Mr. David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, NDP)
|| That: (a) the House recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada, specifically the unnecessary Senate and a House of Commons that does not accurately reflect the political preferences of Canadians;
||(b) the House call on the government to (i) propose amendments to the Referendum Act in order to allow the holding of a special referendum at the same time as the next general election, (ii) put a simple question, as written by the Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, which would allow Canadians to vote to abolish the Senate;
||(c) the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation, (ii) advise the government on the wording of a referendum question to abolish the Senate; and
||(d) the Special Committee for Democratic Improvement shall consist of 12 members which shall include six members from the government party, three members from the Official Opposition, two members from the Bloc Québécois and one member from the New Democratic Party, provided that the Chair shall be from the government party, and
|| (1) that in addition to the Chair, there shall be one Vice-Chair elected by committee members, who shall be from an opposition party;
|| (2) that the members to serve on the said Committee be appointed by the Whip of each party depositing with the Clerk of the House a list of his or her party's members of the Committee no later than three days from the passage of this motion;
|| (3) that the quorum of the Special Committee be seven members for any proceedings;
|| (4) that membership substitutions be permitted to be made from time to time, if required, in the manner provided for in Standing Order 114(2);
|| (5) that the Committee have all of the powers of a standing committee as provided in the Standing Orders; and
|| (6) that the Committee shall report its recommendations to this House no later than one year from the passage of this motion.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to not only move my motion but also to debate it.
New Democrats, and probably most members of the House if they were to admit it, accept the fact that Canadians believe that our Parliament is broken and that we need to do something about it rather than tinkering around the edges. We need to make profound changes that will actually bring modern, true democracy to Parliament Hill.
The current Prime Minister has quite a track record of commenting on the Senate. Prior to the current position he holds, it had been his position that the Senate is a relic of the 19th century. We agree with the Prime Minister on that.
However, it is a relic that was put in place for a very specific purpose. It was created to ensure that Canada's elite, the power brokers of the day, those that have, are protected from whatever the unwashed masses might do should we actually give them control of this country, control of the economy, and control over the laws that govern our day-to-day activities. The Senate was put there to keep this place in check. We believe it is time to remove that, get rid of the Senate, and focus on making this place as democratic as it can be. That is the solution as far as we are concerned.
Citizens in this country go from rage to laughter at the situation that we have in our current Senate. That is why it has been known for many years as the “taskless thanks”. Under our Constitution, the Senate is a body that is actually superior to this place. However, there is one little missing piece in that place, the absence of democracy.
I would like to say upfront that there is one exception to the comments that will be made, and that I will make, about unelected senators. In fact, there is one who was elected. Although I acknowledge the exception of the one senator who was elected, I do remind the House that that senator will never have the word “re-elected” appearing after the word “elected” because there is no requirement for that senator to go back to the people and ask, “Am I doing a good job? Am I doing the right thing? Are you happy with what I've done?” I accept that there is an exception there, but it only goes to a certain degree. The whole issue of accountability and reporting to the very people who provided the mandate to be there in the first place is missing.
I also want to say that there are independent senators in that place. Although not many, there are independent senators who go out of their way to maintain that independence and try to keep at arm's length from the partisan aspects. However, that is a very small minority.
An important comment I would make at the outset is that this is not about individual senators. There will be comments made about them. To some degree, they have to be accountable for their actions and what they are doing over there.
However, today is not about individual senators. In fact, I have the greatest admiration for most of the ones with whom I have worked. In particular, a certain senator from Saskatchewan who is a lawyer, a former judge and ambassador, and the co-chair of our Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association, does a magnificent job and is a great Canadian. I am very proud to represent Canada with her and the others on that team. That does not change the fact that this hon. senator still does not have the democratic mandate to be affecting our laws and deciding on whether or not this country will have laws that protect people or whether we have an economy that represents ordinary working people. Senators do not have that mandate. As good as that Canadian is that I am talking about, she still does not have that mandate.
There are some who would argue that by going to an elected Senate, we will solve that entire problem. However, we are arguing here today that if Canadians focused on this issue, we could convince them that the best thing to do is to abolish the Senate completely and focus on bringing proportional representation to the House of Commons to more accurately reflect the political will and decisions of the Canadian people. That is what this is all about.
The government has put forward some bills and it looks like its ideas are not going very far. People are asking why they are doing this now. The government is trying to do something and people can see that it is not getting anywhere, and so what is the point? Why are they wasting their time trying to do that? It is too complicated.
Why do we not just go ahead and elect senators and keep the Senate there? It is because we all know that going to an elected Senate, first, would be just as complicated and just as difficult as abolishing it. We also know that it would create gridlock in this place. It was a real eye opener for the Canadian people, and certainly for this party, when Bill C-311 was unilaterally killed without debate, or at least not much if there was any, after being passed by the House twice.
We believe, rather than setting up a system that would complicate things even more by creating permanent gridlock, we ought to abolish that place completely.
How do we go about that, because it is so complex? We could stand up a fleet of constitutional lawyers who would tell us how difficult that would be to do. Agreed. Anything to do with the constitution and this place and that place is complicated. That is a given, but running away from the problem will not solve it.
We in the New Democratic Party are saying that if we have a big problem like this that is so important to the future of the country, why do we not go to the “bosses” and ask them what they think. The bosses in this case are the Canadian people.
We are suggesting that we put a referendum before the Canadian people, a simple question. We believe the first question that needs to be asked if we are to look at changing things is, “Do you still want a Senate, yes or no?” If the answer is yes, then we can move on and start talking about what that would look like and engage Canadians in that discussion. We believe that in an open and fair political battle, we could win that one, because the number of people in Canada who believe that it should be abolished is growing. However, if we put that question to the Canadian people and they said, “No, we do not want the Senate any more”, we believe we could move very quickly to implement the will of the Canadian people, because that is where all power derives from in this country, in the will of the Canadian people.
The Prime Minister said he would not appoint anybody who was not elected to the Senate. Let me just give a brief description of some of the people the Prime Minister has appointed, without mentioning names, as that is not my thing. I do not have much time, and so I will just list some of them: a Tory organizer was appointed to sit in cabinet as a Quebec representative, which we all remember; a former director of the PC fund and chair of Tory leadership and policy conventions was appointed senator; as were a Tory campaign director for 2006 and 2008; a former chair of the Conservative Party's fundraising; a former chief of staff to Preston Manning; and an unsuccessful candidate in 1993 and 1997.
That is one of the problems here. The Prime Minister said he would not appoint anyone and then turned around and only appointed, for the most part, with a couple of exceptions, good, loyal Conservatives. That may make the Conservative benches happy, but all it does is put the lie to the claim that the other place is non-partisan. That is not true.
To continue, a former Conservative MP, defeated in the 2008 election, and another unsuccessful Conservative candidate in the 2008 election were also appointed. What is it with the Conservatives who cannot get into Parliament through the front door, but as long as they are good buddies with the Prime Minister of the day, they get to come into Parliament through the back door? Of course, the nice thing about that is they never have to go back to anybody. One bended knee request, and it is over.
There are a few more. We have another unsuccessful Canadian Alliance candidate, and yet another. We have a former president of the Conservative Party, the Quebec co-chair of the Prime Minister's own 2004 leadership campaign, and the Prime Minister's former press secretary. We have a former Newfoundland Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, a New Brunswick Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, another unsuccessful Conservative candidate and yet another, and the list goes on and on.
The Liberals are no better. The Liberals right now, to the best of my knowledge, and if I am wrong I will correct it publicly, have their national campaign co-chair as a senator, their Nova Scotia campaign co-chair as a senator, their New Brunswick campaign co-chair as a senator, and their leader's Alberta and British Columbia outreach coordinators as senators too.
What is interesting about that is that it speaks to the leader's Alberta and British Columbia outreach, but if a senator is to provide a sober second independent thought, how can it be that a senator can also somehow be tied to the leader of the official opposition? There is no politics over there, though: they are all just good Canadians, reflecting soberly with sober second thoughts.
Why do they have a whip? When did we need to start whipping independents? They have a government House leader. We know that a government House leader's job is to shepherd government legislation through the Senate, yet government legislation is partisan. How can that be? There is the leader of the official opposition. How can that be? How can all of these things exist and yet at the same time we can have this independent sober second thought? How?
It is time to give the Canadian people their chance to kill that undemocratic chamber and make this place more democratic. That is what this is about.
As for the other piece of this, it is not as sexy and will not get all the headlines. We knew that. However, in many ways, the proportional representation aspect of this is arguably even more important than the Senate, because the decision about what happens with the Senate will be taken here. We need to make sure that everywhere here is democratically elected and actually reflects the will of the people. This House does not do that right now.
