Hon. Tim Uppal (Minister of State (Democratic Reform), CPC) (for the President of the Treasury Board)
|| That Vote 1, in the amount of $57,933,343, under PARLIAMENT — The Senate — Program expenditures, in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, be concurred in.
He said: Madam Speaker, I stand in the House this evening to join debate on the main estimates' allocation of funding to the Senate of Canada.
While I am always happy to discuss the ways in which our government is taking action to bring greater effectiveness and democracy to the Senate, it is disappointing to be discussing such issues as a result of partisan manoeuvring by the NDP. Rather than discuss real and achievable Senate reform measures such as term limits and getting provinces to hold a Senate nominee selection process, the NDP would rather pull procedural stunts in order to call for constitutional battles with the provinces. We know what calls for Senate abolition really are: they are calls for long-drawn-out constitutional clashes with the provinces.
At a time when the global economy is still fragile and Canadians are rightly worried about their savings, their retirement and their financial future, long-drawn-out constitutional clashes with the provinces would be a recipe for sideshows, distracting the government's attention away from the economy.
It is not surprising that the NDP would be advocating for bombastic constitutional sideshows, because it would need a sideshow in order to distract from the misinformed economic statements of a leader who shows such little regard for critical components of Canada's economy. In fact, we could say the NDP is doing that right now. Instead of talking about ways in which we can ensure jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for Canadians, the NDP is forcing a debate tonight to create a sideshow in order to distract from the leader's gaffes in calling key sectors of the economy a disease.
Frankly, if the NDP was so concerned about the state of the Senate, it would not stall the Senate reform act, yet it resorts to procedural tactics, including filibustering the Senate reform bill and creating this sideshow tonight, because it is afraid that our reforms will work. Once senators are selected by Canadians, the case for creating long-drawn-out constitutional sideshows diminishes greatly.
Our government has always been clear about our commitment to bring reform to the Senate chamber. We pledged to do this in our most recent election platform and we repeated our promise in the Speech from the Throne. While our government's top priority remains the economy, we have to do something about the status quo in the Senate. The Senate makes, reviews and passes laws that affect Canadians every day. It is not right that senators have no democratic mandate from the people they represent, nor that they can sit in the other place for decades at a time.
I believe that the Senate can play an important role in our parliamentary system. It reviews statutes and legislation, often from different perspectives than those found here on this side. It serves to represent regional and minority interests in a way different from the way they are represented in the House. Many of its members and committees have demonstrated and provided appreciable research and investigative skills and thoughtful recommendations. It can be a place where a broader range of experience and expertise can be brought to bear on the issues facing our country.
Unfortunately, I believe that the contributions of the Senate are overshadowed by the fact that senators are selected and appointed through a process that is neither formal nor transparent, with no democratic mandate whatsoever from Canadians. Moreover, there are no strict limits on the number of years an individual can sit in the Senate. Under the Constitution, an individual can be appointed at the age of 30 and serve until the age of 75. That means that senators can serve for as long as 45 years. Taken together, the Senate lacks any essential democratic characteristics. Its effectiveness and legitimacy suffer from its democratic deficit.
We must then ask ourselves this simple question: is this good enough? Our answer on this side of the House is no. Our government does not believe that the current situation is acceptable in a modern, representative democracy, and neither do Canadians. Our government has long believed that the Senate status quo is unacceptable, and therefore it must change in order to reach its full potential as an effective and democratic institution.
One, we can have a long-drawn-out constitutional Senate reform showdown with the provinces, which the NDP advocates; two, we can keep the status quo in the Senate; or three, we can have reasonable reform that can be done through Parliament.
In July of last year, public opinion research found that seven out of 10 Canadians reject the status quo in the Senate. Although striking, this is not shocking. The Senate and its reform have been the subject of numerous reports, proposals and studies over the past several decades.
While recommendations on how to reform the Senate have differed and differ still, there is one consistent theme that runs throughout. Nearly all reports and studies agree that the Senate is an important democratic institution and that reform is needed to increase legitimacy in the context of a modern democratic country.
It is clear that while there may be different approaches to solving the problem, reform is necessary. Senate reform of any kind has proven to be a complicated process. Under our Constitution, reforming fundamental aspects of the Senate, such as its powers or the representation of the provinces, requires the support of seven provinces, representing 50% of the population of the provinces.
