators serve fixed terms of 10 years which would be renewable for a further term of five years. In 1981, the Canada West Foundation recommended senators serve limited terms that would coincide with the life of two parliamentary terms. Similarly, the Alberta Select Special Committee on Upper House Reform recommended in 1985 that senators should serve the life of two provincial legislatures. In 1984, the Special Joint Committee on Senate Reform recommended that senators would serve non-renewable nine-year terms. In 1992, the Special Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada recommended that senators should serve terms of no more than six years.
The recommendations for Senate term limits over the past 30 years have ranged from six-year terms to ten-year terms. The authors of these reports, including some former and distinguished parliamentarians of different partisan persuasions believe a term ranging from six to ten years would be sufficient to maintain the Senate's ability to effectively scrutinize legislation.
An eight-year term limit proposed in Bill squarely falls within the range of the term limits that previously have been proposed for the Senate. Bill is not a radical or revolutionary proposition. It is consistent with other proposals for Senate reform that have been made over the years.
Let us contrast the eight-year term limit in Bill with the term limits of the upper houses in other jurisdictions.
Based on data compiled by the French Senate on 66 second chambers, the average term limit for members is 5.2 years.
In Australia, a country with similar characteristics to Canada, senators serve six-year terms.
Similarly, senators in the United States also serve six-year terms. I doubt anyone would consider an American senator in his or her fifth or sixth year of office to be unable to perform his or her legislative capacities effectively. As we all know, Barak Obama was elected President of the United States after less than four years in the United States Senate.
The proposal in Bill for an eight-year term limit for senators is well within the norm internationally. In fact, it is above the average term limit for upper houses in foreign jurisdictions.
Many members may point to the previous proposals by the British government for the members of the House of Lords to serve for the equivalent of three parliamentary terms, or 12 to 15 years. However, there are three considerations that should lessen the significance of the British proposal on Senate reform in Canada.
First, Britain is looking at lords reform at a different departure point than is the case in Canada. Currently, lords are appointed for life. In contrast, life appointments to the Senate were replaced here in 1965, with a mandatory retirement age of 75. Therefore, a move to 12 year to 15 year terms would be a much more significant change in the United Kingdom than it would be in the Canadian setting.
Second, while proposing 12 year to 15 year terms, the British government recognized that terms of this length would raise accountability concerns. To address this, the British government suggested that a recall mechanism may be appropriate for the House of Lords. In the 2008 white paper on lords reform, the British government stated:
|| Further consideration would need to be given to the accountability arrangements for members of a reformed second chamber, particularly in light of proposals that they serve long, single, fixed terms.The Cross-Party Group discussed the possibility of introducing recall ballots for elected members of a reformed second chamber, along the lines of those that exist in some states of the USA.
Unlike the 12 year to 15 year term, the eight-year term proposed by Bill does not create the same accountability concerns raised in the British white paper. Even if Britain were to create a 12 year to 15 year term limit, a term of that length would be the exception, not the rule. In short, I do not believe the British example to be a comparable model when evaluating the appropriate term limits for our Canadian Senate.
The proposed eight year term was studied extensively by two Senate committees during the last Parliament. The report of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform supported term limits, in principle, and validated the government's position that an eight year term limit would not undermine the essential characteristics of the Senate.
For example, the committee's report concluded:
|| While a variety of views were expressed about the desirable length of a senatorial term, virtually none of our witnesses dismissed the creation of a term limit per se and, indeed, most strongly supported it. These witnesses pointed out that limited terms would dispel the image, so harmful to the Senate, of “jobs for life”, and re-invigorate the Senate with a constant influx of fresh ideas. Most members of the Committee found these assertions to be persuasive.
|| The Committee also notes that, in previous deliberations on the Constitution of Canada, various committees of the Senate have unanimously favoured the creation of limited terms for service in the upper house of Canada’s Parliament. In the view of most Committee members, the arguments made in these reports remain sound.
|| Accordingly, following careful deliberation on the subject-matter of Bill S-4 and finding no reasonable grounds to withhold approval in principle, most Committee members endorse the underlying principle of the bill: that a defined limit to the terms of senators would be an improvement to Canada’s Senate
Previous recommendations for term limits ranged from 6 to 10 years. None have proposed term limits greater than 10 years. Yet, the Liberals have proposed a 15 year term limit.