We have a system, and we believe it is time to end it, where if a party goes into a general election and gets 40% of the vote, it gets 100% of the power. What kind of democracy says that 40% of the vote gives a party 100% of the power? Right now, ours does. Right now, that is the way that first past the post works.
Some people are saying that the reason we want proportional representation is that we are one of the smaller parties, that it is the only way we will get into power, et cetera, all of which may or may not be true. However, I would remind the government members who may want to use that argument that in Germany, where they have proportional representation, it is the right wing that has formed a coalition to reach a majority government. So if it is a plot, a secret conspiracy, to help the left and the NDP, we need to rethink our strategy here. That does not seem to be a guarantee with this system.
What is a guarantee, though, is having people's votes reflected. Right now there are hundreds of thousands of votes cast in a general election that virtually do not count. In my own riding, I hope that all of those who voted for me are happy but all of the people who voted against me are unhappy, and where is what they wanted reflected? Where is it? It is legitimate, too.
Just because one's favoured candidate does not win, does not mean that one's vote is worth less than somebody else's vote. Yet that is what our current system does.
If we had proportional representation, under one of the more prevalent models, here is how it would help the Conservatives. Granted, the Conservatives would have fewer seats. They would have 119. However, in terms of democracy and representing the will of the Canadian people, the 26% of the votes they received in Toronto would have elected members for them. The Conservative Party received 26% of the votes cast in Toronto but did not get one seat. That is not an accurate reflection of the entire electorate in Toronto.
The Liberals would have won 83 seats. They would have gained a few. However, more importantly, in the 2008 election, the Liberals had 28% of the votes in south central Ontario but did not get a single seat. That is not right.
The NDP would have won 56 seats. Granted, that would be an increase. Fair enough, but the important thing is that 25% of the vote that it got in Saskatchewan would have been reflected in a seat from Saskatchewan. How can a party get a quarter, a full 25%, of the votes cast and have nothing to show for it?
The Bloc would have had 31 seats. What is interesting is that in 2008 the Bloc received 38% of the Quebec vote but got 65% of the Quebec seats.
The Green Party I want to mention. Based on the last vote, the Greens would have had 17 seats, because they received 6.8% of the vote, and yet there is no Green voice here. Yet the Bloc got 10% of the national vote and got 49 seats. Think about it: the Green Party got 6.8% and no seats, and the Bloc got 10% and 49 seats.
The system just does not work. It does not work for Canadians. It certainly does not work for women, aboriginals and minorities.
People are somewhat concerned about how complicated the system might be. Well, it is certainly no more complicated than trying to figure out what is going on between here and that place over there. We know that Canadians are pretty good at dealing with strategic voting, so they are not going to have any problem, in the NDP's opinion, mastering proportional representation. It is in 74 other countries already.
When people vote, they will get two votes. One will be for their local candidate in their geographical riding. People will cast their votes for the person they want to be their MP for their area, just like now, except there is a way that we can polish the first past the post system. Then people will get a second vote, allowing them to pick their party preference. Then, at the end of the day, there will be a calculation made.
One of the models that has been looked at is the two-thirds/one-third system. Two-thirds of the seats would be like these, and one-third would come from the PR lists. Then the proportion of everybody's vote, as I have already said, would be reflected in the House. There would be the candidate of people's choice and a reflection of the party weight in the House, thereby giving people the democracy they are craving, demanding and looking for.
I urge my colleagues to look at adopting this motion. It is a bite-sized measure. It is saying that we should take one step at a time, that we should put the question about whether the Senate should exist to the Canadian people and that a committee should engage Canadians in modernizing our democracy and bringing proportional representation to this place we love.
Hon. Steven Fletcher (Minister of State (Democratic Reform), CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to the opposition day motion on electoral reform and Senate abolition that was moved by the hon. member for Hamilton Centre.
The motion that we are considering calls on the House to recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada. It asks that the government propose amendments to the Referendum Act in order to allow the holding of a referendum on the Senate abolition at the same time as the next general election. It also calls for the establishment of a special committee on democratic improvement whose mandate would be to engage with Canadians and make recommendations to the House on how to implement a new electoral system that would combine direct elections with electoral districts and proportional representation.
I would like to thank the hon. member for moving this motion. As Minister of State for Democratic Reform, I am always pleased to have a robust discussion about democratic reform issues and I look forward to today's debate.
While I am grateful that today will bring attention to democratic reform issues, I am disappointed that we will be spending time debating the reforms proposed in this motion, rather than working together to achieve real and attainable goals that this government has already set out on this topic.
For example, I point to the premise that representation in the Parliament in Canada is somehow undemocratic. Canada has a long history of democracy and Canadians are lucky to enjoy the very healthy system for which we all can be very proud. For example, all Canadians over the age of 18 hold the right to vote, there are free and fair elections and the administration of such elections is overseen by the independent Elections Canada. Elections are held on a regular basis, which allows citizens to hold government to account.
Therefore, the comment that this place is undemocratic just does not hold water, especially comparing Canada to other countries. Canada was compared to Egypt earlier. That is just not fair to Canadians or even to the people of Egypt because they are really fighting for even the seeds of democracy.
I would also like to talk about the electoral boundaries. These boundaries are redrawn on a regular basis by an independent commission that ensures ridings are designed in a fair , non-partisan way.
Finally, we have Elections Canada that provides for secret ballots, regulates political financing and ensures the integrity of the entire electoral machine.
Despite all the positive aspects of a democratic system, I do agree that there are fundamental elements that can be improved, and that is the principle of representation by population. The government introduced the democratic representation act to ensure that representation in the House of Commons would be fair and that Canadian votes, to the greatest extent possible, would carry equal weight.
The House of Commons no longer reflects fair representation of all provinces. This is particularly the case in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The democratic representation act would amend the constitutional formula for the re-adjustment of seats in the House of Commons so that future adjustments would better reflect the democratic representation of faster growing provinces while protecting the seat counts of other provinces.
For example, the province of Ontario would receive approximately 18 more seats, Alberta would receive 5 and British Columbia would receive 7, which, of course, depends on the census results. However, it is a step forward and I hope the NDP will support this government's legislation on representation by population.
On the issue of the unnecessary Senate, our government believes that the Senate does play an important role in our parliamentary system, particularly with respect to the reviewing of legislation and the representation of regions and minority interests. We also believe that members of the Senate perform valuable work.
It is no secret that our government believes that the upper chamber, in its current form, does not reflect the ideals of the 21st century democracy in Canada. Furthermore, we believe the Senate has a legitimacy problem that is directly linked to the method of selection of senators.
Rather than simply doing away with a parliamentary institution, we have advocated for its reform. We believe the Senate should be reformed to become a more modern, accountable and effective chamber that Canadians deserve. In order to move forward with such a reform, we have introduced the senatorial selection act which encourages provinces and territories to establish a democratic process to consult voters on candidates they want for Senate appointments. Provinces, such as Manitoba, have looked into this and have suggested senatorial districts.
The member who moved the motion is very keen on proportional representation. Perhaps that is a method that could be used in the upper chamber.
The upper chamber, I will reflect, is quite different than the lower chamber. In the lower chamber, votes of confidence occur and the first past the post system is much more appropriate. In the upper chamber, perhaps there are other methods and we are open to discussing this with Canadians and other parties. Certainly Bill S-8 reflects our willingness to look at other ways of selecting senators.
The Prime Minister has always been clear that he is committed to appointing elected Senators, and has done so at his only opportunity.
The Prime Minister would appoint senators who are directly selected by the people of the provinces. It is very significant that the Prime Minister is willing to give that power to the people, in effect.
Our government has also introduced legislation that would limit senators to eight years in a non-renewable term. This would allow enough time for senators to gain experience while ensuring that the upper chamber would be refreshed with new ideas on a regular basis.
Despite our government's willingness to be flexible on reforms and to work with stakeholders to find common ground, we have not been able to count on the co-operation that is needed from the opposition parties to make Senate reform a reality. Today's motion proposes a referendum on the Senate abolition. I have concerns about this. Specifically, I have concerns about referendums in general and particularly on the issue at hand.
When we talk about referendums, I would note that national referendums have been held only occasionally in Canada. There was the 1992 Charlottetown accord process, there was a referendum in 1942 regarding conscription and in 1898 on prohibition. It is a rarely used vehicle. While referendums can be used and be useful in engaging Canadians on questions of fundamental importance to the country, we have seen from previous experience that they can also be very divisive along regional and linguistic lines.
The motion also proposes to hold referendums at the next general election. As the motion acknowledges, the Referendum Act does not currently permit a referendum to be held at the same time as a general election, an issue that is divisive in itself. Referendums held during general elections can be done more cost effectively but, on the other hand, issues of a referendum can dominate the election period at the expense of the general electoral campaign.
