Mr. Speaker, I want to turn to this very interesting motion put before us by the member for . His motion reads:
|| That, in the opinion of this House, urgent steps must be taken to improve accountability in the Senate, and, therefore, this House call for the introduction of immediate measures to end Senators' partisan activities, including participation in Caucus meetings, and to limit Senators' travel allowances to those activities clearly and directly related to parliamentary business.
When I read the motion, I was put in mind of a very good book with which the hon. member for will be familiar. Albert Venn Dicey's book Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution in which one does not figure out what it is about until one gets to the last word of the giant title. That is a bit of what is going on here. When we actually go through this very long motion, we are really talking about, first, senators should not, according to the motion, participate in caucus meetings; and second, senators' travel allowances should be limited to activities clearly and directly related to parliamentary business.
This is a small part of a larger question relating to the whole issue of Senate reform, or potentially Senate abolition as the New Democrats would favour. I want to deal with it in that context. Let me start by dealing with the travel issue that is proposed in part of the motion. Then I will deal with the suggestion about participation in caucus meetings, which, whether it was intended or not, does have the unavoidable consequence of involving some significant institutional/constitutional questions. Perhaps that was not the intention of the member, but that is the consequence of what he has done. I think those larger implications have to be addressed intelligently before we vote on this issue.
Starting with the whole travel allowance issue, the reason it was initially suggested that I participate in this debate is the fact that I am notorious for my very limited travel. In the last decade or so, I have repeatedly been either the bottom or the second from the bottom in terms of travel expenses. I was 308 out of 308 last year and this is something that happens year after year. I did a good annual report to my constituents, by the way, in which I outlined my expenses. My travel budget in 2006-07 was substantially below the average. My travel outside the constituency was $1,100 versus an $85,000 average. In 2008 my travel outside the constituency was $5,300 versus an $83,000 average. In 2009 my travel was $5,900 versus a $107,000 average.
Of course part of the reason for that is that my riding is fairly local. Another reason is that I take care to have my staff look for the least expensive flights when I do have to travel to keep things under control that way.
I also make it a habit of trying to keep my entertainment expenses as low as possible. This year they were $0, also making me 308 out of 308 in the House of Commons. As a result Terry Milewski referred to me as the “king of the skinflints”. He also complained that the only spent $29, so it takes work to be the king of the skinflints with a prime minister who is as frugal as that.
One of the things I would point out is that the issue of travel expenses is really not a Senate issue. It is an issue that relates to us in our function as parliamentarians. The report that is made about me and all MPs is made in our capacity as members of Parliament and is made to the House of Commons, and as Speaker of the House of Commons, to you. Therefore, I am not sure we are in a position here to probe too deeply into the internal rules that govern the Senate in this regard.
If we were to do so, sooner or later we would probably find ourselves bumping up against this document, the Senators' Travel Policy, which was adopted by the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration on May 10 of last year. It is about a 30-page document with several appendices, including forms to fill out. It explains the rules on the purposes of travel. There is a 64-point travel system, which should sound familiar to members of Parliament, in section 2.7 of this manual. This includes a variety of different subsections, including a travel expense claim form that must be filled out. A senator who is travelling has to list the purpose of his or her travel on that form.
It states at section 2.7.3 that:
|| Senate resources shall not be used to fund travel that is incurred to pursue the private business or personal interests of a senator or alternate.
Therefore, to some degree the rules already exist. It may well be that there is a need for change to improve them. I am fully willing to accept that, and I gather the Senate is too, because there have been several tweaks to that policy since it was adopted in May 2012. However, the rules already exist in some form or another.
We examined somewhat and discussed what is happening in the Senate in the case of certain senators. We were discussing whether or not the rules were simply violated, and perhaps even egregiously, but not whether there is an absence of a rule that effectively states that senators' travel allowances be limited to, as the motion states, “those activities clearly and directly related to parliamentary business.” I think the rules already contain a version of that requirement, so I am not sure we are crossing some great divide in what we do here.
However, these are Senate rules. They pertain to the Senate and were adopted by the Senate. I suppose we can give them advice on what to do, but in the strictest sense it is beyond our jurisdiction. That is something I wanted to draw attention to.
I want to talk a bit about the broader issue of Senate reform. The reason I want to do this is because there are two substantive parts to the motion, the travel allowances part and, as it states here, a part that proposes to end the participation of senators in caucus meetings. Here we are moving into something else, which is a very substantial constitutional question of whether Senators should be non-partisan or outside of the partisan structure and, if so, how we enforce that, if we can enforce it.
Let me dwell on that a bit. The debate that has occurred in many countries that have senates is that an upper house in a federal system tends to be a senate that is seen in some respect as being a states' house, a cantons' house, a house of the Länders, to use the German term, or a provinces' house. In Canada we discussed that as a possibility, but it was not fully the model adopted here. It was the model that was adopted fully, overtly, and deliberately in both the United States in the 1780s and in Australia when it adopted its Constitution in 1901. Although that model was tied down with a large number of formal rules designed to prevent partisanship from creeping in, in both cases they became partisan houses.
This is particularly striking in the case of the Australian Senate, where the structure of the ballot for Senate elections is effectively a party list ballot. That has the effect of making the upper house more partisan, if anything, and less a voice of independent reasoning and thought than the lower house is. That was not the intention in either the Australian Senate or the American Senate, but a history of those Senates suggests that it is very difficult to reconcile having an upper house in which members are independent with restrictions on how they use that independence so as to ensure they merely represent some other set of interests. They merely represent geographical or provincial interests, religious or sectarian interests, or whatever the interests are that the founders seek to entrench in the constitution.
In the end, senators tend, just like people in this House, to resolve themselves into partisan groupings, and if individuals fail to do so, the tendency is that they are replaced by people who are more partisan. That seems to happen regardless of the type of system.
The system for appointments that we adopted in 1867 seems to have been adopted with the intention of ending the partisanship we had prior, in the elected upper house of the Province of Canada. We did not succeed.
