Mr. Speaker, you are most generous to give me six minutes for my speech and ten minutes for questions. I will not let them go to waste.
On May 25, I spoke about Bill , which aims to limit the term of senators appointed after October 10, 2008, to eight years. It would be retroactive for two years since it is now November 2010.
The Canadian Constitution is a federal constitution. Accordingly, there are reasons why changes affecting the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made unilaterally by Parliament and must instead be part of the constitutional process involving Quebec and the provinces.
The Conservatives want to strengthen the Constitution by ignoring the provinces and Quebec. In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the capacity of Parliament to independently amend constitutional provisions relating to the Senate. According to the ruling it handed down, decisions pertaining to major changes affecting the Senate's essential characteristics cannot be made unilaterally.
In 2007, Quebec's National Assembly unanimously adopted 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.
The government has to amend the Constitution to make these sorts of changes to the Senate. The Senate itself and other issues could potentially be on the table. Quebec would be prepared to discuss an even wider range of issues, but we know that that is not likely to happen any time soon.
It would be simpler to propose that the Senate be abolished. We all know that the Senate serves only the interests of the party in power, the Conservative Party. Senators are appointed, not elected. If we were forced to keep the Senate in perpetuity, I would strongly advise that the Senate be elected and that the senators have no connection with the other parties in the House of Commons.
Senators are appointed to serve the government's interests. Let us look at my riding, for example. One of the senators lives in Sherbrooke, but he is not the senator for Sherbrooke. The senator who represents Sherbrooke does not live there. So there is a problem right from the start.
In 1867, it was probably called a senate duchy. Now, it is called a senate division. Sherbrooke is in the senate division of Wellington. Léo Housakos is the senator for that senate division. The senator who lives in Sherbrooke is Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who represents the senate division of Lasalle.
There is no sense of belonging, aside from the basic connection the senators have with the government. I have two quick examples.
The first example concerns Mr. Housakos, a big financier who gets money for the government. The newspapers have given a fair bit of coverage to his connections in the financial community.
The second example concerns Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu from Sherbrooke. This man has suffered some devastating losses in his lifetime. He was an advocate for victims' rights and victim protection, but unfortunately, now he is an advocate for law and order and the government's “tough on crime” agenda.
We can see that this has nothing to do with real life. The senators exist only to serve the government and the party in power. To paraphrase Quebec humorist and realist Yvon Deschamps, what is the point of the Senate?
It should just be abolished.
Mr. Speaker, Bill , raises serious questions for the House just through its very title.
Bill limits the tenure of senators appointed after the bill becomes law to one non-renewable eight-year term. At the same time, it preserves the existing retirement age of 75 for current senators. It further allows a senator whose term has been interrupted to return to the Senate and complete his or her term. The bill also contains a provision for senators summoned to the Senate after October 14, 2008, but, before the coming into force of the act, they remain a senator for one term which expires eight years after the coming into force of this act. That is just a little bit of background.
The Liberal Party has repeatedly made it clear to Canadians that we support and have a continued interest in Senate reform. We also have adamantly insisted that any such reforms must reflect sound public policy and respect our most sacred of documents, the Constitution.
It is our hope that the committee will study and amend this bill before us today and return something to this House that respects the Constitution and the role of the provinces in democratic reform.
The bill is another attempt by the 's Conservative government to dismantle the Senate piece by piece. What needs to be clear for all of my colleagues in the House, in the Senate and all Canadians is that this is not simply a cosmetic tweak of an old but venerable institution. The legislation before us today amounts to parliamentary reform, reform that arrived today without consultation with provincial or territorial governments.
We must make no mistake that this is nothing short of another attempt by the Conservative government to unilaterally transform our system of parliamentary democracy. The government has shown a blatant contempt for the Constitution and the federation to which it speaks.
This is not the first time that the government has targeted the Senate and, by extension, Parliament, with its so-called plans for reform. This bill has come before the House on two previous occasions. We have it today in its third incarnation. Perhaps the and the Conservatives were thinking that three was a lucky number or that the third time would be a charm. However, it is widely accepted that three strikes also means one is out.
The bill was originally introduced in the first session of the 30th Parliament as Bill S-4. At that time, the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs proposed several amendments to the bill. Specifically, the committee proposed that the duration of a Senate term be extended from an eight year term to a fifteen year term. The reason for that is important to the principles of parliamentary democracy within our Constitution.
An eight year term for senators would allow a party that has won two consecutive majorities to appoint virtually a whole team of senators, an entire roster of senators to simply rubber-stamp the party's legislation, instead of having the Senate serve for what it is known to be, the chamber of sober second thought.
The standing committee indicated that a 15 year term would ensure a Senate possesses the experience and expertise to offer that second sober thought as envisioned by the Constitution. The committee also made the important recommendation that this bill and its incarnations be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Liberal Senate caucus echoed this recommendation, asking the government to refer this bill to the Supreme Court to determine whether the legislation requires a constitutional amendment approved by seven of the ten provinces representing 15% of Canada's population, rather than a simple act of Parliament.
This legislation's history underscores the serious nature of the issue that is now before this House.
With this third attempt at parliamentary reform, the and the Conservative government once more betray their true feelings toward the Senate.
It seems that the either does not care or simply does not understand the character of the institutions he purports to be steward of. It is easy enough for the Prime Minister to flippantly say that he make the rules when he feels like saying that, but we rarely see evidence that indicates he is in fact committed to bringing forward the so-called rules in the form of sound public policy.