I would also note that the opposition coalition has been threatening a general election within weeks. It would obviously be impossible to implement this motion before the next general election, which could happen within weeks. I hope the opposition does not call an election because it is not in the interests of Canadians and certainly not in the interests of the economy. The government wishes to work with other parties to ensure that the next general election does not happen for a long time.
In 1992, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing found that in jurisdictions where referendums had been held with general elections, voter turnout tends to be lower and those who vote represent a small cross-section of the general population. In fact, in its 1992 report the royal commission found that having referendums at the same time as general elections was not a good idea.
More recently, in November 2009, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs began its review on the Referendum Act. Among other things, the committee was considering this very question. It has not yet completed its study and perhaps it would be more prudent to wait for the recommendations before making a decision on this issue.
On the issue of a referendum on the abolition of the Senate, I must say that I find the idea simplistic. Polls have continuously shown that Canadians support Senate reform. A recent poll on Senate reform found that two-thirds of Canadians would like to directly elect the Senate while only 30% support the abolition of the Senate. As the Prime Minister has said, abolition should be the last resort and all members of Parliament should be focused on making our government's reasonable Senate reform agenda a reality.
Participation in the political process by exercising one's right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. Of all forms of civic engagement, voting is perhaps the simplest and most important. That is why the idea of reforming Canada's voting system cannot be treated lightly.
At the outset, I would like say that I find the portion of the motion concerning electoral reform perplexing. The proposal is to create a special committee on democratic improvement that, among other things, would be responsible to engage Canadians, “on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation”. However, the committee would not be mandated to ask Canadians what voting system they would like to have.
The motion presumes that Canadians are dissatisfied with our current system and eliminates the possibility for voters to propose another system, such as a preferential system which the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on this spring. However, it strongly suggests that the first past the post system will be preferred there as well.
Moreover, while the intent of the motion may be to obtain the views of voters on electoral reform, it did not propose a referendum on electoral reform, even though it prescribes abolishing the Senate. So there is obviously a contradiction in the logic.
Like Senate reform, electoral reform has received much attention in recent years. However, while there seems to be general consensus that the majority of Canadians support some form of Senate reform, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to changing our electoral system.
Voting system reform has been put to voters in three different provinces, British Columbia twice, Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and it has been rejected every single time. After significant citizen engagement efforts in these provinces, particularly British Columbia which included citizen assemblies, voters in each province were given the opportunity to vote in referendums on changes to the electoral system. In each case, they favoured the existing system.
In 2007, the Conservative government completed a series of cross-country consultations as well as a national poll in order to consult Canadians on democratic reform issues, including our electoral system.
The participants, who were broadly representative of Canadians at large, expressed satisfaction with the first past the post system and were disinclined to fundamental change. In particular, they valued the electoral system that produces clear winners, such as single party, majority governments that are more common under first past the post, than other forms of PR. This first past the post system also allows voters to hold governments accountable for their performance.
Although a system of proportional representation is not appropriate for the House of Commons, if the senatorial selection act is passed, provinces would be free to use proportional representation or any other democratic system for selecting Senate nominees that directly consults with the members and citizens of the province. This should be a reason why the NDP should support our Senate reform agenda. I would be interested to hear from them on why they would not.
Not every voting system is perfect, but we have a very good system here in Canada. I agree that there needs to be democratic reform and we are moving forward with democratic reform. We have taken big money out of politics by limiting campaign finances. We are trying to ensure that the House of Commons better reflects the population of the people of Canada and where they live.
This is what Bill C-12 does. It is representation by population, a principle that the vast majority of Canadians support. The Senate is designed to reflect the will of the regions. This is important in a federated model such as Canada where we have 10 provinces and three territories. It is important to have that balance.
We have proposed eight year term limits in the Senate in Bill C-10.
Bill C-10 would allow for the reduction of 45-year terms, which the NDP member correctly suggested there was an accountability and legitimacy issue. This bill would help to address that. Also, Bill S-8 would allow for the people of the provinces to select their senators.
This is a much more practical way to move forward on Senate reform. It is constitutional. It is a step-by-step approach that is easily understood. In fact, one could argue that what the NDP has suggested, which would require a huge constitutional change, is a statement of support for the status quo. All reasonable commentators, including in recent editorials in the Toronto Star, National Post and throughout the media, know there is no political appetite for these types of huge constitutional negotiations, like what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. People want us to focus on the economy and other priorities of Canadians. They do not want use to get involved with deep constitutional quagmires.
I ask NDP members to take their energy, focus it on moving forward with the government's reform agenda, support Senate reform, support Senate term limits, support Senate elections, support representation by population, support our Bill C-12 and support our other initiatives to increase voter participation and campaign finance reform.
Again, I thank the hon. member for Hamilton Centre for raising this very important issue, and may God keep our land glorious and free.
Hon. Carolyn Bennett:
Ms. Hébert goes on to say:
||...but in the circumstances it’s really 120 minutes too many.
|| For many parliamentary scholars, fixing the Senate is one of the top 10 measures needed to address the democratic deficit.
|| But if the NDP seriously believed the Senate to be a major priority, it would advocate a return to the constitutional table rather than promote a referendum on its abolition.
|| The upper house cannot be abolished or substantially reformed without a constitutional amendment requiring the support of most and probably, all the provinces.
She also said:
|| [The] NDP Leader ...argues that a referendum would at least set the stage for a national discussion on the Senate but recent experiences have shown that election campaigns are at best rickety stages for such debates.
Yesterday, the Hill journalist, Dale Smith, also commented that it was disingenuous to go about proposing a referendum without acknowledging that this proposal would mean reopening the Constitution. He went on to say that he had even had some NDP MPs tell him that the Senate did good work, before they launched into a convoluted and unicorn-filled discussion about how they would supposedly replicate that good work in the Commons, reformed by proportional representation. He said that was a much longer story for another day.
However, because it is not an elected body, that somehow negates its usefulness. Never mind the fact that because senators are not electioneering is a big part of why they do their good work. The Supreme Court is not elected either, but vanishing few people dismiss it as an unelected body.
We believe there are many other proposals such as electing the Senate by proportional representation. There are many ways of going about this without having pure abolition. I think a lot of us do believe the Senate, and particularly its committees, has done good work.
In my years in Parliament, I think of the good work done by many of the senators themselves. It is almost like one-person commissioners going out and listening to Canadians on important things, like Senator Yves Morin on science and technology and health research, Senator Keon, Senator Dallaire, Senator Landon Pearson for children's rights, Lucie Pépin, reproductive rights and military families and Joyce Fairbairn on literacy and Paralympics. It was almost like they had a mandate. There are many reforms that could do that in a clear appointment system, which would allow us to fill the second chamber with people with expertise, non-existent in the House at the time.
The Liberal Party favours Senate reform that reflects sound public policy and respects the Constitution. By initiating what are likely to become broad constitutional negotiations with the provinces to deal with Senate reform now is simply not where the current priorities of Canadians are, either in terms of substantive democratic renewal, or the broader challenges on which the federal government should focus.
Right now the Conservatives are moving two bills through Parliament at a snail's pace, by their own design, which really amounts to a piecemeal approach to Senate reform. While we would not completely rule out some form of these proposals on Senate term limits and provincial and territorial Senate elections, the Conservatives have failed to properly consult with the provinces on these bills or with the Supreme Court of Canada on potential constitutional implications.
Abolishing the Senate would require a resolution of Parliament, together with the approval of at least seven provinces, representing at least 50% of the population of Canada. Some constitutional experts have even contended that unanimous consent of the provinces would be required.
As for electoral reform, the issue is in need of serious and comprehensive dialogue with Canadians about whether the current system is, for all its faults, working, and if not, what needs to be fixed or what is to replace it. We believe there is lots of support for various approaches to electoral reform.
Last week in Alberta it was very clear. Many Liberals in Alberta are very keen that their votes count in the House of Commons. Green Party members across the country care about this. I think the federalists in Quebec have been often worried that more people there can vote for a federalist party and they can end up with a separatist majority. This kind of distortion in result is worrying to people and although we welcome that dialogue, I believe it would be premature to start prescribing alternate systems at this time.
The NDP motion restricts the options for reform to a mixed form of proportional representation and direct district elections and this kind of change requires a broad consensus that does not currently exist.
I have to look at today's debate from a practical point of view. To abolish the Senate, as the NDP is proposing, we would have to amend the Canadian Constitution. Constitutional law prohibits the federal government from unilaterally making changes of this magnitude. It would require the support of at least seven provinces, and perhaps all 10 provinces. Constitutional experts do not agree on how to go about abolishing the Senate. It would surely require the approval of at least two-thirds of the provinces with a population totalling at least 50% of the total population of the provinces, or the 7/50 formula.