My sense is that if we vote for an elected upper house, we probably also would not succeed in preventing people from becoming partisan representatives to some degree. That is the nature of the way electoral politics works, unless we want to adopt something really radical, such as abolishing the Senate and replacing it with some kind of referendum, which they have done to some degree in Switzerland, for example. Unless we try to do something that is really a radical departure, I suspect that we will not get away from some level of partisanship.
Now we are left with the question of how we actually go around enforcing something like this. In the case of participation in caucus meetings, does it mean we simply cannot go into the caucus meeting when it occurs? Caucuses are not creatures of the House of Commons; they are meetings that occur outside the House of Commons and are entirely conventional in their nature. How exactly would we enforce this ostensible expression of the will of the House of Commons? I do not think we could. I suppose one could design some kind of law, an actual statute, but I suspect that we would run into a fundamental problem of freedom of association. Freedom of association means we get to choose who goes into our caucuses, and each of the different parties does so. I do not see how one overcomes that fundamental constitutional flaw with this particular suggestion, so it fails at that level as well as at the level of utility. I cannot determine what public good is being achieved by doing that.
The fact is that some level of coordination between the upper and lower houses is of value. We all know from watching it that the upper house is very much not controlled by the lower house. Some people think that is a good thing and perhaps some think it is a bad thing, but it is a statement of reality.
Let me turn now to pointing out the fundamental problem that exists when we are talking about Senate reform, including the suggestions made by my colleague from .
The problem is that the Senate is dysfunctional in several ways at several levels, and it is unclear which kind of constitutional formula or amending formula is required to make which change. The changes that are the most important are perhaps not the ones that are the easiest or the hardest to make. There is almost a random relationship between different aspects of the Senate and the amending formula that has been used.
This government is attempting to ask the Supreme Court to assign an amending formula to each of the different proposed changes that either are being proposed by the government, such as elections to the Senate, or that could be proposed by the government, such as the abolition of the Senate, because it is very unclear what rules apply.
One of the questions that has to be resolved, for example, if we try to move to an arrangement with elected senators, is the term of office for those elected senators, unless we make a term election for life, which I do not think anybody supports. At what point does the term become too short to allow the senator to be independent? Something we are told has a constitutional weight is the independence of senators, the assumption being that a senator elected for a one-year term would be unable to be fully independent.
The Supreme Court is being asked the following question:
|| In relation to each of the following proposed limits on the tenure of Senators, is it within the legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada, acting pursuant to section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982,
—which is another way of saying “under a certain section of the amending formula that lets the Parliament of Canada act unilaterally”—
||to make amendments to section 29 of the Constitution Act, 1867, providing for
||a. a fixed term of nine years for Senators [...];
||b. a fixed term of ten years or more for Senators;
||c. a fixed term of eight years or less for Senators;
Then it goes on to give
||d. a fixed term of the life of two or three Parliaments for Senators;
as an alternative.
Further on it speaks of a renewable term for Senators, as opposed to a non-renewable term, and then:
||(f) limits to the terms for Senators appointed after October 14, 2008 [...];
That refers, of course, to senators appointed by the present government or under the term of the present government.
The final one is:
||g. retrospective limits to the terms for Senators appointed before October 14, 2008.
The reason for asking all of these questions is that in the past the Supreme Court indicated that a term that is too short or too limited is problematic in terms of the independence of senators, but it never specified what it meant by that statement. It said to ask it a specific question and it would give the answer.
The assumption then was to make the Supreme Court a proposal, try to enact a piece of legislation, and see what happened. However, when that was tried by the current government in 2006, the opposition said that if it did that, it would have constitutional issues because it would be unclear whether senators who have been elected to fixed terms are really elected to those fixed terms or if the terms could be extended in practice because the government would be unable to limit them. The government says it is electing senators for a term of x years, but within that term the senators could plausibly say they refuse to retire at the end of the term as they had to be appointed for a longer period, because it is unconstitutional to change the law to limit their terms to the length given.
That is the reason for this kind of question. We are simply listing all the different possible considerations that need to be taken into account so that there is no legal or constitutional limbo. That is just on the issue of Senate terms.
There were also questions—and I mentioned there were many dysfunctions in the Senate—relating to how consultations take place, questions on whether the kind of advisory elections proposed by the government would be constitutional, and questions on the abolition of the property qualification. Senators have to own or lease property worth about $4,000 within the province that they represent; can that be abolished unilaterally, or do we need to get the consent of seven provinces and half the population? Could we abolish the Senate? Of course we could abolish the Senate with the consent of all provinces—nobody questions that—but could we do so with the 7/50 formula or unilaterally, just through parliamentary action? That has to be established.
In the question asking the Supreme Court about that, there are three separate subquestions to deal with the different possible ways of abolishing the Senate. Those subquestions are there to make sure that we do not start down some constitutional road and then realize that we have in fact acted in a manner that, in the judgment of the Supreme Court, is unconstitutional.
Those are some of the issues that relate to the Senate. They are important issues and I think reflect the spirit that the hon. member for was trying to get at in putting forward this motion. However, I have to say that despite his good intentions, I think he missed the mark. He has a proposal here that is outside of our jurisdiction; he is addressing major points in a roundabout way, which is unwise on something as complex as this; finally, if taken too seriously, it might potentially put us in a position where we would be violating the freedom of association protection in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is to say nothing of the fact that I think all of this would actually be unenforceable in the end.
Those are some pretty significant objections, and some reasons that members should probably vote against this motion.
Mr. Speaker, I am now sitting closer to you than I was when we parted in June. I will be splitting my time with my colleague from .
This is my first speech this fall, and the topic is particularly relevant given the feedback we received all summer about senators' scandals. This is not just about senators. It is about the mindset and attitudes that surround that institution. During today's question period, we witnessed a clear lack of courage and thoroughness. Today's opposition motion, put forward by the NDP and especially the hon. member for , seeks to solve all these problems.