The Senate was established to protect and defend regional and provincial interests and rights. This was necessary to protect the regions against majority governments in the House of Commons. Now the is attempting to circumvent the provinces completely. This is another example of the Prime Minister ignoring the spirit of our federation.
Let it be known that contrary to Conservative spin and ideology, it is the provinces themselves that have expressed passionate concern about Senate reform. The prefers to forget that the provinces are our constitutional partners. Such arrogance and disregard for his provincial counterparts is neither logical nor fair.
Also let it be known that it is not only Liberal senators who have voiced concerns on the issue of Senate reform. Liberal senators and Liberal members of Parliament alike are committed to sensible and rational reforms that reflect the principles and spirit of our Constitution and fully include all provinces as equal partners with equal voices at the table.
No less than four provincial governments have publicly come forward to express their strong objection to the 's unilateral interpretation of the Constitution and his unilateral attempt to reform our institutions. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have all made it clear that if they are not to be included in this discussion, they will have no recourse but to go to the Supreme Court.
If the insists on creating such discord through his unwillingness to hear opposing views, whether from Parliament, its committees or other provinces, how can he say he is engaged in democratic reform? How can the Prime Minister and the government stand in the House and claim, in good faith, to be undertaking these reforms in the name of democracy when the governments of the two largest provinces in Canada and the two smallest, representing more than 50% of the population of the country and three of the four regions described in our Constitution, have been flatly dismissed and ignored in their objections to these reforms?
The matter is clear. The and his government cannot constitutionally proceed unilaterally now as then. If the Conservative government is truly committed to fair and democratic parliamentary reforms, the Prime Minister must first ask the Supreme Court of Canada, in a constitutional reference, whether he can even undertake such authoritarian reforms. At the very least, the Prime Minister should engage the provinces in a meaningful consultation on Senate reform, as full and equal partners, and secure their consent under the terms of the Constitution.
Frankly, with the bill as it stands before us today, the is spitting in the eye of the spirit of the Constitution with this third time around legislation. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister seems to want nothing to do with either of these options. Here we find ourselves once again.
The House needs to remember that on July 28, 2006, all provincial premiers, through the Council of the Federation, said:
—the Council of the Federation must be involved in any discussion on changes to important features of key Canadian institutions such as the Senate and the Supreme Court of Canada.
Did the not get the memo, or does he simply have no interest in listening to anyone else?
I will reiterate the point I made earlier. What is being proposed here is nothing less than a full reform of our system of parliamentary democracy. Does the think that no one cares, or perhaps no one is paying attention? He made that mistake the last time he prorogued Parliament and we heard loud and clear what Canadians thought about that.
The Liberal Party cares. We care about the Senate because it speaks to the very core of our democracy and the principles of fairness, balance and common sense.
Let me draw the House's attention to section 42(1)(b) of our Constitution. It states, “Such constitutional amendments may not be made by acts of Parliament alone, but also require resolutions of the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have an aggregate, at least 50% of the population”. As such, this proposed legislation represents nothing less than an attempt to change significantly the powers and the function of the Senate.
It would appear that the government has not even read the Constitution. The changes that the bill proposes are far beyond the powers granted to the Parliament of Canada. The changes proposed require a coordinated constitutional amendment, which in turn must adhere to a specific formula as set out in the Constitution.
We could have had a Supreme Court ruling long ago and have advanced Senate reform in a meaningful, constitutional way. Instead the has elected to simply reintroduce the same bills, the same thing over and over. Instead of listening to his constitutional partners, instead of listening to the provinces or even the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister is choosing to fill the Senate with enough of his own supporters to force his preferred Senate reforms through.
The has tried to present his proposed reforms, such as a change to eight-year tenure terms for senators, as modest changes that would afford no trouble to anyone.
However, as numerous witnesses have testified, this change could allow a two-term prime minister to appoint every senator in the chamber, wiping out any opposition voices to any initiative, as the government of Ontario wrote. We know that this is a common event in the country. We know that we had two Liberal governments that had more than eight-year terms. We know that we had a Progressive Conservative government that had more than eight-year terms. Again, the probability exists that in fact every senator could be of that political party persuasion.
Bill , on its own, would dramatically alter the real functioning of the Senate, detracting from its traditional role as an independent chamber of sober second thought. The 's new power to appoint every member of the Senate over eight years would significantly expand his appointment power and impair the independent functioning of the upper chamber. The result would be indeed a partisan institution with nearly co-equal powers to the House of Commons and an institution that would be more likely to exercise those powers in order to freeze or obstruct a government, creating an untenable situation.
The Government of Quebec was unequivocal in its assessment of the impact of the reforms to the Senate proposed by the current federal government. Then minister Benoît Pelletier, an acknowledged constitutional law expert, wrote, “The transformation of the Senate raises some fundamental issues for Quebec and the Canadian federation in general...The federal bills on the Senate do not represent a limited change”.
The premier of my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, wrote to the to express his government's view that the proposed Senate reform bills. He said that they:
—represent attempts to alter the Constitution of Canada so as to significantly change the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators within the meaning of Section 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982. Such constitutional amendments may not be made by acts of Parliament alone, but also require resolutions of the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have, in the aggregate, at least fifty per cent of the population
Democracy is all about that. It is involving our constitutional partners. It is making sure that we all have a say in how our country is run, so we do not just have a House of Commons with our elected representatives, but we also have the Senate where people are appointed on the basis that they are there to serve as a sober second thought to decisions that are made in the House of Commons.