Term limits for second chambers in other jurisdictions are, on average, 5.2 years, which is well below the 15 years proposed by the legal and constitutional affairs committee. Let us be clear. By proposing a 15 year term limit in committee, Liberal senators killed the term limits bill on a party line vote.
Furthermore, we should compare the 15 year term limit proposed by the committee with the actual tenure of senators. Since Confederation, the average term of a senator has been about 14 years. Since 1965, the average tenure of senators has been 9.25 years.
The 15 year term limit proposed by Liberal senators at the legal and constitutional affairs committee would not effect any meaningful change to the Canadian Senate. Rather, it would simply reinforce the status quo.
Before concluding, I would like to note that while the Canadian government believes that a 15 year term limit is too long, the government has expressed willingness to consider other points of view, within reason. For example, when he made the unprecedented appearance before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, the stated:
|| A government can be flexible on accepting amendment to the details of Bill S-4 to adopt a six-year term or an eight- year term or a nine-year term. The key point is this: We are seeking limited, fixed terms of office, not decades based on antiquated criteria of age.
Nevertheless, I believe the eight year term limit proposed in Bill is reasonable. Eight years is sufficient time for senators to build up the necessary experience and expertise to perform their duties effectively. It is also consistent with previous Senate reform proposals and the term limits of second chambers internationally.
Bill would not alter the essential characteristics of our Senate. I encourage all members of this House to please support this initiative.
Mr. Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure to participate in this debate on Bill , the Senate term limits bill.
Bill proposes a non-renewable term limit of eight years for senators. This proposal will be familiar to members as it is not the first time it has been considered by this House.
Bill would amend the Constitution using the amending procedures set out in section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which authorizes Parliament to “--make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons”.
Opponents of this bill have argued that section 44 is not the appropriate amending formula to affect change of this kind. They have suggested that term limits would affect an “essential characteristic of the Senate and its ability to give independent sober second thought in the parliamentary process”. I wish to refute those objections today as there can be little doubt that this bill is constitutional.
During the last Parliament the constitutionality of term limits was studied by two separate Senate committees. The Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform concluded that Parliament could change the tenure of senators to an eight year term. In reaching the conclusion the special committee heard from some of Canada's most respected constitutional scholars, including Peter Hogg, Patrick Monahan and Stephen Scott. The opinion of these eminent legal experts was unanimous: the eight year term limit proposal is within Parliament's jurisdiction.
The bill was then approved by the Senate at second reading and referred to the legal and constitutional affairs committee. That committee ignored the aforementioned scholars and did not come to any definitive conclusion regarding the bill's constitutionality. Let us be clear. The committee did not conclude that the bill was unconstitutional. It simply said it was not sure.
To resolve the question the committee proposed to have the Supreme Court of Canada decide the matter. I believe that it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to use our best judgment on the constitutionality of proposed legislation and not hide behind the Supreme Court. That is why I wish to outline my rationale for concluding that the bill now before us is constitutional.
What is the relevant test for evaluating the constitutionality of the proposed term limits bill? On one hand, opponents argue that any change affecting the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be enacted by Parliament acting alone. On the other hand, supporters maintain that only essential characteristics requiring more than Parliament's unilateral authority are those explicitly referred to in the 1982 Constitution Act namely, the powers of the Senate, the method of selecting senators, the residence qualification of senators, and the number of senators by which a province is represented in the Senate.
This debate essentially turns on a single question. Does the Supreme Court of Canada opinion in the upper house reference remain relevant today? Members may be familiar with that opinion.