Everyone knows that the NDP wants to abolish the Senate, but we know that it will take a lot of work to get that done. We are not blind to that fact, and I believe we can be proud of that, if I say so myself. After all, as politicians, whether we work in the Senate or elsewhere, we need to show the will and courage to do the work if we really want to make things better, which is our aim in seeking to abolish the Senate. In the meantime, we are looking for concrete ways to solve some of the problems that have plagued that institution throughout its history, especially during the last few months.
The sponsor of the motion proposes two specific measures. First, he wants to end senators' participation in caucus meetings, the partisan gatherings in which we participate in the House. It is an important measure given that, originally, when it was created under the Constitution, the Senate was meant to be a chamber of sober second thought. I very much like that expression. It is a chamber whose members are almost supposed to be better, intellectually speaking, than the members of the House of Commons. They are not supposed to stoop to populist tendencies like MPs do because they need to be re-elected every few years. Senators are not supposed to have such tendencies.
When they participate in the partisan process and attend caucus meetings, they become virtually indistinguishable from MPs. It then becomes harder to distinguish between the two chambers which, in turn, leads us to wonder why the Senate exists in the first place. Indeed, if senators perform the same functions as MPs while remaining unelected and unaccountable to Canadians, their very purpose is called into question.
That said, until we can abolish the Senate, this is a worthwhile measure inasmuch as it will compel senators to work strictly as legislators. They should not concern themselves with the somewhat more partisan activities we participate in as MPs, given that we are elected under the banner of a political party—there is no denying it.
The second measure goes to the core of the scandals we have been dealing with in the House, specifically these past few months, regarding travel expenses and secondary residences. Unfortunately, the questions we have asked on these issues remain unanswered. The motion speaks specifically to expenses related to partisan activities.
It is clear that the Senate absenteeism rate is extremely high. This is nothing new; it has always been like that. My first political science teacher at CEGEP described the Senate as a “glorified retirement home”. In this instance, it is a place for friends of certain political parties in power. Those were the words of my teacher. I do not wish to show any disrespect.
In view of the circumstances, he added that senators rarely showed up for work. For an institution whose role is supposed to be to rigorously analyze legislative work done by members of Parliament, one might well ask why senators should be allowed to travel around the country engaging in partisan activities when their role is to be in the Senate and in committee doing careful legislative work in connection with our tasks in the House of Commons as elected members.
These are the two measures we are proposing.
I feel that they are extremely important measures.
I will now return to the points I raised at the outset. I spoke about what I heard over the summer. Several of the members here, particularly those of us who were newly elected in 2011 and were about halfway through our term, based on the date that was set for the next elections, took advantage of the summer to try to find out what people thought about our work, given that we had reached the halfway point in our term.
In my riding of Chambly—Borduas, I was frequently told us that we should not give up, that we were doing good work, but that we were surrounded by corrupt people.
It hurts to hear things like that. I can understand how people feel, particularly my fellow Quebeckers, because the messy situations that frequently arise tar all politicians with the same brush.
I am a young 25-year-old member of Parliament who has been in politics for only two and a half years, not counting my previous time as a party member. Even we, the young MPs who definitely have no skeletons in the closet, are tainted by the poor behaviour of the people next door. How nice.
I am speaking about—alluding to—my own experience because the Senate, according to the Constitution, as well as academic and even philosophical definitions, is supposed to be an institution, as I mentioned at the outset, that is above all that.
We, as elected representatives, come here to make a difference. Early on, people legitimately wondered how hard the young members would work. If I may make a very humble suggestion, it is that we have done good work. However, when people who have been appointed to the Senate because they are supposedly important and have accomplished great things in life behave in this manner, that is shameful.
It is embarrassing to go door to door and be told about the poor opinion people have of our work. Rather than doing their Senate work properly and rigorously in accordance with their mission, in order to help us better understand our own work, senators have played a detrimental role by forcing us to waste our time on issues like the Senate scandal.
A government member might well say that if I consider this to be a waste of time, why then am I asking questions? Well, because this is about taxpayers’ dollars. Parliament is a democratic institution and it is therefore critically important, as I see it, to ask questions.
Despite the fine job that the leader of the is doing by putting questions to the , we would much rather be discussing other concerns. However, I feel we have a duty to tackle these issues head on, because ultimately it is our democracy that is on the line. The legislative work of both houses is at stake.
Many people have asked about the constitutionality of the changes that need to be made. I am thinking in particular about the Conservative member who spoke before me. If we look closely at the changes that are being recommended here, I do not believe that the two measures being proposed require major changes.
Of course, as we move forward, some proposed changes such as Senate abolition, which the NDP favours, will require some major changes. There is no need to be afraid of that.
It is interesting to note that the government often raises this point. In truth, the changes that the government is itself proposing will require some constitutional amendments.
So then, the question is this: do we have the courage to address these problems and resolve them?
The NDP has, I believe, been very clear. It has even acted very responsibly. One need only consider the motion before us today to see that.
I am going to repeat myself, but this is extremely important. We are mindful of the fact that change is something that will happen over the long term. In the meantime, however, if we can act responsibly to bring about the changes that will help limit the damage, so to speak, then we can only support such action.
The two parties represented in the Senate, namely the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, have no strong desire for change. The Liberal Party advocates the status quo, whereas the Conservative Party insists on our supporting its reform proposals. However, it is hard to debate reform measures that have yet to be tabled. Even measures that were put forward have been withdrawn.
Instead of twisting in the wind and doing nothing, we are putting forward some concrete measures to minimize the damage done by the various scandals that have plagued the Senate. We want to give senators the tools they need to concentrate on their real job, which is to participate in the legislative process.
I hope that by proposing changes like these, I can continue to knock on doors in municipalities in and feel somewhat less embarrassed to belong to a political class whose members unfortunately show very little respect for their mandate and the task at hand.
I truly believe that members of all parties, not merely NDP members, have good intentions where their constituents are concerned. So then, let us show our good intentions and take concrete steps to attempt to resolve once and for all the problems plaguing the Senate.
I welcome my colleagues' questions and comments.