The former premier of New Brunswick, Shawn Graham, wrote:
The Government of New Brunswick has carefully considered the proposed amendment...and is not able to support this amendment in its current form....Our review of jurisprudence on this issue, contained in the attached position paper, supports the view that the provinces must give consent to any change that affects representation in the Senate.
Let it be clear. The Liberal Party favours Senate reform. We have said so time and time again, but it is reform that must come through a consultation process. It is consultation with our partners in a democracy. It is reform that reflects sound public policy and respects the Constitution.
The Conservative government continues to try to change the channel from its spending scandals by cutting back on social programs, by having a deficit of $55.6 billion, by spending money unnecessarily on the G8 and G20 and by doing things that we all know is unnecessary.
I look at an organization such as KAIROS and the money it needs. The government has ignored it and in fact has said no to it. It is an organization that has worked so well on behalf of so many people, both in our country and throughout the world.
There is a problem when we have a government that does not recognize the importance of doing what is right, but instead focuses on doing away with the Senate or ensuring there are eight year terms that will serve no one's interest in terms of the democracy of the country.
Liberals will continue to demand that the government conduct meaningful conversations with the provinces on this issue. Provinces have been heard loud and clear. They have made their concerns known. What is wrong with listening to our partners? What is wrong with acknowledging that they have a part to play? What is wrong with acknowledging how important their input is into any democracy, especially if we believe they are indeed partners in this Confederation?
What we have today is a who is anti-democratic, who does not believe that the provinces and the territories have a part to play. As he said, “he makes the rules”. In making the rules, he is deciding that he wants eight year terms for the Senate. If he had a majority government, he would stock that Senate with people of the same political persuasion to the point where that sober second thought, which is so important to any legislation, any decisions that we make in the House of Commons as elected representatives, would not exist anymore.
There is a serious issue here. The government needs to listen and not just assume that it has all the answers. There are people who can make a contribution. There are people whose experience and expertise are invaluable, both in the House of Commons and in the Senate.
It is true that Canadians' views of democracy have evolved since 1867. As Liberals, we are committed to ensuring that our institutions reflect those changes where appropriate.
The Senate is an essential component of Canada's constitutional democracy and we, as members of Parliament, are here because we have a commitment to improving our country through the democratic institutions of which we are privileged to be a part.
The Senate is an institution with a very proud history, an institution in which the members have done important work over the years. In fact, some of the most important reports that have been produced through the Senate and the senators who work very hard on them have been invaluable to those of us in the House of Commons who take our work seriously.
How we can just turn a blind eye to the Senate and the work it does? How we can just decide that it is not important or that the senators should serve eight year terms, thereby creating a situation where we would lose after that term people with invaluable experience, people with expertise who have so much to contribute, and want to contribute, to our country?
However, in order to do that it is our belief that we need to look at 15 year terms, not 8 year terms, where we see a change in individuals, where we do not end up with senators of all one political stripe, where we see some second sober thought. We had that intelligent debate, which used to happen when we had a Liberal majority Senate versus a Conservative majority Senate.
The Liberal Party is committed to a Senate in which the members can make valuable contributions to public life and the public good. Legislation to alter Senate term limits must keep within the spirit of this commitment.
While we are open to the committee's response to the legislation, we will only support a revised version of Bill if it reflects sound public policy and respects the Constitution.
Mr. Speaker, it is with much anticipation and relish that I enter this debate on Bill , regarding Senate term limits, not so much because what we have before us is something that can actually make things better for our country and for our future but because it gives me and my party an opportunity to talk about some of the worst aspects of our parliamentary system that exist right now and that need to be fixed in order to make this place better, in order to help begin the process of restoring the faith that Canadians need to have in their democratic systems.
I use the word “democratic” very specifically because all the discussion we are having here today in this democratic institution, in this House of Commons, is about some sort of historical relic, and that is what the used to call the Senate, an historical relic, in which being friends with the prime minister of the day is enough to get a person a job that does not end until that person is 75, which has no accountability whatsoever, no constituency at all, and uses up to $90 million a year of taxpayer money, for what purpose?
To listen to the Liberals talk about the Senate and accuse the Conservatives of stuffing the place with cronies is a bit rich. The entire history of their party seems predicated on the idea that simply being entitled is enough to gain power, that simply being connected, who one knows, is enough to have influence in the country. It is a crying shame, because at a foundation, every political movement, if it stands for nothing else, should stand for that moment when voters walk in to a ballot box and make a decision about their future and the future of their community. That is a sacred moment in our democracy.
In terms of hearing elected members in this place defend a Senate in which none of that happens and a senator simply knows somebody, I would like to read a quote. There are a number of great quotes, but a recent appointment of the Conservative government to the Senate, Senator Gerstein, said something that I think is very important for us to put into some context. On January 27, 2009, the good Senator Gerstein said:
Every one of you knows why you are here. I would ask if you might indulge me and let me tell you why I am here....
Well, I want to tell you that I do not admit to being a bagman; I proclaim it.
He does not want to admit that he has been a bagman for the Conservatives, a fundraiser, and a good fundraiser apparently; he proclaims it. He says that is why he is there, because he helped the government of the day raise money. That is why, not because of his ability to look over legislation or to think about the affairs of state, about where our country needs to go. It is because he can shake money out of the pockets of Conservative supporters better than the next guy. The Prime Minister seems to like that a lot, so he has given him this gravy train of a job. He is accountable to nobody. He gets paid $140,000 a year for doing virtually nothing if he so pleases, showing up less than 50 days to work.