Achieving the necessary level of provincial support for particular fundamental reforms is a complex and lengthy process, with no guarantee of success. Abolishing the Senate, for example, at the very minimum requires the consent of at least seven out of ten provinces.
Canadians do not want drawn-out constitutional battles that would detract from our government's focus on Canada's top priority, the economy. Added to this is the fact that there is not consensus among provinces to pursue large wholesale reform.
It must be said, though, that the lack of agreement on large fundamental reform does not leave us with a lack of options, if only we have sufficient will to act. If we are to begin the journey towards reform, we must do what we can within the scope of Parliament's authority.
Our government believes that Senate reform is needed now, and we are committed to pursuing a practical, reasonable approach to reform that we believe will restore effectiveness and legitimacy in the Senate. That is why we are moving forward with the Senate reform act.
Through this bill, our government is taking immediate and concrete action to fulfill our commitment to Canadians to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of our upper House, and to work cooperatively with the provinces and territories.
The Senate reform act includes two initiatives that will help bring the Senate into the 21st century.
First, the act provides a suggested framework to provinces and territories that wish to establish democratic consultation processes to give Canadians a say in who represents them in the Senate.
Second, it introduces term limits for senators appointed after October 2008, which will ensure the Senate is refreshed with new ideas on a more frequent basis and allow Canadians to select their Senate representatives at regular intervals.
While each of these initiatives can stand on their own merits, combining these measures allows our government to act quickly to implement our promise to Canadians to bring about Senate reform.
As I have already noted, our government has long been committed to Senate reform. Our commitment to reform remains as strong as ever, and we are now in a position to act on our commitment.
We have consistently encouraged provinces and territories to implement a democratic process for the selection of Senate nominees. The Senate reform act would give clarity to our flexible approach.
The act would require the Prime Minister to consider the names of individuals selected from the holding of democratic processes with Canadians when making recommendations on appointments to the Governor General.
The act would not bind the Prime Minister or the Governor General when making Senate appointments, nor would it change the method of selection for senators. Therefore, Parliament is able to enact this provision through its authority under section 44 of our Constitution.
Under section 44 of the Constitution Act 1982, Parliament has the legislative authority to amend the Constitution in relation to the Senate. The act also contains a voluntary framework, attached as a schedule to the act, for provinces and territories to use as a basis for developing a democratic selection process to consult voters on their preferences for Senate nominees. The framework is based on Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act.
The framework is meant to provide enough details to facilitate the development of provincial or territorial legislation, without limiting provinces and territories in the establishment of a consultation process or the precise details of such a process, which may differ between jurisdictions as local needs may demand. This is, after all, a cooperative venture. Provinces and territories would not be required to implement the framework precisely as written. Rather, they would be encouraged to adapt the framework to best suit the needs of their unique circumstances, as we have seen recently with the legislation introduced in New Brunswick. It is our hope that this built-in flexibility would further encourage provinces to provide a democratic process to give greater voice to their citizens and their province in the Senate.
Before moving on to explain other aspects of the bill, I would like to note that the approach proposed in the Senate reform act has already been successful. This type of reform has already gained a toehold in the Senate.
In 2007, the Prime Minister recommended the appointment of Bert Brown to the Senate. Senator Brown was chosen as a senator-in-waiting by Alberta voters in 2004. A selection process was held under the authority of Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act, which was introduced in 1989. Senator Brown's tireless work for reform, both inside and outside the Senate, is greatly appreciated, not only by me and our government, but also by the many Canadians who want Senate reform and who have campaigned for it for many years.
Alberta may have been the first province to pass this type of legislation and to see its nominees appointed, but it is not the only province that has taken steps to facilitate reform. In 2009, Saskatchewan passed the Senate Nominee Election Act, which enables the provincial government to hold a consultation process on Senate nominees. Saskatchewan has not yet held a consultation process, but I encourage it to do so at the earliest opportunity. Our government continues to be welcoming toward discussion and cooperation, wherever possible.
In British Columbia, the premier's parliamentary secretary has introduced a bill that would provide the provincial government with the authority to hold consultation processes. Last week, a bill was introduced in the New Brunswick legislature to hold a Senate nominee process by 2016.
I will be following the progress of this legislation closely, and I would encourage my provincial colleagues in their legislative assemblies to support the passage of both bills. More broadly, I would encourage all colleagues, in all provincial and territorial legislatures and assemblies, to consider supporting and moving with similar initiatives.