Mr. Speaker, before I launch into my heartfelt criticism of what is going on in the Senate and into an explanation of our proposals, I would like to make a distinction between the Senate as an institution and the members who make it up. I actually confess to having a great deal of respect for some senators who have helped to build this country and whose competence and experience are not in doubt. However, even the best of them are caught up in this partisan approach that is tarnishing all of the Senate's work, not to mention clearly going against the spirit and the letter of what the Senate has supposed to have been since it was created.
Let us recall that the Constitution makes no mention of the partisan nature of the Senate. Now everyone can see that this has made it into a real political circus. When unelected people who are not accountable to Canadians are appointed to the Senate, we would expect at very least that the process would be like the one for a lawyer becoming a judge. Immediately, some distance is established with regard to his or her public appearances and public opinions. I know that comparisons are odious, but I made one anyway.
However, this upper chamber, which, in a way, is supposed to be the conscience of Parliament and the place where a second review of bills is conducted, has lost all credibility. The reasons for that loss of credibility are numerous. I will take the liberty of suggesting a few. When senators are not elected, we have a credibility problem. When candidates defeated at elections wind up in the upper chamber, we have a credibility problem. When the bagmen from one or two parties wind up in the Senate, we have a serious credibility problem. When people are appointed for their popularity or their ability to appeal to the electorate more than for their skills, once again we have a credibility problem. When a Senate seat represents a reward or a favour for services rendered, need I say that we have a credibility problem? When a growing number of bills start their life cycle in the Senate instead of being reviewed there, we have a credibility problem. I could go on almost indefinitely, but I believe these few examples are quite enough for everyone to understand that it is time to move on to something else. The NDP's position on this matter is well known and supported by an increasing number of citizens. The Senate must be abolished, period.
I will put this simple question to all those who act shocked when this proposal is put on the table: which parliaments in Canada have abolished their upper chamber and are now making every effort to restore it? Where are the citizens demonstrating for the upper chamber to return to the provincial parliaments that abolished it? Personally, I have witnessed no such demonstrations. To ask the question is to answer it. That is indeed a sign of an institution that was established in another era and no longer reflects the needs of our time. Furthermore, if I try to weigh the cost of the Senate against its actual usefulness, I believe the majority of Canadians will lose interest and want to move onto something else.
A Senate without scandals, if that is possible, nevertheless costs between $90 million and $100 million a year. You can imagine what we could do with that amount of money. Let us consider a few examples just for fun. The travel expenses of Senator Wallin alone represent the federal income taxes of 28 Canadian families. That sum of $350,000 is also equivalent to the annual Old Age Security benefits that could be paid to 57 seniors. We know the government is very good at half measures when it comes to getting people out of poverty. If we also had to correlate senators' salaries with their expense accounts and number of days worked, I do not dare say it for fear of shocking Canadians, but let us do it since it is time to do away with appearances and take a critical look at the institution: in 2011-2012, the average number of days worked per senator was 56. That is a good hourly wage. In that same year, 19 senators missed more than one-quarter of all sitting days.
I could also give you a list of the senators who spent the most during the last federal election campaign. However, merely citing that category clearly shows that there is an objectivity problem in the second chamber, which is supposed to represent the wisdom of our Parliament.
Today, however, despite the NDP's firm resolve to abolish this institution, we have to implement measures to better manage the finances and ethics of this chamber of scandals. The abolition of the Senate will have to wait until 2015 when we replace the Conservative government, which is embroiled in various scandals of its own making.
In the most recent Speech from the Throne, the Conservatives have once again shown that their strategy is to stall for time and to sweep problems under the rug, instead of addressing them. There was no mention of the rules they intend to put in place to solve the problem in the short term.
Never short on good ideas, with this motion, the NDP is proposing simple, effective solutions that can be applied today. What does putting an end to the partisan work of senators mean? It means that they will no longer be able to participate in weekly caucus meetings, nor will they have the right to do fundraising or political organizing. In addition, they will no longer be able to go on trips that are not directly related to the legislative duties of senators.
Instead of moving in that direction, the Conservatives are adding insult to injury. While they have reduced the House of Commons budget, the budget of members who, let us recall, are duly elected, they have just increased the Senate budget to a total of $92.5 million.
As to the Senate's administrative rules, they are not available online, if you can imagine, even in our technologically advanced times. To get a copy of them, you have to put in a special request to the Senate administration. What do you find when you put in that request? You find some real gems. For the great benefit of my fellow Canadians, let me give you some examples.
Number one: “partisan activities are an inherent and essential part of the parliamentary functions of a Senator”. I certainly need an explanation for that one. Despite the 11 changes made to the rules for travel, senators are still allowed to take part in a number of partisan activities.
Gem number two: the policy governing senators' travel defines “parliamentary functions” like this: they can travel, for example, for an election of a member of the House of Commons held under the Canada Elections Act. That is funny. I never saw a senator in my riding immersing himself in the orange wave in order to gain a better understanding of many Canadians' desire for change.
The travel policy for senators also uses the definition of “parliamentary functions” to cover things in the private interests of a senator, a family member or a dependent. It is difficult to imagine more latitude, but I feel it would be wrong to believe that this state of affairs is exclusive to the Conservative Party.
Of course, the Liberals before them use the Senate in the same way. This statement by Mr. Trudeau Jr. is proof enough: essentially, he said that the problem in the Senate is that there are now not enough Liberal senators.
In closing, I will say that, in the opinion of this House, urgent steps must be taken to improve accountability in the Senate until the time comes when a political party resolves to put an end to an archaic institution in which unelected and unaccountable senators fritter away the hard-earned money of Canadians.
That party is the NDP. The time will be the election in 2015. Until then, the NDP will continue to put forward effective solutions to show that politicians can work in harmony with the concerns of Canadians.
I hope that the other parties here in the House of Commons will acknowledge the validity of this motion and will support it unanimously.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise and address what I think is a relatively important issue.
I would not necessarily say it is the number one issue that the House should be debating today, even though many of my constituents and Canadians from coast to coast to coast are very upset and concerned in terms of what is taking place over in the Senate. It is amazing how a few bad senators who have inappropriately used tax dollars have brought this large black cloud over the Senate.