Most Canadians would find this offensive, and do.
The reason we support and ridicule this particular piece of legislation is because it is tinkering around the edges of the fundamental problem, tinkering with the idea that we can somehow write on to an unaccountable place some level of accountability. We know it cannot be done this way. We are certain that when witnesses come forward and say the Constitution dictates this and dictates that, the tinkering around this $90-million slush fund that happens down the hallway is not going to enable any sort of democratic enhancement of the country.
Here is a sober second thought. There is no sobriety test when senators go into that place. There was no sobriety test last night when they took a piece of legislation that was voted on democratically here and they decided, without any debate, without any discussion at all, without any questions about a piece of legislation passed democratically, that they were just going to simply kill it.
Some of my hon. colleagues may say, “Well, so what? That is just one bill and maybe some of the Conservatives did not particularly like the bill”. To them I say, let us follow this through and talk about the future where an unelected, appointed body is able to override the democratic will of the chamber. We all come here with the bond between ourselves and our constituents that we seek through elections. We, parties and individuals, seek a mandate to do things that we hope will improve the lives of ordinary Canadians.
There is the idea that when we grind away on a piece of legislation, make changes, have studies and send that across, these folks are not going to tinker with it or smudge out a few lines; they will just kill it, and there is no recourse to that. The government says that, if it did not get its way in the elected place, it will get its way in the unelected place, and that is fine.
I ask the Conservative members to walk through what the future looks like if one of the fundamental constitutional traditions of parliamentary democracy in Canada begins to unravel, and appointed people with no accountability, no constituencies, no one to report back to, to hold them to a higher regard, are simply able to undermine laws and are simply able to veto the will of this place. What value are we getting for $90 million?
I wish it was only an irritant. I wish, for the $90 million we pour in there, that it was just a hassle once in a while. However that is not what we get. In fact, we have created a system and have allowed the system to go on existing in which we fund the erosion of our democratic principles. How utterly obscene is it that Canadians say they are paying people to go to work and undercut the work of elected members?
This allows direct control for the prime minister of the day. We know this. There is an interesting quote from a Conservative spin doctor that came out just after the broke the record on appointments. Canada is a relatively young country, but of many years and many prime ministers and circumstances, this Prime Minister broke the record in appointing 27 senators in one year.
A Conservative spin doctor said that we need Conservatives in the Senate who are loyal to the party, to the cause and to the . Notice in that list of loyalties that country was not mentioned. That is in fact what these folks are there for. That is why they got there, as Senator Gerstein has so eloquently pointed out. He says he is a bagman and proud of it, and that is how he got there. He was not just talking about himself; there are others, of course, who are there for their fundraising abilities not for their intellectual capacities or their devotion to this country.
I think we as Canadians are quite a forgiving people. We allow our politicians to make mistakes from time to time. There can be redemption. We can do something that we later regret and then correct the error.
What Canadians do not tolerate is outright hypocrisy. I will read a couple more important quotes into the record, because they are important. They are not that old, which I think is also significant.
From January 15, 2004:
Despite the fine work of many individual senators, the upper house remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the Prime Minister.
Who said that? The current . We can only take him at his word, that in breaking the record of dumping-ground cronies he is ensuring that the system continues.
Here is another quote from a little later on, 2006:
A Conservative government will not appoint to the Senate anyone who does not have a mandate from the people.
It was “we will not”. It was not “we may not” or “we will consider”. That is as broken a promise as there can be. I think the thing that frustrates people who voted Conservative in the previous elections is that they believed these quotes, because they were so clear. They were not nuanced or subtle.
I know my Conservative colleagues sitting in the House today said similar things when the topic came up for them when they were in elections, when they were at all-candidates debates and the issue of the Senate came up. They had seen the Liberal Senate up close. They remembered the Mulroney years of stacking the Senate year after year, and they thought it was an abuse of power. I believed them. I think their constituents believed them. Certainly people who voted for them believed them, but how can they believe them now? How can they believe them now after this many years in power, having broken the record of cronyism?
Here is a last quote, which is a little older. It is from Hansard:
They are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.
That was said by the current on March 7, 1996.
An appointed Senate is a relic of the 19th century. Why would the government come forward with a bill that seems to put a fresh coat of paint on an old relic and say this is brand new, this is something special?
New Democrats, because it is in our name, believe that democracy is something so fundamental that we have to fight each and every day for its survival and renewal, because democracy is not something we are entitled to. It was fought over. It was bled over for generations. Its maintenance requires us to sustain it.
There was a most egregious example just last night as we were all shocked to hear that the Senate called a snap vote. I am surprised the senators even bothered to vote. The vote was on a bill named, ironically enough, the climate change accountability act. What does the bill propose to do? The bill says we must set targets for our greenhouse gas emissions to reduce those emissions over the years and that the government must report on its plans and then report back on how those plans worked out. How offensive is that? The government would be accountable. Whether it was Liberal governments or the present Conservative government, there has been no accountability when it comes to climate change.
I can remember my Conservative colleagues railing about this when they were in opposition. They asked: Where is the accountability? Promises were made and promises were broken. This is what the act enshrined into law. It is the only climate change legislation in this place. It was, until the Senate called a vote last night and killed the entire bill.