Four provinces—British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—have said that they are in favour of simply abolishing the Senate. However, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces have already indicated that they would be opposed because they see the Senate as a means of protecting minorities and regional interests in Parliament.
All this should be looked at in the context of a government report on democratic reform released in February 2007. Participants in focus groups were opposed to major constitutional changes requiring the consent of the provinces out of fear of opening a Pandora's box.
As for proportional representation, the first past the post system being used at the federal and provincial levels offers many advantages, but the results do not reflect the electorate's choices. That is why certain Canadian provinces have tried to change their electoral system.
The citizens’ assembly that was launched in British Columbia in 2003 recommended using the single transferable vote, or STV, system. British Columbia's version of the STV system had seats grouped into regional ridings with multiple MLAs, and the number of MLAs from each party would reflect its share of the votes received. Many women find the STV system hard to accept because it in no way guarantees more female members.
On October 23, 2003, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the creation of the Democratic Renewal Secretariat, which mandated a citizens’ assembly to examine the electoral system. In May 2007, the citizens' assembly recommended a mixed member proportional system. Under this system, a person votes for a local member and for a party, which is elected by means of the first past the post system. The local member represents an electoral riding, while the votes for the parties, in conjunction with the number of local members elected from each party, determine how many list members each party will receive in addition to its local members. In October 2007, this reform received only 36.9% of the vote, far less than the 60% required to make the referendum result binding.
Commentators said that the result reflected the electorate's skepticism about political parties. The lack of transparency and democracy in every political party deterred people from voting in favour of the referendum question.
It is upsetting today that we are spending the time of this chamber rehashing the NDP platform from 2008, and many commentators have commented that we cannot possibly do justice to either of these and they both require a serious conversation with Canadians, not a top down prescription.
It is also interesting at this time of the electoral fraud accusations from the public prosecutor that we actually look back to the Gomery Commission and ask the NDP and the government of the day, what are they doing about these recommendations that Lawrence Martin reminded us of in his September column? Where is the Appointments Commissioner? Where is the reduction of the size of the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office? Where is the re-establishment of the integrity of the access to information process, or the vetting system that sees Ottawa officialdom gagged unless given approval by PMO–PCO? Where is some semblance of power to the cabinet or the prime ministerial pledge not to make pivotal decisions, such as income trusts and Québécois nation status, without prior consultation with that body?
What about opening up the executive branch of government to media scrutiny that could include the daily briefings in Langevin Block? What about re-empowering the increasingly cheapened committee system, starting with having government members understand that they must represent the public good, not just their party's talking points? What about reforming question period and the antiquated convention that shrouds the decisions taken by the Governor General in total secrecy?
I have been across the country convening round tables on democratic renewal from Moncton to Vancouver, and not once did any of the participants ask to open up the Constitution. It is the third rail right now in our conversation on democratic renewal. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time low voter turnout. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time high cynicism in the population. There is serious concern about negative advertising and the way that the party in power seems to be employing the Republican voter suppression techniques, that all government is bad, all politicians are bad, and it does not matter if we vote. The real voter suppression that attempts to drive down voter turnout actually ends up being good for the Conservative base.
It seems a bit astounding that the bill on increasing advance polls, brought forward by the government last April, has stagnated since April 26 last year. We have seen nothing about trying to increase voter turnout. We think that the youth of Canada need to know that the government would prefer they did not vote, that tenants did not vote, and that we need to be putting in place things that can rectify that.
Across this country, it was very clear that Canadians were reminding us of the Prime Minister's previous comments in the Reform Party foundational document that said that they believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.
On all four topic areas of parliamentary reform, citizen engagement, electoral reform, and party reform, there is no question that Canadians understand there is a lot to be done. The very definition of “good governance”, according to my hero Ursula Franklin, is that government must be fair and transparent, and that it take people seriously. That needs to apply not only here in government and in Parliament but in our riding associations. People will not believe that we will govern that way if we do not conduct ourselves in a better way. That includes abiding by the Elections Act.
The three guiding principles of best possible representation, best possible transparency, and best possible information with which to make decisions, really have been promoted, in each of the places I have been, by terrific round tables on representation, openness, transparency, and information. People came forward with all kinds of ideas about improving Parliament's ability to hold government to account: the idea of democracy between elections, gender balance, aboriginal-provincial-territorial relations, electoral reform, and Senate reform.
The lack of openness and transparency of this government is of huge concern to the people of Canada, as is its refusal to move forward on whistleblower protection and indeed the scandal of the person put in charge of so-called whistleblowers within the government. The role of the media is of huge concern also. The long form census, the ability of officers of Parliament to have their budgets and the legislation to support them, the independence of advisers, the firing of those who do not agree with the government, and the muzzling of civil society are issues I have heard raised at almost every round table.
We know that the government has blurred the roles between government and Parliament with government ads being confused with partisan ads, two prorogations, and the blurring of confidence votes. There is also the fact that the U.K. cabinet office, before the U.K. election, said not to do what Canada had done in terms of threatening an election every time what was asked was not received. It is a travesty.
If we look at the index page of the Conservative Party platform for 2006, the government has done nothing in terms of making qualified government appointments and cleaning up government polling, advertising, and procurement contracts. It is a litany of not.
I believe that we need to work together with all of the parties to actually figure out what we can do together. As the leader of the official opposition has said, “We must be able to put limits on the power of the Prime Minister of this country”.
As Jim Travers has said, “It has taken 500 years to wrestle power from the king and 50 years to get it back into one man's office”.
It has to stop right now The country is appalled at such things as electoral reform, inserting “nots”, the long form census, detainee documents, costs of prisons, and oaths to secrecy. We need to open this up. The democratic deficit is in allowing citizens, MPs and cabinet ministers in.
I am sorry that the debate today is on something not as important as the things that I have just discussed.
Ms. Christiane Gagnon (Québec, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today as the Bloc Québécois critic for democratic reform to speak to the motion moved by the member for Hamilton Centre. The NDP member's motion contains many elements, including the holding of a referendum on the question of amending the Referendum Act in order to abolish the existing Senate and to appoint a special committee for democratic improvement made up of 12 members. The motion also defines how the special committee would operate. Today I would like to focus on point (a
), which is the most important and which reads as follows:
||the House recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada, specifically the unnecessary Senate and a House of Commons that does not accurately reflect the political preferences of Canadians;
I would like to examine this point from two angles: the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, and the unnecessary nature of the Senate. In that regard, we quite agree with the NDP.
Bills on democratic reform have been coming up over and over again for the past few sessions. This time around, we have Bill C-12, which aims to change the formula for calculating the number of members per province to increase the total number of members to 338. The distribution of new seats would be as follows: five more for Alberta, seven for British Columbia and 18 for Ontario. That would give us a total of 338 members, compared to the 308 we have now. This bill, if passed, would have a direct impact on Quebec's weight in the House of Commons, which would drop from 24.3% to 22.19%. Quebec would be even more marginalized compared to its current weight in the House.
It is of the utmost importance to maintain Quebec's weight in the House because Quebec is the only majority francophone state in North America and because Quebeckers are a unique linguistic minority on this continent. Louis Massicotte, a political scientist at Laval University, published an article on federal electoral redistribution entitled “Quelle place pour le Québec? Étude sur la redistribution électorale fédérale”. It is also more important than ever to protect our language and our culture when negotiating free trade agreements. We are talking about the cradle of the Quebec nation, which this House recognized in November of 2006, although, in practice, this means nothing to the Conservative government.
Make no mistake. If the government is insisting on increasing the weight of these particular provinces, it is because they are its stronghold or because it hopes to make political gains there. By going forward with this democratic reform, the Conservative government is claiming that it wants to respect democracy. However, the Conservatives are not fooling anyone. They are masters of flouting democracy. For example, they prorogued Parliament to avoid votes. They failed to follow the House's orders to submit documents, in particular, documents on the transfer of Afghan prisoners. They refused to appear before parliamentary committees. They recommended that unelected senators vote against bills that were passed by a majority of votes in the House, thus going against the will of the people. In 2008, they also failed to abide by their own legislation on fixed election dates.
The government is blatantly misleading the House and the public, as in the case involving the Minister of International Cooperation. I could go on but there are other points I would like to make.
Any recommendation in the House made by a special committee should not only take into account the current demographic weight of Quebec in the House of Commons, but it should also ensure that this weight is maintained because under no circumstance should Quebec's weight be any less than it currently is in the House.
In its current form, the Senate is unnecessary. It is a vehicle for partisan politics. Ever since the minority Conservative government came to power, it has been using this vehicle to introduce bills that the House of Commons opposes, in order to go against the will of the House of Commons. I cited a few examples, but there are many more.