I must say that the long-lasting scandal taking place in the 's Office has had more of a negative impact than the one in the Senate. I say this because there are many different issues out there, and we need to recognize that this is actually the first opposition day motion that has been brought forward.
Personally, I would have thought there might have been something more pressing that Canadians would have wanted the parliamentarians here in the House to Commons to be talking about. An example of that could be the EU trade deal. Another example could be the middle class. Let us look at how big an issue the middle class is. There is the cost of university; and the personal debt issue is very real and continues to increase; and there is the issue of unemployment particularly for young people. Let us look at the people who are unemployed or let go at age 45 and then find out they have to go through some sort of retraining program to get a job that is going to pay close to what it was they were receiving prior to being laid off.
These are the types of issues that Canadians are very much concerned about. We recognize the government has dropped the ball in dealing with Canada's middle class. It could be doing so much more.
Yesterday I made reference to the 's Office and the scandal that is taking place in the Prime Minister's Office. That has been a huge issue. Let us take a look at the question periods to date. The reason the session was prorogued is that the Prime Minister did not want to come and face criticism and questions with regard to the scandal that is taking place in the Prime Minister's Office.
Now, we have the New Democrats, in their wisdom—and that could be a contradiction in terms—making a statement that we need to talk about reforming the Senate. That is really what this is all about. This has more to do with their idea of abolishing the Senate. I will get to that particular argument, as to why I believe that.
The motion itself talks about wanting more accountability. Actions speak louder than words. The leader who has failed the most on the issue of accountability in terms of the Senate and the members of Parliament is the leader of the New Democratic Party. The New Democratic Party had the opportunity to ensure that, in fact, there was going to be more accountability in the Senate chamber, and not only the Senate chamber but also here inside the House.
We could have made that happen back in June when the stood in his place and asked for unanimous consent to ensure more accountability inside the Senate and inside the House of Commons. What did we see? One political party, one leader of a political party said no. The NDP did not want accountability back in June.
An hon. member: Shameful.
Mr. Kevin Lamoureux: It is shameful. There was a wonderful opportunity, as opposed to bringing forward a motion, trying to throw in a few things to see if they could get the Liberals to vote against the motion, being a little mischievous.
Instead of doing what was right for Canadians and recognizing that there was a substantial initiative that was taken back in June, and even the Conservative Party stood in its place—
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate being able to continue. I suspect I will get a little more time added on because of the point of order, hopefully.
The point that I was trying to make is the fact that we need to recognize that even though we have the motion before us today, asking for more accountability, there was an opportunity for us to have more accountability not only in the House of Commons but also in the Senate, the other place. There is only one political entity in the House of Commons that said no to more accountability and transparency, and that was the New Democratic Party of Canada. When I read the motion before us, one might say it is somewhat hypocritical. When New Democrats had the opportunity to ensure more accountability in the Senate, they chose not to do that.
Having said that, the Liberals were not prepared to leave it at that. We moved forward. We call it proactive disclosure. Today Liberal senators and members of Parliament are providing proactive disclosure on travel and hospitality. This was done a number of years ago when former prime minister Paul Martin instituted it for cabinet ministers.
Now people can go on the Internet and find out that I flew back and forth to Winnipeg. I am not too sure exactly what the cost was but that is okay, because people can go on the Internet and find out what the cost was. People can find out what my hospitality costs were. Someone asked me, “Aren't you leaving yourselves more vulnerable to criticism because other political parties don't have to do that?” My response was no, because not only is it the right thing to do, I believe that by demonstrating that leadership within the Liberal Party, others will follow suit. I believe, ultimately, it is starting to work.
We do not know the details of it, but now the Conservative Party has indicated that its members are going to be proactive in providing public disclosure, which is great. We welcome their participation. We now need to shift all of our focus onto the party that likes to talk about it but does nothing about it. We challenge the New Democrats to not only talk about the issue but demonstrate a little leadership on the issue by saying they too are committed and will in fact make their expenses public. If it is good enough to demand that senators need to provide more public disclosure and accountability, why is it not good enough for members of the House of Commons?
I put that challenge to my colleagues on the New Democratic benches and I anxiously await each one standing, led by their leader, and indicating that they are prepared to do likewise and join other members of the House in support of proactive disclosure. It would be wonderful for us to formalize a rule that would make it absolutely mandatory by regulation or law. That is something I believe Canadians would welcome.
In the motion, the New Democrats talk about senators and they always do it in a very derogatory fashion. They make reference to sober second thought. They do a disservice to many of the things that the Senate has been able to accomplish. Yes, there are some bad apples in the Senate and I am not going to attempt to defend those bad apples. However, I know that there is some value to the Senate.
If we took the time to better understand some of the issues that particular individual senators take upon themselves, they are not all political. Some of the work that former senator Carstairs did on palliative care is recognized across this country. People of all political stripes, New Democrats, Greens, recognize the efforts that Madam Carstairs put in on palliative care, and Senator Kirby on health.
The NDP does not want to allow these senators to participate in caucuses. Do hon. members know how valuable a role individuals such as Senator Dallaire have played in assisting, developing and discussing issues? This is an individual who is in demand around the world because of his activities. We have some outstanding individuals in the Senate. NDP members would say that those outstanding individuals should always run for office. They do not have to be appointed.
I would suggest and recommend to my New Democratic friends that they pry open their minds a little on this issue. They would find that there is a role for a Senate in Canada. I believe it, and I believe it would be wonderful to see some changes. I am not the first Liberal to say we need changes. Pierre Elliott Trudeau attempted to bring in changes back in the seventies. I remember the whole idea of the house of federation, where provinces had more input in what would happen in the Senate.