One must think that the senators must have studied it. They had 191 days with it. They must have studied it. They must have found some fatal flaw, in their debate and discussions and hearing of expert testimony. But there was no testimony. There was no debate. There was no discussion. The senators just simply killed the bill outright with no reason given. A bunch of Liberals stayed away. A bunch of Conservatives voted to kill it, undemocratically. The Conservatives feel fine with this. It undermines all of our work. It undermines our principle of being here. It undermines the last election, the one before that and the next one. The Senate needs to be abolished.
Some will say this cannot be done, yet we know there are no senates at any of the provincial and territorial levels. But there were. In fact there were many. In 1892 New Brunswick said no more senate. Nova Scotia said it in 1928 and Quebec in 1968, in recent living memory. These provinces decided that the so-called sober second thought place was not worth the money or the time. They realized that they could actually be sober and have thoughts. They could do this. They do it all the time.
P.E.I. in 1893 and Manitoba in 1876 said no more senate. They tried senates. They had them. They were constituted. I am sure they thought they were valuable. Those with a vested interest in sitting in those senates thought they were valuable.
Is democracy any less in any of our provinces and territories? Do we concern ourselves in Ontario, P.E.I. or Quebec that democracy is somehow not being done, that sober second thought is missing and bills are going through that ought not to? Of course not.
The next question for Canadians is: If senators can do this with environmental climate change legislation, what else will they do it with? What is the next bill that the happens not to like but cannot win a vote here in the elected place and simply says never mind the election, because he will have the legislation killed down the hallway by his cronies, as he calls them?
The Senate seems to be the place for him to dump his cronies, his bagmen, spin doctors, past presidents of the party and failed candidates. The list is quite specific. One has to have some deep and profound and loyal connection not to country, God nor Queen, but to the Conservative Party. That is the qualification that is needed.
The government is tinkering around the edges and saying it will put limits on Senate terms. It seems to feel that if it puts an 8-year limit, the bagmen, spin doctors, past presidents and failed candidates will only get in for 8 years of patronage as opposed to the 20, 30 or 40 years of patronage. Any patronage is bad.
I remember Conservative-Reform-Alliance members all talking about the patronage gravy train that was the Liberal Party of Canada. The formation of the Reform Party was in response to the Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney patronage. As he was leaving office, Mulroney could not sign those patronage appointments fast enough. The Reform Party was born. It had had enough. The west wanted in. It wanted some kind of accountability.
The first bill in 70 years that the Senate killed was a bill called the climate change accountability act. These are mere words now. The promises that the Prime Minister can make in the next election mean so much less.
The concern, the sadness that I have over this entire issue, is that it erodes what little faith remains in the Canadian public over what this place is meant to do. Why do they bother to vote? We all lament the low voter turnout. We all lament that young people are not getting involved enough. How can we expect any different if we allow this fundamentally hypocritical action of a government to go untested and unchallenged?
For the people who formed the Conservative Party to say that breaking the all-time record of patronage appointments is a good thing for this Prime Minister to do, spinning in their graves does not quite account for it. The Liberals lament because they could not do it first, that they were not at the trough first. That is the Liberal complaint about this whole process. The people on the list to whom the Liberals promised the Senate now have to wait supposedly until they form office, whenever that tragic day will come again.
Senators have to be loyal to the party, to the cause and to the Prime Minister, those three things.
The conflicts of interest that reign supreme in the Senate are also quite staggering. A senator can maintain his or her position on a private corporation board while also being in the Senate. I see no accountability change within this bill for that. Senators can have private interest in a bill that comes before them and not remove themselves from the discussion or from the vote. They can simply vote on it and improve their own lot in life. That is fine. As far as this government is concerned, that is okay too.
This is what we mean by putting a fresh coat of paint on an old broken-down car. It is still broken down. To put a splash of paint on it, say it is new, that the grievances have been fixed, is one thing, but to allow the inherent conflicts of interest to exist within the body and not change those, it seems to me, and to everybody else, is mere tokenism.
Again, Canadians can suffer much and have been asked to suffer much from their elected governments, with the switches, flip-flops and changes of mind. The current government will not allow a free and fair debate on extending a dangerous mission in Afghanistan for another three years. Canadians have been asked to suffer a lot.
When a party campaigns explicitly on accountability, transparency and reform of the place, and then comes in and does this, and says “trust us for another mandate”, then Canadians can be forgiven for doubting. They will doubt and they must doubt because the evidence is before us.
Many of us believe in climate change, although I am sure there are some Conservative members who still think it is a socialist conspiracy, as the used to call it. However, there are those who believe that climate change is a real issue and needs to be addressed, and I think some of my colleagues within the Conservatives do.
When we take an issue like this and simply shred the only bill and offer nothing else, then Canada is going to show up at the next UN meeting in Mexico in a couple of weeks with nothing again. Right now we are spending on green energy at a rate of $1 to $22 versus the Americans. The Americans spend $22 per capita and we spend $1.
Green energy and technology companies are coming to us saying that we must have certainty when it comes to the pricing of carbon and that we must do something about cap and trade. The government's response is just, “Well, wait for Washington”. Imagine the abrogation of sovereignty at such a fundamental level as our environment and economy.