In 1978 the Government of Canada referred a number of questions to the Supreme Court relating to the authority of Parliament to abolish or reform the Senate. A year later the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it would be beyond the legislative authority of Parliament to abolish the Senate or to otherwise alter its fundamental features or essential characteristics. However, the court noted that by limiting tenure from life to 75 years of age, as Parliament had done in 1965, it “did not change the essential character of the Senate”.
I reference the Constitution Act, 1982. It provides for various formulae to amend the Constitution, including specific references to the Senate. While opponents of reform argue that these formulae override the Supreme Court's opinion, the court's opinion remains relevant for interpreting the various amending formulae.
Some maintain that the upper house reference remains a guide to understanding the scope of Parliament's power to make constitutional amendments with respect to the Senate. Others, including Canada's best constitutional lawyers, contend that the upper house reference was a guide for amending our Constitution only before patriation in 1982. Since 1982, the Constitution itself, not the Supreme Court, outlines the procedures for amendment.
For example, when Peter Hogg testified before the special Senate committee, he said:
|| It seems to me that the best interpretation of what happened in 1982 was that it overtook the ruling in the Upper House Reference. In other words, the 1982 amending procedures now say explicitly which changes to the Senate cannot be accomplished unilaterally by the Parliament of Canada;
This leaves other aspects, including tenure, within Parliament's jurisdiction.
In turn, when Patrick Monahan was before the same committee, he expressed the same view, that maintaining that patriation in 1982 “has superseded the Senate reference or indeed attempted to codify, to identify those matters that were found to be fundamental or essential...”. As for other matters, he went on to say, “The Parliament of Canada...may enact changes to the Senate, including the tenure of senators”.
Although this debate is of crucial importance to understanding our constitutional amendment procedures, it is not one that needs to be resolved in the context of our present debate. Not only does the bill before us today comply with the constitutional amending procedure authorizing Parliament to make certain amendments to the Senate, but it also proposes term limits of sufficient length to maintain the Senate's essential characteristics.
In other words, Bill passes both the Supreme Court test of 1979 by not affecting the Senate's essential characteristics and the Constitution Act of 1982 by not tackling any of the senatorial changes in section 42.
The proposal before us is for an eight-year term. Some have asked if this term is long enough to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate. The simple answer is, yes. An eight-year term is within the range of terms for Senate chambers internationally and well within the range of terms contemplated by previous Senate reform proposals. Eight years is enough time to allow a new senator to acquire the necessary skills to maintain the Senate's role in providing an independent second sober thought in legislative review.
Hon. members may be familiar with the tenure of senators in the United States, which is six years. This is the same as the tenure for senators in Australia. Other upper houses have term limits as short as four years. France recently reduced its term from nine to six years. An eight-year term, which is what is being proposed in Bill , would be among the longest worldwide.
Unless one is willing to suggest that the upper chambers of the United States, Australia and Europe are all ineffective due to limited terms, members must agree that eight years is long enough to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate.
Another aspect of this bill that addresses concerns with maintaining the independence of the Senate is that the terms are non-renewable. Non-renewable terms assure Canadians that the senators will not have to curry favour with the government in order to preserve their seat.
The bill contains transitional provisions that will apply the eight-year term limit to all senators appointed after October 14, 2008. As with the rest of the bill, this transitional provision is on solid constitutional ground and can be enacted by Parliament alone pursuant to section 44 of the Constitution Act.
The bill before us today is a good one simply due to the fact that it would allow future Parliaments the opportunity to appoint, if necessary, senators for a limited term of eight years, which would certainly go far beyond the current status quo of 75 years of age. It would ensure, in my opinion, that senators being appointed in the future will bring a fresh set of eyes to all of the legislation coming through this chamber to the upper chamber.
I would also point out that, by the provisions contained in this bill of a non-renewable term limit, we would not have to worry about senators being reappointed time and time again. It would ensure that if Parliament changes, the Senate will change. I think that is in the best interest of all Canadians.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and participate in this debate.