The idea of Senate reform and change is nothing new. I had the privilege of sitting on an all-party task force on the Senate in the province of Manitoba. I travelled to different areas in the province. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of individuals who made presentations about the Senate to this group of MLAs, which were majority NDP, was that we need to change and reform the Senate. That was the overwhelming opinion. That is why I pose the question to the former speaker. Is there not value in acknowledging the important role that the Senate could play? We should not write off western Canada's needs. We are a country, and we need to recognize that there are some regions of our country that might see more value to having a Senate than others. What we are saying is that everyone needs to be brought in and be made to feel they are contributing to the whole discussion.
I pose the question to the government members in regard to what consultation they have done with the premiers. The has been in government for how long? How many first ministers conferences have we had? Not one, I believe. I do not believe there has been one first ministers conference.
Hon. Stéphane Dion: There was a dinner.
Mr. Kevin Lamoureux: There was a dinner. I stand corrected. There might have been a dinner, but has there been any discussion at all about the issue of Senate reform or making changes to the Senate?
Every one of us knows full well that we cannot change the Senate if we do not have substantial support from the provinces. The Conservatives can say what they want, but unless they are prepared to do the work to make it happen, it will not happen. The NDP members say they want to abolish the Senate if they get elected in 2015, heaven forbid. They know they cannot do that. They do not have the mandate to do that. They would have to get the provinces and others on side.
The government members talk about making changes and reforming but all they have done to date, with the exception of the last year, is bring in legislation to make the changes. How many provinces' premiers has the actually talked to about the amendments that the government is trying to force through the House?
How many premiers has the actually talked to about the amendments the government is trying to force through the House? Imagine if the Prime Minister did his job and actually met with the premiers and after meeting with them came back to the House and presented the consensus and conclusion he and the premiers, from coast to coast to coast, arrived at. Imagine if he built the support of the Canadian public. I suspect that the government of the day would have a lot more support in the House for some of its initiatives.
When I look at today's motion, I question the priorities of the official opposition. Why does it not recognize the scandal taking place inside the Prime Minister's Office and the impact it is having on the Senate, on Canadian public opinion of that institution, and on the PMO itself? That is one of the issues I am concerned about.
The other thing I am concerned about is that the NDP consistently brings up accountability, yet when it had the opportunity to be more accountable and to have the Senate be more accountable in a tangible way, it chose to say no. If the NDP wants to join the Conservatives and the Liberals in acknowledging more accountability, and it is the will of this chamber to ensure more accountability and guarantee it to Canadians, then we could do that. We have the ability within the chamber today to make a difference on the issue of accountability. All it takes is for the New Democratic Party to agree to proactive disclosure.
What might be most appropriate would be to ask whether there would be leave to accept in their entirety the motions brought forward by the leader of the Liberal Party back in June, thereby ensuring that we have the accountability, at least in part, that today's motion is actually seeking to achieve. I ask if today might be the day the New Democrats take a step forward on the issue of public accountability and transparency.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my very dear colleague from .
I am pleased to rise for my first speech in this parliamentary session. In question period, I asked a number of questions about the expense scandal and the Wright-Duffy scandal, as well as about the accountability of the Conservatives and more specifically the 's Office.
I asked a number of questions in order to see whether the government would deny its previous statements, which contradicted some new facts and statements that were brought to our attention just this week.
How did they answer them? They said that they had already answered those questions, yet how can they have already answered the questions when the previous questions were asked several months ago and there are now new questions based on additional information obtained only a few days ago? It is nothing more than a diversionary tactic. They also answered that they did not want to talk about the issue and that they preferred to talk about the economy.
It is true that it is extremely important to discuss the economy. I agree with that, but how can anyone trust a government that cannot even give straight answers to questions about accountability and transparency?
When a government simply stops trying to duck questions, and says bluntly that it does not want to discuss them, it seems as though the government is admitting to lying, but saying that it does not want to talk about it and that it would rather talk about something else. Of course the government would rather talk about something else. We understand that. The fact remains, however, that the and the government in power are accountable to the people. The people are entitled to answers and transparency. That is something we are trying to achieve.
All of these questions about the Senate expense scandal and the involvement of the 's Office have led us today to the NDP motion, which addresses the expense and Senate scandals.
I recently received a few emails from Caitlin, Leslie-Alan, Christine, Tom, Steve, Don, Edward, Donna, Paul, Trpimir and Shaima.
I would like to quote a few sentences from those emails. The first says, “This is now about more than a Senate spending scandal. This is about the potential cover-up of the abuse of public money for partisan political purposes”.
Another part of the email says, “In addition, the public inquiry should fully investigate all senators to determine if they are using public money to pay for partisan gain”.
I heard from a few people in my riding who are very concerned about the expenses of the Senate and the use of public money for political partisan purposes. This is exactly what the NDP motion addresses today.
Specifically, for those people who wrote me with their concerns and others who wrote me on different topics, which I will come back to later, that, yes, I heard what they had to say. The NDP is aware of the concerns we hear in the general Canadian population. That is why we brought this motion forward. It is to answer those specific concerns and ask: to prohibit senators from taxpayer-funded partisan work; and that senators no longer participate in party caucuses or do fundraising, or organizing or public advocacy on behalf of a political party using Senate resources. Members can see the link with the emails I received recently.
Another thing we ask in the motion is to end taxpayer-sponsored travel not directly related to senators' legislative work. This is what we propose regarding what we heard from Canadians.
Both the Conservatives and the Liberals seem to be telling us that we are way out in left field. I am sorry to say that they are wrong; we are not out in left field. We are trying to listen to people's concerns and quickly suggest practical solutions. That is our goal, but the Liberals' and the Conservatives' partisanship is keeping us from achieving that goal.
Why would the Liberals and the Conservatives oppose the NDP's common-sense motion? The basic reason is that we have a different view of the Senate's tasks and mission. According to the Senate administrative rules, partisan activities are an inherent and essential part of the parliamentary functions of a senator.