Finally, I wish to move the following amendment:
That the motion be amended by striking out all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
“the House declines to give second reading to Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate term limits) because the term limits do not go far enough in addressing the problems with the Senate of Canada, and do not lead quickly enough to the abolition of the upper chamber, as recent events have shown to be necessary.”
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity to debate this bill today, this bill that addresses a certain type of reform of the Senate, the second chamber of Parliament.
I have always thought that the Senate should be reformed. The Senate has served a useful purpose over time since Confederation. There are ways that it should be reformed, and I still believe that it needs to be reformed. But I do not think this bill would solve that or would affect it in a significant way. We need sensible reform of the Senate. I have always felt that way, and I continue to do so now.
As an elected member of Parliament, one thing that surprised me a little was just how important I found the work of the Senate to be. I do not have to go through chapter and verse on that. People in the chamber know the work that was done by Senator Mike Kirby on health, as well as his significant work on mental health in his report titled, “Out of the Shadows at Last” , which led to the Mental Health Commission and his appointment there.
There has been some significant work done by senators individually and collectively. In some ways, the Senate has traditionally taken a bit of the bite out of the partisanship of the House of Commons. It has become more partisan in recent days and months, but that work was important. More recently, we have seen some fabulous work done by a Senate committee on poverty co-chaired by Liberal and Conservative senators, Senators Art Eggleton and Hugh Segal. It shows the kind of quality, bipartisan work that can exist in the Senate.
Today I am delighted that in the chamber the chair of the human resources standing committee tabled a report by the committee on poverty and developing an anti-poverty plan for Canada. Some of the recommendations will be similar to those in the Senate report, but some are not. Both studies are well worth looking at. Some significant work has been done in the Senate that I think has added to public discourse and led to better policy in this country, such as the work by Senator Segal, Senator Eggleton, and Senator Kirby.
I come from a province that has a rich tradition of senators providing valuable input. A good friend of mine, Senator Cowan, is the leader of the opposition in the Senate. Senators Mercer and Moore do fabulous work on many issues, one of which is post-secondary education. My co-parliamentarian from Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, Senator Jane Cordy, and one of my all-time favourites, Senator Al Graham, who retired some six years ago, have done a tremendous amount of work on behalf of Canadians as well as all citizens of the world. It shows that significant work is done in the Senate, and Canadians can be proud of that.
I think we need to take a serious look at Senate reform. Clearly, when the Senate was devised, it was in large part meant to balance regional input in Canada. In 1867, we had the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. There were 24 senators from Quebec, 24 from Ontario, and 24 divided equally between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. As other provinces came into Confederation, senators were added. The most recent was the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which entered in 1949 with six senators. The tradition of the Senate there has been very strong as well.
It is not just Liberal senators. We have Senators Oliver and Comeau from Nova Scotia, and this strong tradition has existed across Canada. We have had some good senators and some bad ones. We have had some good members of Parliament in the House of Commons, and we have had some bad ones as well.
When we look at Senate reform, we need to look at it sensibly. The government of the day has turned the Senate into a bad guy on everything, and it has done this in a way that is very disingenuous.
I want to quote the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Senator Cowan, when he spoke about the idea of Senate reform being introduced by the Conservative government. I am going to quote directly from his speech in the Senate. He stated, “I begin by stating the obvious—that real democratic reform cannot be imposed, not even by a prime minister. The result of a unilateral action can never be enhanced democracy. A healthy democracy requires a leader to listen to the views of others and, in some circumstances, to accept those views even if the leader disagrees with them”.
He goes on to state:
A constitution, by its nature, is the antithesis of unilateral action. Constitutions are the product of discussion and compromise. The Canadian Constitution contains a detailed amending formula meticulously negotiated over many years. [...] The government refuses to discuss the proposals with the provinces. It insists, notwithstanding the views of numerous experts, that the Parliament of Canada possesses the authority to pass the proposed constitutional amendments on its own.
People come here with their own points of view. We have heard some very strong positions from members of the New Democratic Party who believe that there is no place at all for the Senate. I do not believe that. We have heard from others who believe that perhaps there should not be any change at all to the formulation of the Senate. I do not believe that either. I think we need to look at this sensibly and reasonably.
A colleague from Manitoba speaks about some discussions that happened in Manitoba, but other provinces have very clearly stated that they do not intend to just go along willy-nilly with a change in the Constitution. That is a very important thing that affects their interests and their region and they do not want to see it imposed upon them by the .
What we have often heard from the and the government was that the Senate was holding things up. In fact, while the House was prorogued earlier this year, the suggested that the Senate was holding up the crime bills.
There is a very good letter, which I commend to everybody's attention, from Senator Cowan to the dated February 4. The letter reads:
Your Government introduced 19 justice-related bills in the House of Commons. Of these, 14 were still in the House of Commons at prorogation. Of the five justice bills that passed the House of Commons and came to the Senate:
two passed the Senate without amendment;
one (the so-called Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime bill) was tabled by your Government in November in the Senate but not brought forward for further action after that;
one was passed with four amendments and returned to the House of Commons which did not deal with it before Parliament was prorogued; and
one was being studied in committee when Parliament was prorogued and all committee work shut down.
There were a further two justice bills that your Government chose to initiate in the Senate. One was passed by the Senate after 14 days, sent to the House of Commons, passed and given Royal Assent. The other was tabled in the Senate on April 1, but has not been brought forward by your Government for any further action since then.