I will move on to the other major initiative of our Bill C-7. In addition to encouraging the implementation of a democratic selection process for Senate nominees, the act would also limit Senate terms, which can span several decades under the current rules. Public opinion research has consistently shown that over 70% of Canadians support limiting the terms of senators. When we begin to talk about specific reforms, that amount of support for one particular provision is impressive and encouraging.
Under the Senate reform act, Senators appointed after the bill receives royal assent would be subject to a single nine-year, non-renewable term. The nine-year term would also apply to all senators appointed after October 2008. The nine-year clock for those senators would start upon royal assent.
As with the earlier provision, limiting the terms of senators would amend the Constitution, but again it is a reform that can be accomplished by Parliament through section 44 of the Constitution Act 1982. Similarly, in 1965, Parliament, acting alone, introduced a mandatory retirement age of 75 for senators. Prior to that, senators were appointed for life.
I believe it is far to say that while many in this House agree that changes to the Senate are necessary, we sometimes disagree on the way forward. Our goal is to begin the reform process, and we want to be as constructive as we can while ensuring we are moving forward.
In contrast to the position of the other parties, it is clear that our government's approach is a practical and reasonable way forward. It is the approach that can truly achieve results. In fact, the stated positions of the opposition parties are essentially arguments in favour of the status quo in the Senate. Their proposals have such a low chance of success that they might as well not even propose them at all.
For example, the official opposition would try to abolish the Senate. Aside from the very obvious sideshow that the NDP is attempting to create using procedural tactics this evening, the position on abolishment is unattainable, for a number of reasons. First, there is no consensus among the provinces to abolish the Senate. Second, to take away the Senate without significant other reforms would be to seriously damage the effective representation of large sections of our country and our Parliament.
Our upper chamber, though flawed in some ways, can serve valuable democratic functions if we can reform it to make it more effective and legitimate. We should have enough respect for our institutions and our democracy to work towards the improvement of an institution in need of repair. We should not throw our hands up in the air in defeat without first attempting reform.
The position of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, has been to advocate for a process, not a result. Liberals do not support reform of the Senate, and their 13-year record of inaction demonstrates their opposition. They have been clear about this. Yet, their suggestion is to open the Constitution and begin a process we know will end in bitter drawn-out national conflict without Senate reform being achieved. Their approach is a recipe for accomplishing nothing.
I reject the opposition's obstructionism and encourage them to join us in implementing constructive reforms that are reasonable and achievable. Let us be clear. Our reforms are reasonable and achievable. They are absolutely within Parliament's authority to enact.
Our government is dedicated to reforming the Senate so that it better reflects the values of hard-working Canadians across the country. My constituents tell me they want change. I believe it is time for change in the Senate, and that time has come.
With the Senate reform act, our government is presenting modest but important and attainable changes that will improve the Senate by providing it with greater legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.
I consider the enhancement of our democratic institutions to be a significant responsibility, and I am privileged to be working with my hon. colleagues to meet this common objective. I encourage all of my colleagues to work toward achieving these reforms and giving Canadians a stronger voice in determining who represents them in the Senate.
Mr. Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, NDP):
Madam Speaker, let me preface my remarks by saying that no legitimate procedure in the House of Commons and the Parliament of Canada is a stunt. I resent the implication that anything that happens in this place that is properly within the rules and constitutional bylaws of this place is a stunt. There is nothing stuntish about bringing up a legitimate debate on a legitimate expenditure within the main estimates of the Parliament of Canada. I do not know where the parliamentary secretary gets off, but he should apologize for that remark at his first opportunity.
I moved a perfectly legitimate opposition motion to a spending item. As the chair of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, I have some knowledge of the main estimates in the Parliament of Canada and the government's obligation to come before the people to ask permission for spending.
Let us put this into perspective and into context. Perhaps the most sacred, so to speak, aspect of our parliamentary democracy is that the government is not allowed to spend money without going to Parliament to ask permission, to ask the representatives of the people for their permission, and those representatives of the people are entitled to have an opinion on how that money is spent. If I want to oppose one budget line of the main estimates, I will, and it is not a political stunt. It is perfectly legitimate and it is my right, my duty and my obligation as a member of Parliament and a representative of the people.
I put forward an opposed vote. I put forward a motion to oppose the vote that would give the budget to the Senate of Canada and I did it for specific reasons, many of which seem to have been either glossed over or missed altogether by the person whose duty and obligation it is to handle that file.