I receive many emails and letters from constituents who are unhappy when they see public funds being used for political and partisan purposes. However, the Senate administrative rules say that such a thing is completely normal. Partisan activities are part of the parliamentary functions of senators. That is something we cannot agree with. For the NDP, the Senate, in its very essence and foundation, is clearly not meant to serve political goals or missions. The Senate should be the wise chamber, the independent chamber that examines bills to make sure that they do not contain any major flaws. Either way, the House of Commons would have passed the Bill. In fact, the Conservatives and the Liberals often use these same arguments: let us keep the Senate in place. It serves a useful role in reviewing bills and plays a part in a healthy democracy.
That sounds like doublespeak to me. If senators really serve a partisan function, how can they truly study the bills introduced by the various parties with any integrity? There have been times when, not wanting to defeat a given bill for fear of upsetting its base or its supporters, the government, whether Liberal or Conservative, has publicly voted in favour of the bill, only to have it defeated in the Senate under orders from the Prime Minister or the party, neither of which wished to be seen opposing the bill. It seems that the Senate is not as wise a chamber as we would have hoped. It is a partisan tool to be wielded by political parties.
I would now like to move on to another point. The Senate's partisan functions give rise to more than a few inconsistencies. I would like to point out that I do not recall any protests or major complaints by citizens regarding the abolition of provincial senate chambers. It does not seem like the provinces are any less democratic, that they are less functional or in peril. Not at all. The Senate spends $90 million every year. There are probably quite a few community organizations in my riding that would have some suggestions as to how those funds could be reinvested.
Earlier, I heard a Conservative MP say that voters would never be ready to see the senators representing them resign their seats. I would like to talk about something rather amusing that happened on Montreal’s West Island. A senator decided to run for federal office. My colleague, right next to me, knows this story and I can hear him chuckling, so then let me tell the story again. A senator resigned his seat to run in the elections. He came in third in the 2011 election. He was then reappointed to the Senate. If it is true that voters did not want to lose this valuable senator, they could have voted otherwise, but this senator did not win the seat he was contesting and he was subsequently reappointed to the Senate. That is not all. Many people have heard that apparently this very same senator is considering running again in a future election. I would be curious to see that happen. I know of several examples. I am familiar with this case because it happened in my riding. It illustrates just how frustrated people are with everything that is wrong with the Senate.
In conclusion, I just want to say that a number of reforms are needed in the Senate. Earlier, my Liberal colleague said that he was in favour of Senate reform. The Liberals have been talking about reform for quite some time, but nothing has happened so far.
The Conservatives said that they were going to reform the Senate. It was an election promise. So what are we seeing right now? I would like to see the proposed Senate reform legislation. Maybe I missed something, but I do not recall seeing any such legislation brought forward. I have not seen any legislation, because none has been forthcoming.
The promises of the Liberals and Conservatives have not amounted to anything. The NDP will move forward with its proposal to abolish the Senate. However, why wait until 2015 and the election of an NDP government? We can act now on issues that are of concern to Canadians. That is why the NDP has tabled this motion today.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to take advantage of my party's first opposition day to ask the government to put immediate measures in place to put an end to partisanship in the Senate. In this spirit, I will unreservedly support the motion of my colleague from because it is particularly meaningful when one considers the many scandals brought to light last spring.
Need I elaborate at greater length on the subject of those senators who are under investigation and those who will soon have to answer for their actions before the law?
Moreover, the first part of the motion reads as follows:
|| That, in the opinion of this House, urgent steps [hence their urgent nature] must be taken to improve accountability in the Senate, and, therefore, this House call for the introduction of immediate measures to end Senators' partisan activities…
This is unacceptable. We in the NDP firmly believe we do not need to wait until the Senate is abolished to take adequate corrective measures in this matter. That will be done starting in 2015, when an NDP government is elected for Canada as a whole. In the meantime, concrete measures can be taken immediately to make the Senate more accountable and more transparent. We want measures requiring no constitutional amendment to be taken.
First of all, we would like to abolish the partisan work being done at taxpayers' expense. Senators should no longer be allowed to attend caucus meetings, take part in fund-raising or engage in political organization or the promotion of a political party using the Senate's resources. That is unacceptable. It is a virtual betrayal of Canadians.
The original mission of the Senate of Canada was much more to protect citizens and abandoned regions. Quite frankly, virtually all of Canada and rural Quebec feel abandoned by this government, which is indecent and unfair to the population of Canada.
One thing is clear: too much public money is being spent on partisan activities. Once again, this is not normal in a democracy, particularly in these times of fiscal restraint.
I am going to say what the vast majority of Quebeckers think about the Senate of Canada. First of all, it is referred to in one popular expression as "the senile chamber". I will not go that far because I know some senators in this chamber who have very good intentions. That is not the problem. However, Quebeckers and Canadians from sea to sea have had enough of a Senate that is unelected, unaccountable and, above all, under investigation. That makes no sense when you think of the middle class, which struggles every day to make ends meet. This is an insult to the middle class, both in Quebec and in Canada as a whole. That is one of the reasons why the NDP is proposing the only real solution: that the Senate simply be abolished.
Yes, the NDP genuinely wants to abolish the Senate because that institution is expensive, costing nearly $100 million that could be allocated to people living in Conservative misery. In the meantime, Canadians should not have to wait for more transparency, genuine accountability and the end of partisanship when solutions can be introduced immediately.
Both Liberals and Conservatives speak in favour of the Senate, claiming that the upper chamber offers an opportunity to take a second look at proposed legislation. How can the Senate play that role when the Liberals and Conservatives have filled it with their friends, party organizers and backers and former candidates? Do they really think people are that stupid?
It is unacceptable for senators to travel all across the country at election time on the public dime. It is unacceptable because, as we well know, senators typically serve only the interests of the party that nominated them.
That is why the motion suggests another valuable change: putting an end to taxpayer-funded trips not directly related to senators' legislative roles. The current practice is an aberration, an insult to our intelligence!
Senators may have to travel for their work, of course, and that is perfectly all right. However, Canadians should not have to pay for any personal trip a senator makes for partisan purposes or because of a supposed second home.
More and more Canadians tell us that there is no place in our democracy for an unelected, unaccountable Senate. As a modern society, we need to adapt to a modern democracy and a modern economy. Our democracy no longer needs a useless Senate whose very rare interventions have always been partisan. Clearly, the use of public funds for partisan work must stop.