Very clearly, the Senate has been set up incorrectly as the entity that has been slowing down the government agenda. We all know that what slowed down the government agenda was its proclivity to prorogue Parliament, not just twice in the last couple of years but in fact three times if we go back to 2007. Therefore, It is not fair to say that the Senate has held up the agenda of the government.
What we saw last night was a bill that had been passed by the House of Commons in Parliament and sent to the Senate. For the first time in the history of our country, the first time since Confederation, a bill that was passed by the House of Commons was killed by the Senate without even going to committee.
I believe what we have is an abuse of the democratic process, consistent with a government that has chosen to prorogue Parliament, that has chosen to ignore the will of Parliament on a number of occasions and that is now using the Senate as the set-up bad guy when the government has to take responsibility for not being able to get its own agenda through.
That is just simply how it is. We do have a bicameral legislative body. We have had a system in Canada over many generations, going back to Confederation, that has two bodies. It has the House of Commons where members are elected. The Senate has members who are appointed. Should the senators be elected and how long should their terms be, are things that are open to debate.
What is not open to debate, though, is that the government has set up the Senate in an incorrect way, politicizing the Senate, beyond what it ever has been before, to suggest that the Senate is slowing down the will of Parliament. On top of all of that, last night we clearly had the Conservative-dominated Senate killing the will of Parliament on a piece of legislation for the first time in our history.
I say that we need to reform the Senate. We need to look at it seriously but we must not forget the good work that can be done by the Senate. We need to en sure that we enhance democracy as we go through this process and not further damage it.
Mr. Speaker, once again, for the umpteenth time, the Conservative government is introducing Bill on Senate reform to limit senators' terms to eight years. This government bill is unacceptable because such a change represents a major modification to the Senate structure. That can only be achieved through a Constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of seven provinces representing 50% of the Canadian population.
The Conservative government's desire to unilaterally change one of the major elements of the Senate structure shows its complete lack of respect for provincial powers. This proves, once again, as though it needed to be proven, that this government—which was elected on the promise of governing in a less centralist fashion and showing greater respect for the provinces' jurisdictions and aspirations—feels utter disdain for the provinces and for Quebec in particular.
In fact, evidence to that effect continues to accumulate. The Conservative government always opposes any proposals that would give tangible expression to the recognition of the Quebec nation. It has never put words into action. On the contrary, it refuses to recognize that the Quebec nation has one language: French. Instead, it keeps trying to make Quebec even more bilingual by, among other things, making it impossible for companies under federal jurisdiction to be subject to the Charter of the French Language and Bill 101. It refuses to take into account the existence of our national culture, whether in the administration of our laws or the operation of the institutions that reflect our culture and identity. It refuses to recognize that our nation has needs and aspirations that differ from those of the rest of Canada. Instead, it continues to promote a form of multiculturalism that makes the French fact, the Quebec fact, a minority among other minorities and encourages immigrants to preserve their culture, all to the detriment of the continuity of our national culture, which is directly threatened as a result. This Conservative government refuses to even consider the possibility that Quebec should have its own radio-television and telecommunications commission to make regulations based on Quebec's unique interests and challenges.
Another aspect of this government's centralist policies is the fact that it wants to create a single securities regulator for all of Canada, even though the current system works perfectly well. We already know that it will refuse to limit federal spending power in the provinces.
And that, unfortunately, speaks to government's worthless commitment to give the provinces, their areas of jurisdiction and their aspirations more respect. Now this government is pushing its centralist interests even further, going over the heads of Quebec and the provinces in order to unilaterally impose changes to a major element of Canada's democratic system. And these changes, as we pointed out earlier, require amendments to the constitution and approval from the provinces.
The Canadian Constitution is a federal constitution. Everyone should know that, but apparently they do not. Quebec and the provinces must be consulted on all reforms that affect the powers of the Senate, the method of selecting senators, the number of senators to which a province is entitled and the residency requirement of senators. These types of changes affecting the essential characteristics of our federal democratic system cannot be made unilaterally by Parliament and must instead be agreed upon by the provinces. The government is clearly choosing to ignore this reality.
The Quebec government—led by a federalist party, I should add—clearly expressed a similar opinion. In November 2007, the intergovernmental affairs minister, Benoît Pelletier, reiterated Quebec's traditional position when he said:
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.
The same day, the National Assembly unanimously adopted 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.
The government was thus formally requesting the suspension of proceedings on Bill , which became Bill on Senate term limits.
Naturally, the Conservative government may believe that it can point out that Quebec is zealously defending the principles of a Constitution that it refused to sign. Quebec's position on this matter is far from contradictory. In fact, it is and always has been very clear: there will be no Senate reform until the issue of Quebec's status is settled.
The Conservative government undoubtedly wants to avoid that problem. However, it cannot circumvent the will of Quebec and the provinces in an area by going it alone within their jurisdiction.
This very clearly shows that Bill C-10 proposed by the current federal government would directly thwart the aspirations of Quebec and the other provinces. We are also concerned that this would create a precedent, allowing the federal government to get its foot in the door.
This does not mean that the Bloc Québécois is opposed to making any change to the Senate. But it is clear that Senate reform is not at all in keeping with Quebeckers' aspirations. They are rather indifferent about Senate reform.
According to a Léger Marketing poll conducted in March 2010, only 8% of Quebeckers believe that the Senate plays an important role and that the current appointment system works well; 22% of Quebeckers would like senators to be elected rather than appointed; and 43%, the largest group of respondents, would even be in favour of abolishing the Senate.