The government has asked that the Parliament of Canada approve, the House of Commons approve, $57,933,343 to fund the activities of the Senate. I oppose that spending and I oppose it for perfectly legitimate reasons. I can assure members that I am not alone in that opposition. In fact, if we polled the people of Canada, increasing numbers are calling in to question the need, the efficacy and even the desirability of having the Senate at all.
I would like to begin my remarks by quoting journalist Andrew Coyne, for whom I have a great deal of respect on some issues and I certainly admire his mastery of the English language. He says:
|| The Senate is Confederation’s original sin, the great stain on the [founding] fathers' handiwork, from which much greater evils have flowed. Structurally, it has contributed to the divisions and weaknesses that have bedevilled the federation. Without some constitutionally appropriate vehicle for expressing the concerns of the regions in federal politics, it has been left to the premiers, inappropriately, to do the job.
|| Worse, however, has been [the Senate's] corrosive effects, compounded over time, on our political ethics. It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power. That would be true even if the Senate were filled with Solomons, and not the bizarre cargo of bagmen, strategists, failed candidates, criminals, cranks and other political problems that prime ministers have traditionally solved by the expedient of the Other Place.
|| Yes, some senators do good work. Committees of the Senate often produce thoughtful reports. But they have no more democratic right to translate their views into law, to move, amend, pass or reject bills and otherwise exercise the powers of legislators than I do. Though by convention the Senate’s powers are less than they appear on paper, they are still more than any patronage house should rightfully have, and have been exceeded on more than one occasion.
I enter those words into the record because I do not think I could put it better.
However, let me share some of the frustration expressed by Mr. Coyne, especially on his final point, that they “have been exceeded on more than one occasion”.
I am not going to restate some of the well-known objections that the NDP had historically to the Senate. What really put me over the top was when the Prime Minister exploited the opportunity and stacked the Senate with not only the campaign manager of the Conservative Party but the president of the Conservative Party, the chief fundraiser of the Conservative Party and his own communications director of the Conservative Party. The entire war room of the Conservative Party is now on the public purse. Not only do they have a full salary and travelling privileges and four staff people, but they are also doing partisan work on the taxpayers' dime. It is offensive to the sensibilities of anybody who would call themselves a democrat.
Not only that, more and more frequently we are finding bills being introduced into the House of Commons beginning with the letter “S”, not the letter “C”. The people in the other place have no right to introduce legislation. Nobody elected them to be legislators. They were appointed because they were party faithful, because they had a Conservative Party membership card in their back pocket, because they performed some duty for the party that has nothing to do with having the right. Mr. Coyne put it very appropriately.
What really pushed me over the top, what changed me from a person who believed that the Senate could be reformed, what really made me give up—just like Premier McGuinty, just like Premier Wall, just like Premier Selinger, just Premier Dexter, just like Roger Gibbins from the Canada West Foundation—was when the Conservatives abused a right that I do not believe they have: to kill legislation that had been introduced and properly debated and approved in the House of Commons, had gone through first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage, third reading, and wound up in the Senate, where it was killed without a single witness being called, without a single hour of debate. It was summarily executed.
That bill was of great significance to me and to my party. It was the bill in the name of Jack Layton, the climate change bill. It would have been the only piece of environmental legislation passed by the House of Commons in a decade. It was three years in the making and it was carefully crafted. After garnering the support of the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, and after it had passed through all stages in the House, it was killed in the Senate without a single hour of debate. That was the final straw for a lot of Canadians.
The other bill that the Conservative summarily executed without any trial or any meaningful debate was the drugs for Africa bill. For God's sake, it was Stephen Lewis's initiative to provide generic AIDS and malaria drugs to Africa at a reduced cost so that we could challenge the global pandemic with the wealth and the opportunity of the west going to developing nations. That bill was five years in the making. That was agonizing, because we had to get it past big pharma. We had to get it through all the obstacles. It was an almost impossible task. It finally went through the House of Commons, but the Senate killed it.
These two noble, worthy initiatives—developed, introduced, debated and passed by the democratically elected representatives of the people—were summarily smashed by a bunch of hacks and flacks and bagmen taking partisan orders from the PMO instead of being any kind of objective chamber of sober second thought. The triple-E Senate is probably the latest in a string of Conservative principles that were jettisoned in the interests of political expediency. There have been many others.