Going against the will of the elected members of the House of Commons is completely anti-democratic in that this opposition comes from people whose legitimacy comes from a partisan appointment, unlike the legitimacy of the members of Parliament, which comes from the people.
We do not have to look too far back to find an example. Just consider Bill C-311. Bill C-311, An Act to ensure Canada assumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change, was supported by the Bloc Québécois and the majority of the legitimately elected members of the House of Commons. The bill imposed binding greenhouse gas reduction targets to ensure that Canada respects the IPCC recommendation and the requirement to submit a significant action plan every five years. The Prime Minister allowed the Senate to deny the will of the Parliament of Quebeckers and Canadians by allowing Conservative senators to defeat Bill C-311 without even studying it.
Yet, during the last election campaign, the Prime Minister declared that an unelected chamber should not block bills from an elected one. He then did an about-face and is now making use of the Conservative senators. He made sure that he appointed the majority of senators to the Senate to ensure that they would block bills or motions that Parliament had adopted and sent to the Senate and that they would introduce bills before members of Parliament even had a chance to speak to them.
When the seats of Liberal senators opened up, the Prime Minister made sure to appoint loyal Conservatives. By allowing their senators to vote against Bill C-311 without even studying it, the Conservatives created a precedent, a first since 1930, and showed a flagrant lack of respect for our democratic institutions.
The Conservative senators also managed to block certain bills passed by the House and sent to the Senate to be studied. Take, for example, Bill C-288, regarding the tax credit for new graduates working in designated regions, introduced by my colleague from Laurentides—Labelle, or Bill C-232, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), which would require Supreme Court judges to be bilingual. The Prime Minister could be confident that the senators would vote against these bills. In both cases, the Senate blocked the bills. On May 5, Bill C-288 received the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. For the second time in less than three years, it was sent to the Senate. Since then, it has only been debated twice. Bill C-288 would help thousands of young people who want to study and remain in the regions, some of which are struggling economically.
With Bill C-232, the Conservatives were trying to buy some time. They kept delaying study of the bill until they had a majority in the Senate. The Conservative government is taking advantage of the fact that it controls the Senate in order to dictate its agenda. It is one thing for the Conservative government to oppose a measure, but to recommend that the Senate prevent debate on these two bills is unacceptable.
This shows the Conservative government's contempt for the will of the democratically elected parliamentarians. I should point out that the Liberals were no better and also used some schemes to delay passage of bills. Nonetheless, they never went as far as the Conservatives are going. In 2006, by the way, the Conservatives campaigned on reforming the Senate and making it more legitimate. That was one of the Prime Minister's promises.
That is why this Conservative government introduced a bill to reform Senate terms and limit them to eight years. That bill does nothing to reform this outdated, archaic institution where appointments are strictly partisan. That bill does nothing to remedy the nature of the Senate. The Prime Minister has transformed it into “a permanent office for his organizers, a waiting room for his Montreal candidates, and an absolute circus by the use of his surprising appointments, to describe them politely”, according to Vincent Marissal from La Presse.
The democratic deficit in the Senate and its extraordinarily partisan nature derive from the choices made by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867. From an academic standpoint, the upper house or senate in a federal system must represent the federated entities alongside a lower chamber, in our case, the House of Commons.
According to Réjean Pelletier, a political scientist and a professor in the political science department at Laval University, it is clear that this is not the case in the Canadian Parliament. In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation could have chosen the American model, where senators are elected by state legislatures and all states have equal weight, with the ability to elect two senators for a six-year term.
Instead, the Fathers of Confederation copied the British House of Lords and thus made the Senate a chamber that reviews legislation passed by the House of Commons. So the Senate is a chamber of sober second thought that moderates the overly democratic ways of the lower house, which is subject to pressure and emotional pleas from the public. But it no longer plays that role. What is more, senators were supposed to be appointed by the crown.
The idea of representing and defending the interests of federated entities did not come up in the discussions prior to the signing of the British North America Act. And from that stems our objection to the Senate, with its lack of legitimacy and representation.
Given that the Senate has become a partisan tool for the ruling Conservative Party and that it lacks both legitimacy and representation, it is not surprising that the public is angry about senators' spending.
According to an article by Stéphanie Marin in the January 27, 2011 edition of La Tribune, it would cost $90 million a year to keep the Senate in place. I do not remember the exact number, but I believe that 60% or 70% of Quebeckers supported abolishing the Senate.
We also learned in January that some senators are incurring excessive if not extravagant expenses. Conservative senators have not stopped sending mail-outs despite the fact that, in the spring of 2010, the House of Commons prohibited members from sending these types of mail-outs outside their ridings and specified that the Senate should follow suit.
It is important to note that the total printing budget for the Senate increased from $280,500 to $734,183 in 2008-09. Last month, the senators gave themselves the right to use taxpayers' dollars to continue to send mail-outs in which they can attack members.
To remedy the representation and legitimacy deficits and truly reform the Senate—to create a Senate where senators are actual representatives of Quebec and the provinces who are appointed or elected by legitimate authorities in Quebec, such as Quebec's National Assembly, and in the provinces and where there is equal representation for Quebec and the provinces resulting in a truly effective and non-partisan upper house as they have in other countries—we would have to proceed with a constitutional reform that would require agreement from seven provinces representing at least 50% of the population. We know that this would be practically impossible because we would have to reopen the Constitution.
The Bloc Québécois does not oppose this motion given that the Senate, in its current state, is unnecessary and that the current method of democratic representation has many shortcomings, such as the ones I have already mentioned. However, the Bloc's support for this motion is conditional upon the inclusion of two basic elements. First, Quebec's political weight must not be reduced at all as a result of any democratic reform. Second, under Quebec's referendum legislation, a referendum must be held in Quebec on the abolition of the Senate.
I would like to make two amendments to the NDP's motion. I move, seconded by the member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges:
|| That the motion be amended:
||(a) by adding after the words “the next general election,” the following:
||“with the understanding that, in Quebec, such a referendum will be subject to Quebec law, in accordance with the current Referendum Act and as established as a precedent by the 1992 Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord,”;
||(b) by adding after the words “recommendations to the House” the following:
||“that in no way reduce the current weight of the Quebec nation in the House of Commons”.
Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Nickel Belt.
I want to acknowledge the very good work of the member for Hamilton Centre who has been tireless in bringing forward issues around democratic reform. What we see before the House today is a result of months of work in terms of developing a very reasonable approach to democratic reform.
I know others have been speaking about the Senate but I want to focus on another aspect of this motion, which reads, in part:
||...the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation....
I will speak specifically to proportional representation and I will begin by quoting an elder statesperson, the hon. Ed Broadbent. I was lucky enough to sit in the House with him in 2004. During Mr. Broadbent's tenure, he was a tireless advocate for the need for ethics and democratic reform. What we have been seeing over the last couple of weeks around ethics in this place would surely have Mr. Broadbent rising in the House to vigorously protest some of the behaviour of cabinet ministers and Conservative senators.
In a speech given by Mr. Broadbent in October 2005 in Ottawa, he outlined a number of issues around ethics and democratic reform but I will talk specifically about proportional representation. In his speech, he said:
|| A major source of needed democratic reform is our outmoded, first-past-the-post electoral system. ... Ninety per cent of the world's democracies, including Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have abandoned or significantly modified the pre-democratic British system that still prevails in Ottawa. As the Canadian Law Commission recommended and five provinces seem to agree, fairness means we need a mixed electoral system that combines individual constituency-based MPs with proportional representation. ...only such a system would positively redress the existing imbalance in the House of Commons in gender, ethnic, ideological and regional voting preferences.
|| The Pepin-Robarts Commission pointed out a quarter of a century ago--
This conversation has been going on so long that I am sure people are tired of it, and yet we do not get the change we need.
Mr. Broadbent went on to say:
||--our present system does a great disservice to Canadian unity because regional representation in the House of Commons—in the caucuses and in the cabinet— does not reflect Canadian voters' intentions.
Mr. Broadbent went on to say that for fairness and the good of Canada, “Let's get on with electoral reform”.
I hear consistently from the people in my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan and in other parts of British Columbia from other Canadians that it is time for us to have a system of proportional representation.
I know a recent experience with a referendum in British Columbia failed but many of us who were involved in that referendum know that it was not that British Columbians did not support some system of proportional representation. It was more about how that particular process was set up.
The Law Commission did some excellent work and released a report in 2004. I will read some of the report because it says far better than I ever could why we need to look at our electoral system. The executive summary of the report reads:
|| For the past decade or so, Canada has been in the grip of a democratic malaise evidenced by decreasing levels of political trust, declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism toward politicians and traditional forms of political participation, and growing disengagement of young people from politics. However, as the Commission heard throughout its consultation process, many citizens want to be involved, want to have a real voice in decision making, and would like to see more responsive, accountable, and effective political institutions.