This is an issue that is complicated. The whole issue of Senate reform has been discussed on many occasions since Confederation in 1867, but it is an issue that I am glad to see brought before the House and it is an issue that should be debated by Canadians. I congratulate the minister for introducing it.
I want to say at the outset that when the bill comes to a vote, I will be supporting it so that it will go to committee even though I have some very serious concerns with the whole issue of tenure, which I will get into.
I understand the gist of the legislation. We have a situation now, and it has happened, where technically a person can be appointed at the young age of 35 and can serve 40 years in the Senate. It does raise certain concerns of accountability and legitimacy. It is an issue that we should debate and perhaps correct, if it is possible constitutionally, which I believe it is. However, there is a need for discussion and, of course, it will then need to go to the Senate.
It is a good issue to have before the House but, as I indicated, I do not think there is any institution as complicated, complex and perhaps misunderstood as the Senate of Canada. The debate about the Senate cannot start today. It has to start back in 1864, at the time of the meetings when the discussion started to form this country. The original meeting was held in Charlottetown when the British colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island came together to discuss the possibility of forming a Maritime union because of their small size and other concerns, such as defence, et cetera.
Upper Canada and Lower Canada, now Ontario and Quebec, more or less invited themselves to this meeting to discuss the whole concept of a larger union and they were included to form the Dominion of Canada.
According to the historical annals, there was a lot of partying and drinking at this meeting. They did not form an agreement but they very much agreed to continue the discussions. The discussions did continue in a meeting in Quebec City and as are result of those two meetings, the country was formed in 1867. I should point out that Prince Edward Island, at that time, opted not to join the Federation.
Again, if we look at the debates, the Atlantic provinces, although they were smaller, were probably more mature because they had been settled earlier. To a certain extent, they did have a legislature. Responsible government came first to the colony of Nova Scotia. It had its own governors and its own legislature. There was a considerable degree of reluctance to get into this new union. They also had their own political issues back in their colonies because lot of time certain factions were against any kind of a larger union with Upper Canada and Lower Canada. A lot of times people did not appreciate what was going on or what the political climate was in that far off land.
Again, as we all know, the agreement was culminated and the country was formed, to its great credit, for which we are forever grateful. In the early 1900s the country expanded and in 1949 in the province of Newfoundland joined Confederation.
The point I am making is that during those discussions chips were put on the table, there were a lot of negotiations and discussions, if we read the debates of the delegates from the colonies, and one of the concerns of the smaller colonies was to be swallowed up by the larger colony of Ontario.
One of the concerns, of course, was the protection of minorities. We are not talking about the minorities as we view the concept in the House today. There was only one minority and that was French Catholic males. At that time the females and the aboriginals did not have a franchise and were not considered, or I did not see them considered too much in the debates.
The point I am making is that one of the significant chips that was put on the table, and the chip that got the country, was the Senate. The way they constructed the Senate was that each region would have 24. The Atlantic region would have 24. Quebec would have 24; that was what brought them on board. Ontario would have 24, and of course that expanded as the west was brought into the federation in subsequent years. That balanced the regions and it was also there to protect the minorities.
These are considerations we all should bear in mind. We should all bear in mind the chips that were put on the table during these very important discussions back in 1864, 1865 and 1866, concluding in 1867. In other words, the bottom line was that if we did not have the Senate, we would not have got the country.
I point to that for contextual purposes. I do not think there is any reason why this House should not discuss the possible reform of the Senate, but as the minister would know, it is a very difficult process because of the constitutional framework that was adopted then and that was changed subsequently but not a lot, not in any major amendment to the Senate. The way the senators are appointed, their capacities and the regions they represent require the consent of at least seven provinces, representing in excess of 50% of the population of Canada.
As every politician who has ever been elected in Canada knows, that is a very difficult and murky process. We got into that in Meech Lake. We got into that in Charlottetown. We all know how difficult that process is and I believe most politicians, if questioned, would say they really do not want to go there.