With all due respect, I do not believe the parliamentary secretary. I am not calling him a liar. I just do not want anybody to think I believe him, because I do not. I do not believe the Conservatives are sincere about Senate reform. Now that they control the Senate, they like the Senate. It is 59 members to 35 members. They have a solid majority of senators in that chamber, and they are an extension of the Conservative caucus, as they are with Liberal senators as well.
It used to be quality people doing important work, almost in a public service way. I am thinking of Senator Yves Morin, a wonderful man, a gifted cardiologist from the University of McGill, who did not need to be a senator at the end of his career, but he did.
Those were good people. There was Senator Wilbert Keon, the head of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute in Ottawa. These are fine people. Even people like Lowell Murray and Hugh Segal, the old-timers, at least had some memory of what the Senate was supposed to do and supposed to be like. This new bunch is not like that. The 20 or 30 that the Prime Minister has stacked the Senate with recently are just a bunch of partisan pawns. They take their direction from the cabinet and the PMO. They are not giving intelligent second thought to legislation, they are killing it out of hand at the direction and control of the Prime Minister. They are an extension of the Conservative Party. They are not doing any material good. They are not enhancing democracy. In fact, they are sabotaging democracy.
Why would we spend $57 million to undermine the integrity of our democratic institutions? I can think of a lot better places to spend that money, and that is why I introduced this opposition motion today. If the parliamentary secretary thinks it is mischief or a political stunt, it is anything but. I believe to the core of my being that the Senate is a barrier to the democratic process. It has ceased to serve any valuable function whatsoever. It is a hangover.
He says that there is no appetite for constitutional reform. I took part in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord hearings that criss-crossed the country. I was an ordinary Canadian, a journeyman carpenter at the time. Joe Clark was the minister responsible.
There were five huge conferences across the country, fully supported by educators, academics and parliamentary staff. It got hundreds and hundreds of ordinary Canadians together to rethink the Constitution, to give it some serious thought, and the Senate was on the table as a topic. We underestimate Canadians if we think there is no appetite. It is only people who have a vested interest in keeping this decision-making away from the Canadian people who maintain that the Canadian people do not want it. I argue that there is a great deal of interest and a great appetite now, just as there was in 1992.
It has been 20 years since any government has had the temerity to open up the Constitution to try to fix some of the intergovernmental affairs that need addressing, to revisit whether we still want the monarchy to be our head of state, to revisit whether we really want a Senate, to modernize Canada and keep up with the times. Instead of being dragged backward, we could be moving forward with a plan of what we want Canada to look like. Those are reasons that the Constitution is a living, breathing entity, not something that has been carved into a marble template like Moses and the Ten Commandments. That is not what a constitution is.
We cannot be afraid to open the Constitution because it is difficult. If these guys think we cannot look at the future of the Senate because it is too hard to do, then they are not worthy of being the government of the day. That is not leadership. That is the polar opposite of leadership.
I feel strongly about this issue. This is not the first time that I have tried to cut off the blood supply to the Senate. I am the first to admit that it is a long-drawn-out process if we are to look at meaningful Senate reform. I do not think the Conservatives are trying hard enough. I think they like abusing the power that they have gained now that they have stacked the Senate and used it as a paid job for their fundraisers.
I have to point out a couple of really atrocious things. It offends me to no end when I see senators managing political campaigns on a senator's salary. They are not even elected representatives. They are supposed to be out of the elected world, but yet, sure enough, the former party president, Senator Plett, is the campaign manager in the federal election for the province of Manitoba, full time, flat out, on salary, using those travel privileges, using all the resources he has at his disposal. That, to me, is absolutely offensive.
As well, it offends me when I see Senator Mike Duffy flying around like a stand-up comic, entertaining at Conservative Party fundraisers. It seems to be his full-time job. The rest of the time they seem to be like the Harlem Globetrotters, only these are like the globe-trotting hog-troughers. They take every parliamentary junket possible. They never, ever miss an opportunity to fly around the world.
Do we really need to be spending $57 million on that?
To put it in perspective, yesterday I held a press conference complaining about the cutback of $2 million a year to the Experimental Lakes Area, which is a scientific research project in northwestern Ontario that brings us great credibility in the future of both freshwater fisheries and freshwater lakes. That is $2 million a year and 17 scientists gaining us enormous international credibility, and in fact it has paid for itself time and time again, saving us a fortune in mistakes. That is gone, yet we unquestioningly approve $57 million for something hardly anybody wants and nobody needs, something that gets abused all the time and in fact undermines the integrity of our democratic system.