I think that is a very important point. It is not that Canadians do not want to be engaged in their political process. It is that they want their engagement to be meaningful and to actually count for something.
Later on in the report, the Law Commission states:
|| Canada currently uses a plurality–majority system, which ensures that the winning candidate in a riding obtains at least a plurality of the votes cast. It is called a first-past-the-post system because, in some respects, it resembles horse races where the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first.
|| For many Canadians, this system is inherently unfair—more likely to frustrate or distort the wishes of the voters than to translate them fairly into representation and influence in the legislature.
|| It has been criticized as:
||being overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote, rewarding it with a legislative majority disproportionate to its share of the vote;
||allowing the governing party, with its artificially swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda;
|| promoting parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada’s regional divisions;
|| leaving large areas of the country without adequate representatives in the governing party caucus;
|| disregarding a large number of votes in that voters who do not vote for the winning candidate have no connection to the elected representative, nor to the eventual make-up of the House of Commons;
|| contributing to the under-representation of women, minority groups, and Aboriginal peoples;
|| preventing a diversity of ideas from entering the House of Commons; and
|| favouring an adversarial style of politics.
I want to touch briefly on the under-representation of women, minority and aboriginal peoples. Right now approximately 62 members of the House are women. Over the last couple of decades, roughly 20% of the House of Commons have been women and that number has not grown.
Women certainly understand that in order to have a balanced voice in the House of Commons, we need that kind of representation. In many systems of proportional representation, women's representation increases. That is a very good reason in itself to support a system of proportional representation.
In the Law Commission's conclusion in its executive summary, it stated:
|| Canada inherited its first-past-the-post electoral system from Great Britain over 200 years ago, at a time when significant sections of the Canadian population, including women, Aboriginal people, and nonproperty owners, were disenfranchised.
That is a very important point. We know that women only got the vote in the early 1900s and aboriginal peoples did not get the vote until the 1960s. We still have a system that reflects that disenfranchisement.
The Law Commission went on to state:
|| Canada’s political, cultural, and economic reality has vastly changed; the current electoral system no longer responds to 21st century Canadian democratic values. Many Canadians desire an electoral system that better reflects the society in which they live—one that includes a broader diversity of ideas and is more representative of Canadian society. For these reasons, the Commission recommends adding an element of proportionality to our electoral system.
|| Furthermore, because of its many potential benefits, electoral reform should be a priority item on the political agenda.
Again, I applaud the member for Hamilton Centre for ensuring that proportional representation was part of the conversation today. It certainly has been part of the New Democratic agenda ever since I have been involved with the NDP. It is a priority in terms of ensuring that the voices of Canadians are more adequately heard in the House of Commons.
Fair Vote Canada has put out an excellent report called “Dubious Democracy”. I will not have time to go through the entire report, but it did a very good job. One section is titled “Unrepresented Citizens: Millions of Votes Do Not Count”. Let us talk about what these numbers translate into. When talking about the winner-take-all system, it stated:
|| The other voters in that riding or district lose their right to representation. The latter group of voters cast “wasted” votes--they gained no more representation than those who didn’t even cast votes.
It did an analysis on elections from 1980 to 2000 and stated:
|| The average for wasted votes cast in federal elections during the same period was 49.1%, or more than 6.2 million votes. By comparison, in the 1999 election in New Zealand with a mixed proportional voting system, only 7% of the voters cast wasted votes.
When 6.2 million people feel they do not have a voice in their duly-elected representative body, there is a very serious problem. No wonder it has contributed to the ongoing discontent and lack of participation in voting.
In the last federal election in 2008, there was the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history. In these extremely complex times in which we live, we need to work very hard to encourage voter participation and engagement in the political process. We need the diversity of opinions and for women to be at the table.
I encourage all members of the House to support the NDP motion. Let us get on with establishing electoral reform in our country.
Mr. Claude Gravelle (Nickel Belt, NDP):
Madam Speaker, first of all, I would like to clarify what I said earlier, because in the heat of the moment I may have gotten carried away.
I think that everyone in the House would agree that Chantal Hébert is one of the best writers in the country and that we all read her column attentively. My comments were obviously not a personal attack. Rather, I was commenting on a specific column with which I disagreed.
No personal slight was intended of course. Even when we disagree, we are all professionals doing our job the best we can.
I am pleased to rise and participate in today's opposition day motion, tabled by my colleague from Hamilton Centre. I commend him on his excellent motion. The timing of this motion and today's debate could not come at a more critical period.
This historic place, our Parliament and its elected members are held in low regard by Canadians, thanks largely to the track record of the Conservative government and the previous Liberal government. Whether it was the sponsorship scandal that alienated so many voters or the hyper participation of the government, many Canadians now view this chamber with distrust.
However, it does not have to be that way. Like many of my constituents I am angry. My constituents are angry and disappointed because the government would rather prorogue Parliament when it cannot get its way, protect ministers who mislead the House, the minister of “not”, violate election laws because it thinks it is above the law, appoint dozens of senators at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, undermining democracy itself, spend billions on corporate tax cuts for its friends or even sole-source 65 fighter jets at a cost of billions more, than help Canadians with their home heating bills or access to long-term care facilities or help them protect their pensions.
I am angry because I know we can achieve these goals and deliver a helping hand to those who help build our country. However, we do not because the Conservative government is so consumed with winning a majority that every promise it breaks, decision it makes, or every bill it brings forward is based solely on a political calculation on whether it will add one or two percentage points to its popularity so it can inch ever closer to a perceived majority. The Conservative government has sunk to such new lows in its approach to governing that it often makes a mockery of this great institution.
Let me read a quote going back to election night 2006. It states:
|| During this campaign, we talked a lot about values. One of the oldest and enduring Canadian values is democracy...This is a freedom for which our ancestors perished and our veterans fought--for which those in our Armed Forces today still sacrifice, for which too many in our world still yearn. It is a freedom which we must always--always--cherish as Canadians.
Who said this? None other than the Prime Minister.
Since delivering this speech, he has broken his promise to bring about real democratic reform. He has broken his promise on Senate reform, appointing 36 Conservative cronies and bag men. He has given Canada a black eye on the world stage, costing us a seat on the UN Security Council, a first for Canada. He has wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money on advertising designed to benefit the Conservative Party. Two of the Senate cronies are now charged with wilfully exceeding spending limits in the 2000 federal election, the very election in which the Prime Minister promised to clean up corruption in our country's capital.
Is it any wonder that New Democrats stand here today urging parliamentarians to do what the Conservative government has lacked the courage and leadership to do? We know what real Canadian leadership looks like. We only have to witness the tireless dedication of our leader, the member of Parliament for Toronto—Danforth. His dedication to this chamber and our political process, his commitment to giving all Canadians a voice in Parliament, is a shining example for all of us. Our caucus knows that the best way to get Canadians excited again about the political process in our great country is to change our system to better reflect their vote.
This motion today could begin to reverse the drop in confidence in and respect for our political institutions that Canadians have. Our motion calls for the appointment of a special committee for democratic improvement whose mandate would be to engage with Canadians and make recommendations to the House on how best to achieve a House of Commons that would more accurately reflect the votes of Canadians by combining direct elections by electoral district and proportional representation.
There is no better way for Canadians to feel that their vote counts than by ensuring that the House of Commons actually reflects the will of the people. That is what part of this motion achieves. That is why we need to support the motion. We need to send a clear message to Canadians that their voice and concerns matter, and that we intend to take action to address their concerns.
There is no higher calling than serving the great people of this great country. There is no greater honour for me to be standing here today in this hallowed chamber to speak on behalf of the people of Nickel Belt. We owe this to Canadians. We actually owe them a lot more, but this motion is a good start.
The second part of the motion addresses the upper chamber, the home of political relics and bagmen and cronies, of undemocratic, unelected, unnecessary, unaccountable and unrepresentative members. I would go so far as to say that the Conservative government is taking a page from its corporate buddies. The Conservatives are engaging in a form of hostile takeover of the Senate as a democratic institution. They are even using the Senate to circumvent this democratic chamber of elected representatives.
Together, senators collect millions in salaries and they travel on taxpayers' dollars to attend their parties' fundraisers. Some are even ungrateful for their perks and privileges. Let me provide just one example. Last December, the Prime Minister appointed a Conservative senator who referred to his senator's salary as a “catastrophic” pay cut. It seems this senator will have to get by on only $132,300 a year, plus the pittance of $187,000 on average for staff and travel and office expenses. However, this senator is willing to make the sacrifice. After all, the Senate only sits for 90 days a year for the paltry wage of $1,470 per day. Seeing that the Senate only begins sitting at 1:30 p.m. each day of its three day work week, one can only wonder when this senator will ever find the time to campaign for his upcoming election. I almost forgot: there is no election for senators.