Clearly, in the current state of affairs, there is nothing about the Senate that can arouse the passion of citizens. Senators have an unfortunate reputation for high absenteeism and dereliction of duty. We should note that the Senate only sits 83 days per year.
However, the Senate also governs itself. It could make certain changes such as increasing the number of working days, reorganizing its committees to make them more effective, and adopting a more demanding schedule, along the lines of that of the House of Commons.
The government could also contribute to improving the institution's image by improving the quality of its appointments, by choosing more credible and more competent candidates rather than play the populist card and make purely opportunistic appointments. It should be noted that some senators are known for their absenteeism. Senator Jacques Demers, for example, was present for only 21 of the 83 short days that the Senate sits. That is less than one day in four on a schedule that is not very demanding.
And what can we say about Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu who is a staunch defender of the families of victims of crime and kidnapping, but is in favour of getting rid of the firearms registry or, at least, removing hunting rifles from the registry? I gather that he never bothered to check what type of weapon Marc Lépine used in committing the massacre at École Polytechnique in 1989. What is more, in a logic that may raise some eyebrows, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu blames the growing number of single mothers in Quebec society for the loss of hunting as an activity passed down from father to son. And again according to this senator, the decline in the popularity of hunting has a direct effect on the increase in highway accidents. It is unbelievable. This was published in Quebec newspapers.
This speaks volumes about some of the most prominent senators this Conservative government has managed to find. There is certainly nothing there to boost the Senate's image and nothing that is likely to get Quebeckers interested in the fate of the Senate.
In any event, it is clear that Senate term limits do not top the list of Quebeckers' priorities, to say the least. This government has enough to think about without having to get the public interested in an institution that many could see disappear without batting an eye.
Most importantly, it is totally unacceptable to allow the federal government to overstep its powers by circumventing the constitutional process, thereby trampling on the powers and aspirations of Quebec and the provinces and on its own commitments.
Madam Speaker, we are talking about the amendment brought forward by the NDP that will essentially lead to the status quo. On one hand, the NDP has espoused the need to reform or abolish the Senate, and by this motion that it has brought forward, it is preventing any kind of reform. It is disappointing.
I see that the NDP does not necessarily appreciate the complexity that is necessary to abolish the Senate. The government is proposing a step-by-step approach that falls within the Constitution, within the powers of this chamber, and that is to suggest term limits. Term limits are something the government has done before. In the sixties, the term of a senator used to be for life. Now it is until the age of 75, and that was done by this chamber.
What the NDP is suggesting in its motion is that the Senate should be completely abolished. Some people would agree with that sentiment, but in practical terms that is not an option. What is an option is Senate term limits. What is an option is having elections for senators. What is an option is what the Conservatives are suggesting.
The NDP unfortunately has proposed again, as it often does, unrealistic solutions. We have some challenges in the Senate, we all agree. What the Conservative Party is proposing are steps that we can take to enhance the Senate so it better reflects the values that we have as Canadians in the 21st century. A non-renewable term limit is one of those items. Having senators selected directly by the population of the province that they are to represent is another. These are steps that are within the Constitution and that we are pursuing.
In fact, I would like to make the point that our was the first prime minister in the history of Canada to say that he will select whomever the people of a province elect during a direct election process. That is a core Conservative value. That brings accountability.
The eight-year term limit, as proposed, would allow for a certain refreshment of the Senate over time. A lot of people feel that 45 years, which is now possible, is too long to serve in the Senate without any kind of accountability mechanism, so that is why we have selected a term limit. We have suggested eight years. Perhaps other parties have other suggestions. Let us have that discussion.
This is why I hope that other parties will allow this motion, as originally presented, to proceed and defeat the NDP amendment. The Liberal member from Nova Scotia, to his credit, just spoke a few minutes ago and said that he would stand up and defeat this NDP amendment and allow for Bill to proceed to second reading, to allow people to give their points of view on the legislation.
That is the correct thing to do. Allow the bill to go to second reading. Allow for feedback. That is why we have a democratic process, and for the NDP or other parties to just say, forget it, let us not try anything, let us just go for elimination, which actually really means, let us stick with the status quo, is not being intellectually honest.
I hope other parties, or individual members in the House, will see that by voting to allow Bill to go to second reading would allow for a clearer and more constructive debate about the length of time a senator should stay in the Senate. Bill C-10 would do that. It is within the power of Parliament and we should proceed with it.
Canadians appreciate that. Canadians overwhelmingly support Senate term limits. Canadians believe the Senate needs to be enhanced in order to be in line with 21st century principles. The bill would help to do that. Is it a complete fix? No. Is it a big step in the direction of improving the Senate? Yes. A step by step approach is what we need.
I call upon all members of the House to allow the bill to go to second reading to provide an opportunity to debate some of the provisions. Maybe there are different views on the length of the term or the nature of the term, but let us have that debate. By expanding it too much, will lead to nothing, no change. We know that. Everyone in the House knows that. If we want to improve the Senate, if we want to make it more in line with Canadian values, we should, together or individually, support the bill.
We live in the best country in the world and at the best time in human history. We have an opportunity to include more people in the democratic process by electing senators. We are allowing more people to become parliamentarians by limiting the term of senators.
Why can we not move together and have this debate? I appreciate the member for for saying that he will stand and support the bill to go to second reading. I call on all members of the House to do the same.
Together we stand and we will make our country better through this great institution we call the Parliament of Canada.