We really have to wonder what we could do with $57 million if we did not have to fund a bunch of washed-up former candidates.
Hon. Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I listened closely to the speeches by my two colleagues, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform and my NDP colleague, who made this proposal.
I would like to express, as respectfully and rationally as possible, the reasons why I disagree. Let us start with the NDP proposal, which consists in preventing the Senate from doing its job.
The Constitution requires that the Senate approve legislation. We could not have any legislation in this country if we prevented the Senate from doing its job. My colleague's proposal is absurd. I have no other word for it.
I know that we are opposition members and that the government wants nothing to do with the opposition and does not accept any proposals from the opposition. However, that is no excuse to come up with any old thing. Members of Parliament have a responsibility to submit meaningful proposals to this House.
Whether we like it or not, Canada is a bicameral federation. In other words, we have two chambers. Both chambers have to approve legislation. We have to allow both chambers to do their jobs.
Our NDP colleague's proposal makes no sense.
It does not make sense. I would like to understand the NDP's position now. I thought it was to abolish the Senate after a referendum. Is it the New Democrats' view now that they want to abolish the Senate before or without a referendum? Is it their point of view that we should switch from a referendum to disbanding the Senate and that we should do it unilaterally? Then the question is: In which provision of the Constitution does the House of Commons have the power to disband the Senate?
I do not know if my colleague is listening to me. I am asking the question because I am completely puzzled. If there is no provision in the Constitution for this House to unilaterally disband the Senate, why is he coming in with this proposition today? Of course there is no mention in the Constitution about that.
In no federation of the world that I know may one of the two chambers unilaterally abolish the other chamber. In fact, in Canada, even if the Senate wanted to abolish itself, it cannot do that because it needs the unanimous support of the provinces. It is not only seven out of ten, as the minister said, it is unanimity because Prince Edward Island made sure it would be unanimity when it accepted the 1982 Constitution, and the Constitution gives it the certainty that it will always have as many senators as MPs. If the Senate ceases to exist, the protection for P.E.I. would not exist anymore. Therefore, we would need to have the support of P.E.I. and the nine other provinces to abolish the Senate, which leads me to another problem I have with the NDP proposition.
Let us assume that the NDP members stick to their former proposition, which is not to disband the Senate unilaterally but to hold a referendum. What would be the exact question? If the question were, “Do you want to abolish the Senate?” The majority of Canadians who prefer to reform the Senate will be squeezed between a yes and a no that would not reflect what they would like to do, which is to improve the Senate through reform. I think it would be completely unfair to come with only two possibilities, a yes or a no, to abolish it.
What would be a clear majority? Would it be 50% plus one nationally? No, because we need the unanimity of the provinces to abolish the Senate. A premier, who had received a majority of voters asking to keep the Senate, could say, “I am accountable to my voters and my voters want to keep the Senate”. I guess the NDP proposition would be a referendum with a majority in every province of our great country. I guess it is that. It is for them to say. We do not know. Any time we ask questions, they do not answer. I guess they do not know the answer. They never think about that or try to give us the answer.
If there is something in what I have said that is wrong, I would ask NDP members to please tell me where I am wrong. I think it is time for my colleagues in the NDP to be adult about this issue and be serious about the question I asked. If it is referendum, what would be the question and would the question be fair and clear? What would be the majority? Is the majority in every province as the Constitution requests? This is, I think, a very good question.
Will the NDP members withdraw what they are proposing today, which is completely absurd? I will not say that it is a political stunt because I do not like the expression. It is not my style and I am not sure what “stunt” means in English anyway. However, I will say that it is complete nonsense, or in French, c'est du n'importe quoi.
What the NDP may say is not very important because the government will never listen to what the NDP has to propose. However, I hope the minister will listen to what I have been telling him for months.
There is a basic law in political science that the problems of tomorrow may be the result of the ill-considered reforms of today. I think that many of the bills we get in this House are very bad. However, I sincerely believe that this bill is the most dangerous for Canada. It is not because I am against the idea of an elected Senate. All my life I have argued that it would be a good idea. However, the main reason we cannot have an elected Senate would not be solved with the bill. On the contrary, the bill would make it much worse.