However the point I do want to make is that it is unfortunate that there was not a larger consultative process. The provinces, in this case and in this discussion, are the successors to the colonies. The Senate was put there for a purpose, with certain specific capacities to protect and enhance the interests of the colonies, especially the smaller colonies, and of course the minorities, which have expanded beyond that concept of the French Catholic male.
It is unfortunate that we did not have a more consultative process. We are having situations where certain larger provinces have publicly stated that this bill should not go forward. That is unfortunate, but I still think the debate should continue. There is a larger constitutional issue and many constitutional scholars have given opinions. By my reading, certainly the preponderance of the opinion seems to be that this legislation can proceed without the consent of the provinces. However, the previous member who spoke was talking about appointments made at the request of the provinces. We are into some constitutional problems there. It is a slippery slope, and there have really been very few substantial amendments made to the Senate since Confederation.
One issue I do have, which has been talked about by the previous two speakers and which can continue before the committee, is the whole issue of tenure. The previous two speakers compared it to other countries where they have a bicameral system with two political institutions, a lower house and a Senate. One speaker said the average tenure was 5.2 years and talked about the American and Australian experiences, but again these are all elected bodies.
Even if this legislation were passed tomorrow, we are going to continue with an appointed body. I am very troubled with the possibility that after eight years, we have a legislative and deliberative body that comprises 104 members, each and every one of whom are appointed by one individual. I would think they would be very compliant. I am not so sure they would be an institution of sober second thought and I am not so sure what purpose they would really serve.
If we go back to the previous Liberal government that was elected in 1993, by the year 2001 all 104 senators would have been appointed by one individual, resulting in no opposition in committees. I am not clear how that would serve the interests of democracy in the long run.
I do not have any specific suggestions, although I think it should be a longer term and there should be staggering. However, I believe there certainly has to be some debate on creating a viable opposition because I have seen with my own eyes what happens when a democracy is overtaken by one party. We have seen it more in provincial legislatures than in the federal ones and it is my opinion that democracy suffers in the long run. It may be a happy day when a government wins all the seats, but in the long run it is the people who suffer and democracy suffers too.
The legislative bodies that operate in the House of Commons, the Senate and the provincial legislatures work best with an effective, informed and hard-working opposition. That is a real question, but again it should not in any way stop the debate from continuing.
This matter has been before the House previously and there have been some slight changes based upon the debates. It is good that the matter is being brought before the House again, but there are a lot of other issues, which I will raise briefly.
There are democratic reforms that are extremely troubling and probably more important than this issue, one of which is the issue that has been before the House over the last six months about documents. There seems to be a movement to create a new concept in Canada that I would classify as executive or prime minister or government immunity. Instead of the traditional role that Parliament, the House of Commons and committees have delegated to them, the powers to send for persons, papers and records, if we accept the logic that is being put forward, the persons, papers and records that would be sent to the committees would be determined by the executive. Whatever is in the public interest would be determined by the opinion of the executive or cabinet.
That is a very unholy trend. I am pleased the Chair ruled that is not the case in this country. I agree with that ruling and hopefully we will move on with that. I am dealing with the very same thing in the public accounts committee, which did not raise a national security issue. It was dealing with another issue that had the very same response from the government. That particular case dealt with some tapes that are not that important to anything. We met with a lot of resistance but we finally got them.
First of all, members are probably not going to believe this, but the government would not provide them because the committee did not follow the Access to Information Act. When that was explained, the government said it would not give them to the committee because that violated the Privacy Act. We finally got them, but we can see the trend that is developing. I wish the would get engaged in that issue because it is so important to democracy in this country.
It is good that this debate is taking place. I will be supporting this legislation. I have some concerns. The two biggest concerns deal with the consultation process and tenure, which is a major concern. We have to work on some mechanism to allow the institution to operate efficiently, effectively and in the best interests of all Canadians.