I wonder if the senator would ever risk asking Canadians, who earn an average of $172 a day, how they would feel about the senator's great sacrifice of earning only $1,470 a day.
The Prime Minister has appointed 37 of them, including 18 new senators, the largest number ever, in a single day. Not even Brian Mulroney appointed that many in one day when he was forcing the free trade deal on us. We will do our best to ensure that the Prime Minister does not get to make these appointments any more. What a legacy.
In conclusion, we know that many Canadians feel that something is broken. Our plan, outlined in today's motion, will make elections more democratic and Parliament more representative. That is the key to making Canadians feel their vote counts. We are asking all parties to work with us on a pragmatic, step-by-step plan to improve Canadian democracy. It is just a start. We need to redouble our efforts to regain the trust of Canadians. We have our work cut out for us.
In the 1867 election, voter turnout was 73.1%. Over 100 years later, in 1968, voter turnout was even better at 75.7%. Yet in 2008, voter turnout dropped to 58.8%. Let there be no doubt that we have a serious problem in Canada. We cannot afford to continue down this road.
I see that you are giving me the one minute sign, Madam Speaker--
Hon. Steven Fletcher (Minister of State (Democratic Reform), CPC):
Madam Speaker, I have already spoken to this motion today. Therefore, I will speak to the amendment that has been brought forward. Also, I would like to split my time with the President of the Treasury Board.
The amendment by the Bloc Québécois to the motion would reduce the representation Quebec has in Parliament. In fact, it would get rid of 24 senators, 24 parliamentarians. There would be zero senators from Quebec. That is the position of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP. They want zero.
I can understand a little of what the Bloc wants because they do not want to be part of Canada. Not only do they want zero senators, but also zero MPs in this place. That is really what the Bloc's role is. Yet in the same breath, the Bloc Québécois is calling for 25% of the seats in this place. On the one hand they want zero, and on the other hand they want 25%. That is not reasonable.
The fact is the Bloc Québécois do not want to have a strong united Canada. They want their own nation. We all know that. The NDP, by cozying up to the Bloc on this very fundamental issue, is not being helpful to federalism.
I would also point out that the Bloc members have been here for over 20 years. One Conservative government MP does more for Quebec in one hour than 50 Bloc MPs have done in 20 years. Electing a government MP or even a federalist MP is better than electing a Bloc MP, because at least the federalists believe in Canada. The Bloc does everything it can to destroy what is probably the greatest country the world has ever known. That is the Bloc's agenda. Thus the hypocrisy of the Bloc to call for 25% of the seats in this place and the abolition of Quebec as part of Canada is very disturbing.
I would also point out that the Bloc's criticisms included that of the legitimacy of the senators. The government has brought forward a bill that would limit terms to eight years. We have also brought forward a bill that would allow for the election of senators. That eliminates the Bloc's argument right off the bat. All they have to do is to support this government's reform legislation, but they are not going to do that because they do not want a strong Canada. They do not want a strong united Canada but to break up our country. Therefore, the Bloc has no credibility when it comes to Canadian democratic institutions.
The member said that electing Bloc MPs is fine. On my part, I believe we live in a great country and I cannot think of a better country than Canada, and so I think that electing Bloc MPs is self-alienating. Electing a Bloc MP will essentially result in an empty seat, because the Bloc does not want to be and will never be part of government. It is conceivable that federalist party members would be part of government. Therefore, it is a productive thing to elect a federalist MP. I am not just talking of Conservatives but also of the NDP or Liberals. This is a nation-building exercise. The Bloc, of course, is against any nation-building exercise.
The Bloc has demonstrated time and time again its pretense in advocating for Quebec. For example, because Alberta is growing fast, the Bloc does not want Alberta to have more seats in this place, or Ontario, or B.C., which is representation by population, the standard in the House of Commons. The Senate standard is to have regional representation. Limiting the Senate is just part of the Bloc's overall agenda. I cannot believe the NDP members are falling into this. By eliminating senators, that is one less federalist voice in this place, one less voice for Quebec in building this great nation.
The NDP members have fallen into this and it is disappointing. The Bloc of course has its own agenda. The fact is that when the Bloc members stand and call for additional seats for Quebec, we all know that they are being disingenuous because it is the Bloc's goal to have zero seats in the House of Commons for Quebec. It is the Bloc's goal to have zero seats in the Senate for Quebec. It is the Bloc's goal to have no members of Parliament in this place. The NDP is falling in bed with the separatists on this issue. That is a fact.
However, I believe that we need to work together. I am quite willing to work with the NDP on some issues that have been raised today, such as the minimum age of 30 for appointment to the Senate. If the NDP were willing to support our Senate term limits, perhaps we would be open to reducing the age requirement to 18 for appointing senators. However, we need the term limits first, otherwise we are leaving open the possibility that someone could be appointed to the Senate for 57 years. I do not believe anybody wants that. If the Senate term limits come into effect, I am quite happy to talk about what we need to do to bring the eligibility of senators down to the age of majority as it is here in the House of Commons. That is reasonable.
If there are proportional representation problems and under-representation for visible minorities, including people with physical disabilities, as there are in this place, that is something that each of our parties needs to address. We can do that through the nomination process by ensuring that winnable seats are populated by people who reflect those constituencies and our country. That can be dealt with largely through the party process.
The fact is that the Charlottetown Accord caused a lot of divisiveness in our nation. That is what the NDP is advocating.
As I mentioned earlier, I am splitting my time with the President of the Treasury Board. Due to the fact there is important government business that the president is undertaking, I will speak until he has the opportunity to enter the chamber.
Canadians do not want constitutional wrangling. They want the government to focus on the economy. They want Canadians to work toward coming together. Canadians want the government to work toward bringing Quebeckers, Manitobans, British Columbians, Newfoundlanders, everyone together.
This motion, especially with the Bloc amendments, would make our federal institutions weaker. The federal government's agenda is to make Canada stronger through ensuring that the Senate has legitimacy through elections and that senators do not end up being in the Senate for up to 45 years but stay for only 8 years. That allows for renewal and elections, possibly including, by the way, proportional representation for the election of senators.
It is up to the province how it wants to do it. Manitoba wants to do it by senatorial districts, and that is fine, but why does the NDP not want to work with us to make this a reality? It is doable, it is constitutional and it can be done in reasonably short order, but the NDP does not seem to be based in the reality of practical politics.
Practical politics would be to support term limits and the senatorial election regime and ensure that the Senate becomes more democratic and stronger. In fact, there could even end up being some New Democrats the Senate. The people would decide. The Bloc amendment is not in the interests of Canada or democracy. I am disappointed that the NDP has fallen in with the Bloc.
The President of the Treasury Board having returned from his important government responsibilities, I would like to yield the rest of my time to the great member from British Columbia, the President of the Treasury Board.
Hon. Stockwell Day (President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, CPC):
Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. members for unanimously agreeing to my colleague's request to share his time today.
This is a very important topic, and I hope that the NDP will help us move forward on discussions concerning Senate reform. I do not believe that this is the most important issue to Canadians across the country, but it is still important.
Given the importance of it, there are a number of implications here. First, there is the whole aspect of a referendum itself. Being that I would like to think of myself as a true democrat, I cannot oppose the notion of a referendum. Certainly, I think there is a time and a place for a referendum. Whether it should be on this particular topic, at this time, is still worthy of question. If there is going to be a referendum on a topic, I believe people need to be properly informed of all the dimensions of the issue and the implications. It is apparently a non-binding referendum, so the cost would have to be taken into account. We should ask ourselves the question: What price democracy? Cost should not be a prohibiting factor when there is a bona fide reason for a referendum question.
On the question of the Senate itself, because a particular institution may not be functioning to the democratic expectations of “the people” in my view should not be a reason for its elimination. A lot of people think the House of Commons does not function properly and I do not hear anybody here advocating for its elimination. However, can it be improved? I profoundly believe, as does the government and our Prime Minister, that the Senate can be improved and we have taken some legislative steps in that regard.
Most Canadians quite rightly balk at the notion of receiving a job that gives legislative power, in fact the power to slow down or speed up legislation coming out of this duly elected body here, and to have that position virtually for life, up to 45 years for a senator appointed at the age of 30. We have proposed ways of dealing with that with an eight-year term. The fact that the federal government, that is the prime minister, would be the sole means by which people could be appointed to the Senate, most people balk at that as do we.
That is why we and the Prime Minister have been clear, through the senatorial election act and through the statements of the Prime Minister, that if the provinces would come up with a way of electing, in a democratic way, their choice for the Senate, then the government would be pleased to make that appointment.