The main problem is that our provinces do not agree among themselves on the number of senators for each province. This has been the reason that, for decades upon decades, attempts to reform the Senate have failed. However, the member proposes that we ignore this problem and proceed anyway, despite whatever circumstances might arise. The consequence of implementing such a bill would be a huge constitutional fight in this country. Canada does not need that. We never need that kind of thing, but certainly not now with the difficult economic situation we have. Why would there be a huge constitutional fight? It is because no province would want to surrender any seats after a reform that was unilaterally decided by the federal government without the proper consultation and acceptance process that the Constitution requires.
The provinces would feel shortchanged if the bill were enacted. After a while, it would be completely unacceptable for Albertans to have only six senators out of 105 as the powerful elected Senate would be able to veto any bill in this House, and it would do so at a very high speed. Once senators were elected, they would have a mandate and commitments to their voters that they would want to respect.
Therefore, the practice we have today where senators almost always give the last word to the House because they are not elected, would disappear. These elected senators would try and try again to have the last word because that is what they were elected for.
At the moment, the member may find that his own province of Alberta and the province of British Columbia would be so under-represented that it would be unfair to the Canadians living in those provinces and would not be tolerable. Therefore, they would, of course, request that be addressed. However, why would Atlantic Canadians agree to give some of their senators to Alberta and British Columbia when they see that the weight of Atlantic Canada in this House is decreasing census after census?
The premier of New Brunswick said that he wants to elect senators in New Brunswick in order to have a stronger voice for New Brunswick. That is fair for him, being the premier of New Brunswick, but we are here to think about the whole of Canada.
It is clear that people of Alberta and British Columbia would say that it is unacceptable that they are so under-represented in the elected Senate. They may not be saying that now because few Albertans are aware that they have only six senators.
In every democracy, citizens' understanding of their institutions is usually very low. That is why I caution the hon. minister on the poll he just cited that 70% of Canadians are willing to have an elected Senate.
How many Canadians know the number of seats their province has in the Senate today? If they knew that, then maybe they would agree with the overwhelming majority of constitutional experts who say that the bill the minister is proposing is wrong for Canada. These are experts who understand the Constitution and that it is very dangerous to have some provinces under-represented in an elected Senate.
The second problem that the minister never answered, no matter how many times I told him about it, is that if the Senate is elected, there will be two elected chambers competing with each other, able to stop each other, to create a stalemate between themselves.
We could count on my fingers the number of times the Senate vetoed a bill of the House in the last two decades. It happens very rarely. Why? The senators, not being elected, give the last word to the House. The very moment they are elected, they would veto a lot of bills whether it is 20%, 25%, 40% or 50%. We would like to know if the minister has any idea about that. I do not think he does because it is impossible to predict.
When we look at what has happened in other countries, we know it has happened. In some countries, it is creating a big stalemate, a big gridlock, like in the United States and in Mexico. I understand the rules in the United States are a bit complex, and sometimes it is 60% and not 50%.
We would create a new federation with this bill, bit by bit, over the years, as elected senators replace non-elected senators. Then, we would discover that we do not have any dispute resolution mechanism for how to solve disagreements between the two chambers. Except for a few exceptions, the Senate, according to the Constitution, has the same powers as the House.
The House would not be able to overrule or veto the Senate. The Senate would not be able to do that to the House. In other countries, they have decided to have dispute resolution mechanisms, like in Germany with the Bundesrat and the Bundestag. The Bundesrat cannot veto bills from the Bundestag unless it is linked to Länder jurisdiction, something that cannot work in Canada because we do not have the power to rule on provincial jurisdiction. By definition, the German model would not work in Canada.
We will need to think of something else, maybe something like the model in Australia, where the prime minister has the power to dissolve the two chambers at the same time and to send everybody to an election when there is a stalemate.
We may think it would be good for Canada, but can Canada decide that by asking Parliament? That is something that all the partners of the Constitution must decide together.
He is proposing to elect the Senate without any dispute resolution mechanism. I am asking the member if there is a federation that has this kind of situation, a parliamentary federation? We do not have a president who can decide a lot of things, independently of the two chambers.
All of us are sitting in these two chambers. In parliamentary systems, they made sure that the rep by pop chamber, the chamber where the government is responsible, is more powerful than the other chamber. That is what has been done in other parliamentary democracies of the world. Why not in Canada?
We cannot do that alone, though. We need to have the provinces at the table. So the minister is creating two problems. The first one is he will create a huge sense of unfairness in the federation without any idea of how we will solve it. I think he was right when he asked NDP colleagues what the next step would be to stop the funding of the Senate. They cannot answer.