At the end of the day, appointed senators, and particularly those who abuse their privileges, do not at all represent the interests or values of Canadians who work hard to make ends meet. We think of the budget cuts affecting employment insurance, the protection of family farms and the rural economy. The middle class accounts for over 90% of the Canadian population and the government let it down. I said before that senators' initial mission was to protect these people but they no longer do so.
Consequently, the Senate is fundamentally an undemocratic institution and it should no longer be part of the Parliament of Canada. It dates back to the time of Confederation. The Fathers of Confederation gave that chamber the mission of reviewing and improving legislation passed by the House of Commons. At the time, senators had to be less partisan and, historically, they rarely got involved in this debate.
The Fathers of Confederation had also imagined a Senate that would ensure adequate representation of the minorities, the provinces and the regions in our federal legislative process. However, the Senate never really fulfilled that role. Senators have always voted based on their parties' interests instead of the interests of the regions that they should represent.
What we on this side really want—except for a few stubborn members who still have friends in the other place—is to abolish the Senate. That is all. We know that this objective will be hard to achieve in the short term. That is why today we are proposing with this motion that the other parties join us to begin a process that will lead to a reform and that will also satisfy Canadians, who are clearly demanding that the Senate be modernized.
The Senate must not be elected. It must be non-partisan. Senators are entitled to their political opinions, like many other observers. However, we think that the Senate was not created to be a partisan institution and that tax dollars should not be used to fund partisan activities.
As I said, we want senators to stop attending caucus meetings. It is an aberration. In Ottawa, senators should make good use of their time and of the Senate resources. They should not attend partisan activities such as caucus meetings. Rather, they should review the legislation objectively, in the true sense of the word, as was originally intended.
In closing, I congratulate my colleagues for their speeches today. I will let the next speakers provide a more detailed explanation of the second part of the excellent motion presented by the hon. member for . In that part, we are asking that the administrative rules of the Senate be updated so that the definition of “parliamentary functions”, for example, excludes partisan work and work not related to the Senate. Subsequently, senators will no longer be allowed to use tax dollars for activities other than those related to their functions. The legislation should also be reviewed so that the regions of Canada are better represented.
Mr. Speaker, I do appreciate your caution on the time. You are probably fully aware that it takes me almost six minutes just to clear my throat. I will do my best to keep it as tight as I can, but I am so glad to have this chance.
This is one of my favourite subjects, the senate, and the fantasyland that exists between what people think is happening over there and what is really happening there. That is why I am very proud that my caucus, the official opposition, has put this motion forward, and I will read it.
|| That, in the opinion of this House, urgent steps must be taken to improve accountability in the Senate, and, therefore, this House calls for the introduction of immediate measures to end Senators' partisan activities, including participation in Caucus meetings....
There is more after that, but for the sake of time I am going to focus on the caucus meetings.
It is interesting that the fallacy, the fantasy that exists right now, is that this House is there for sober second thought. I am not going to play on the obvious, but the whole idea, and why Canadians have been willing to accept and live with this, is because of the belief that high-calibre Canadians, people respected across the country, would sit in a chamber and use their love and passion for this country to look at things from a distance in a non-partisan way after we have dealt with something in a very partisan way. It sounds good, which is why I think Canadians have been willing to live with this albatross over there.
The fact is that there is nothing independent about the Senate. There are some independent senators, I will give them that, but most of them overwhelmingly are partisan. If there is any doubt, we can look at the way the House is structured. There are positions called “leader of the government in the Senate” and “leader of the opposition”. They have whips, the same as we have.
Why do we have caucus whips? It is an awful job. Their job is to go around to every member of their caucus and, whether they like the matter or not, they are to make sure that the platform the party ran on and stands behind is maintained, that the caucus works in unity and that they get in there. That is why there are all these jokes about whips and we see whips given to whips as a bit of joke. However, the reality is that it is a crucial part of our system meant to make sure that those who belong to a certain partisan caucus get in the House and vote the way that caucus is voting.
If one has independence in a House, why would one need whips? It is because it is not non-partisan. It is fully partisan. That is why we are saying that, at the very least, if they are going to continue this facade, stop the embarrassment of all those senators, Liberal and Conservative mostly, marching nicely in order into the caucus meetings where they meet with partisan MPs, are part of policy development and are part of caucus unity. When they walk out the door, they are in lockstep with their MP partisan colleagues. Where is the independence in that? There is not any independence. Therefore, at the very least, we are asking if we can at least not have them participate obviously in the weekly caucus meetings. Is that so much to ask?
I realize there are some questions about constitutionality and how we would do all that, but it is a motion. It is an expression of intent. It is an expression of the opinion of this House.
In our opinion, this House should reflect the fact—not that we do not want the Senate, nor that we do not want any partisanship. However can we at least get rid of some of the blatant evidence that points to the contrary? At the very least, let them get their marching orders by email rather than walking into the caucus meetings when they are supposed to wearing a label that says “independent; nobody tells me what to do, except the Prime Minister, and the caucus, and my whip and the leader in Senate”.
There is no independence in that, yet Conservatives and Liberals will continue to play this fantasy that there is some kind of independent thought going on. There is, in the hands of a few senators, some excellent ones and I want to give them their due, but the vast majority are entitled to wear the title of “partisan hack”. Let us call it what it is.
I want to end on this note. If anybody doubts the partisanship, I do not normally name individuals, but Senator Duffy really did take it to a whole new level. The ink was hardly dry on his order in council, and he was attacking the opposition and praising the government. Where is the independence in that?
Let me leave the House with this. The idea that electing senators is going to solve our problem is equally a fallacy, because even the Supreme Court of Canada has said that an elected Senate would be a radical change to our parliamentary system. The court does not use the word “radical” lightly.
The current system does not work. Electing senators just creates the kind of nightmare gridlock that exists down in the United States. The only thing that makes any sense is abolishing the Senate.