Can the minister answer my question, what is the next step after this bill? What is the next step once the senators are elected? They would try to use their full powers against the House, without any dispute resolution mechanism, and with two provinces terribly shortchanged in the federation. It would be completely unfair and unacceptable.
The minister is telling me that what I am proposing, which is to work with the provinces to find a way for them to agree on the distribution of senators, may take too long. It has been tried in the past. I know it is difficult.
Canada is a difficult country. In order to solve problems, we cannot ignore problems. We cannot pretend to solve a problem and take for granted that the problem does not exist. The problem of the unfairness of the current representation of senators by provinces in Canada exists. It is tolerable because the Senate is playing a minor role facing the House. The moment the Senate has the same role, then the problem will not be tolerable anymore. It will be a huge crisis in this country.
That fact that we do not have any dispute resolution mechanism between the two chambers would be intolerable in a country that is so decentralized like Canada. We need to be sure that the common institutions of the country work for the country.
If we paralyze these two chambers, it will be at a cost to every Canadian and at the cost of Canada's ability to play its role in the world, a Conservative role according to the minister, a Liberal role according to us. It is democratically decided whether it will be Liberal, Conservative or NDP, but at least it should be something, not nothing, not paralysis, not stalemate, not gridlock, not unfairness for Alberta and British Columbia.
I was speaking in English because I wanted to make sure that my colleague understood. Now he will listen to the translation. What I said in English is just as valid in French. At any rate, he will have to defend his bill in French before the Quebec Court of Appeal.
He accused me of wanting to start a dispute between the provinces and the federal government on the issue of the Senate. The opposite is true. This side of the House wants to work with the provinces and not bully them or make changes that fall outside our jurisdiction.
The minister assures me that he will win in the Quebec Court of Appeal. He claims that his bill is constitutional. He says that his bill does not change the method for selecting senators, which cannot be done by Parliament alone, but which must be done by at least seven provinces representing 50% of the population.
The minister says that he is not changing the method but rather the selection framework, but what is the difference between a framework and a method? What court will say that they are two different things? How can we change the framework without changing the method—in English, in French and in Latin?
What the minister is saying does not make any sense. Of course he is changing the method. I would like to remind him that the Constitution refers to the selection of senators, not their appointment. The minister is saying that of course he will not change the appointment process and that it will still be the Governor General who appoints senators. How lovely. Thank you so much. I am sorry. The minister is not going to touch the Governor General's authority and, on that very narrow ground, he believes that he is respecting the Constitution.
However, if constitutional experts had wanted only to talk about the Governor General's authority to accept the Prime Minister's recommendations and appoint senators, they would have spoken about the framework for appointment rather than the framework for selection. All constitutional experts make this basic distinction. Selection is the framework.
The court clearly stated that Parliament alone could not change the unelected Senate into an elected chamber. We do not have that authority. We may wish we did. Personally, as a democrat, I would prefer it, but we do not have that power. In the meantime, we have a Senate.
Can I suggest that the Prime Minister review his way of appointing senators and that he appoint more competent senators who are more prestigious in the eyes of Canadians?
The appointment of Senator Dallaire is a decision that reflects on the Prime Minister who appointed him. It is possible to appoint people with experience of whom all Canadians approve and who make excellent parliamentarians. They can be partisan. Appointing Don Boudria would not have been bad for Canadians because he was an excellent parliamentarian. Senators can be partisan. It is good for them to have been a member of a party and to have worked within a party. These people must be respected. We should be able to say that they will be great parliamentarians because of the experience they bring to the table.
It is important to realize that this chamber, the House of Commons of Canada, has one of the highest rates of turnover.
In one of the shortest turnovers of the whole democracy of this House, when we have a wave like the last time, the orange wave, we can see a lot of good MPs disappearing, zap, overnight, and new rookie MPs coming with no experience. Except in the other House, we have a lot of valuable parliamentarians with a lot of experience and with more diversity than in this House. When prime ministers are clever and responsible, they will appoint more women, more aboriginals, more francophones from the other provinces and Anglo-Quebeckers. They will do that. It is what they have done, especially the great former prime minister, Jean Chrétien. He ensured that we would have a Senate that would be a complement to the House through its experience in the choices he made.
To conclude, this bill is unconstitutional, unfair for Alberta and British Columbia and dangerous for the whole of Canada. The proposition of the NDP is complete nonsense.