In fact, the proof is in the pudding in Alberta, where at the time of the municipal election, the Senate choice of the people of that particular province was also on the ballot. There are Senate selections in the Senate today who have actually received more votes than anybody here, more votes than the Prime Minister. They are solely from Alberta, but they sit there truly as elected Senators, and they are going to be there for a term that has been defined.
The other question that needs to be highlighted here: What is the reason for a Senate? As constituted back in Canada's formation, and in our genesis, probably the main underlying reason was to protect property owners. They had to own property, and still do today, to be in the Senate.
There is another very significant reason to have a Senate. First, we recognize that no electoral system is perfect. However, as Churchill said, “It is better than the alternative”.
How can we make a more perfect electoral system here in Canada? I am a firm supporter of first past the post and representation by population. I believe in that strongly. We should not be totally fixed to the one-thousandth per cent that every constituency would be right down to one or two people, the exact same amount, as is the U.S. experience.
Our present chief justice, Justice McLachlin, before she was head of the Supreme Court, wrote a very good overview on this question, that the Canadian experience shows it does not have to be as tight and minute as, let us say, in the United States. There is some reason to have some flexibility there. However, we are still committed to representation by population.
Here is the question that countries around the world have faced. What do we do when one of our provinces or states is highly populated and another province is not? Then we will always have more elected representatives from the highly populated province than we will from the less populated province.
That province or state will always be able to out-vote the other less populated one. We made some provisions for that, constitutionally, so that P.E.I., for instance, has some protection from, let us say, Ontario. It could be argued that it is minimal.
What could be put in place so there is not a situation where a province or, as in Canada, a city of MPs, a city full of MPs in this House right now, can vote or cancel out the votes of MPs from an entire less populated province?
The way to put that balance, even though it will never be perfect, in place is to have senators elected. Unlike the United States and some other places that have a bicameral system, we do not have the same number of senators for each province. Some people would say we should not have the system at all because it is not the same number in each province.
What I am saying is that it is not perfect, but if we have senators who are democratically elected, it would give a bit of a buffer to the less populated provinces, by having a bicameral house, a two-bodied house as it were, to have a number of senators there, using the U.S. model or similar ones around the world.
It would have to first be passed by the people who are elected, representation by population, but then the bill would have to be passed in the Senate as well. So a small state like Rhode Island could stand up to a more populated state like California, or a small province like P.E.I. could stand up to a more populated one, like Ontario or British Columbia.
That notion of protecting the citizens of less populated areas has to be full understood. It has to be contemplated that if we wipe out the Senate, it will forever remove the protective capability of less populated provinces from more populated provinces.
Mr. Fin Donnelly (New Westminster—Coquitlam, NDP):
Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the great member for British Columbia Southern Interior.
I stand to speak today in favour of the New Democrat motion calling for a referendum to abolish the Senate and for proportional representation.
The Senate was created in 1867 to mirror the British House of Lords, to serve as a chamber of sober second though, to provide regional representation and to act as a check on Parliament. It was made an appointed body so that it could not stop legislation from the House of Commons. It was there to revise and renew legislation. It was also created to recognize the social and economic elite. It was, in part, created to protect the property interests of the wealthy.
There was some concern from our founding fathers that an elected body, or the House of Commons, would not do so. Today we know that is not the case.
The Senate is broken and no longer works in the public interest. This House knows it and so do the Canadian people.
I became convinced of the need to abolish the Senate following the controversial Senate vote on November 16, 2010, that killed Bill C-311, the climate change accountability act.
Bill C-311 would require the federal government to set regulations to establish targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and to set long-term targets to bring emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The government must take action on climate change and Bill C-311 would have been the first step to set hard targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
However, it has become abundantly clear that the government does not want to deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time, so it got the Senate to do its dirty work.
Bill C-311 passed the House of Commons and passed the committee. The majority of members in this House, who were sent here to represent their constituents, passed the bill and yet et it was killed by the Senate. I will repeat for clarity that the unelected and unaccountable Senate shut off debate and called a snap election to vote down and kill this important legislation that passed through the House of Commons.
That was an outrageous move and Canadians were outraged by the move. It was the first time since the second world war that the Senate had voted down a bill that had won support of the majority of members in the House of Commons. This move did not get the attention it deserved. It was a fundamental change in the way our democracy operates.
The government is not known for its transparency and adherence to democratic principles and now it has appointed enough senators to circumvent the democratic process.
Only a few short years ago, before the Conservatives were in power, they had very real concerns about the way the Senate operated. While the Prime Minister was in opposition, he claimed that he would never appoint a senator. At that time, he considered the Senate to be undemocratic.
This is something members will rarely hear from me but the Prime Minister was correct. The Senate is undemocratic. That is why the people of New Zealand abolished their upper house, the legislative council, in 1951.
It is amazing how things change when one gains power. Now that the Conservatives are in power, they have completely changed their tune and are using this unelected, undemocratic body to push through their legislative agenda.
The Prime Minister has appointed 36 Conservative insiders to the Senate since coming to power. In 2008, he broke a record by appointing 18 people to the upper chamber in just one day. The Senate is now stacked with failed Conservative candidates, party fundraisers and political organizers. We must not forget that this was the same modus operandi for the federal Liberal Party. It, too, stacked the Senate with its friends and insiders.
A senator earns approximately $132,000 a year. The qualification to become a senator is to be loyal to the ruling party that appoints him or her.
The Senate costs approximately $90 million a year to run. Taxpayers are paying a large sum for an unaccountable and unelected group of senators that block legislation passed by their elected representatives.
I believe it is time, through a referendum, for Canadians to have a say on the future of the Senate. A referendum would open up the dialogue on systems in which far too many Canadians have lost faith. It would allow us to engage the population in an issue that is important to our very democracy.
I will now talk about the second aspect of our motion, which reads:
||(c) the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation....
These two ideas, to abolish the Senate and to investigate how to best create a House of Commons that accurately reflects the votes of Canadians, fit well together.
Voter turnout continues to decline each election. In 2008, only 59.1% of Canadians went to the polls, the lowest turnout in history. The youth turnout was even worse. As parliamentarians, we should be very concerned. We need to reflect on why this is occurring and how we can turn this disturbing trend around.
Too often I hear from people who feel their vote does not matter. They tell me that they often decide to vote strategically. They feel that it does not matter who they vote for because there is no way their favourite candidate will, under our current electoral system, ever be elected. Therefore, they end up voting for a candidate, not because they support that candidate, but because they want to stop someone else from gaining power.
Proportional representation is an electoral system that allows every vote to count, whereas the first past the post system creates a winner takes all situation. I worry that sometimes people stay home from the voting booth because they feel that with our first past the post system, the person they want to vote for does not stand a chance so they do not bother voting.
This is not the way our democracy should operate. This could point to why Canadians, and particularly why the youth vote, seems to be so disengaged. It is time for an examination of democratic reform. It would show Canadians that we, as their elected House, care about their participation in the political system.
The United Kingdom, in conducting a referendum on electoral reform in May, is doing just that. The people of the United Kingdom want their voice heard, and so do Canadians.
An Environics poll conducted for the Council of Canadians last year indicated that 62% of Canadians supported moving toward a system of proportional representation in Canadian elections. This support was consistent across the country, notably 71% of youth wanted to move to a proportional representation system.
I mentioned in my speech my concern about youth voting and the voter turnout. If we can do anything to inspire our younger generation to get to the polls, we must. It is imperative to the future of our democracy.
In the motion supported by Fair Vote Canada, it states:
|| With people all over the world risking their lives to demand their democratic right to be heard, it's about time that Canadians had a fair voting system, so that all our votes can make a difference.
We must do all that we can to bolster our democracy and to ensure that all votes count. For that reason, I am in full support of the motion and urge all parliamentarians to vote in favour of if.
Mr. Alex Atamanenko (British Columbia Southern Interior, NDP):
Madam Speaker, before I begin my speech, I would like to thank my colleague, the hon. member for Hamilton Centre for his work and his vision for our country. He was the one who proposed this motion to our caucus. I would like to thank him and offer my congratulations.
The time has come to discuss our electoral system. It is clear that major changes are needed in the Senate. For example, it is inexcusable that a group of unelected senators rejected Bill C-311 on the environment without any, yes any, discussion.
I would like to spend the rest of my time by sharing my thoughts on proportional representation.
We do not have a high voter turnout in Canada and there are many reasons for this. I would like to submit that one of them is that the representation in Parliament does not accurately reflect the percentage of votes received. For example, if we had some sort of proportional representation system in place prior to the last election, the results would have been as follows: the Conservatives would have wound up with 119 seats, Liberals 83, NDP 56, the Bloc 31 and the Green Party would have had 17 seats. Even though 941,097 people voted for the Green Party, it did not get one seat in the House of Commons.
The executive director of Fair Vote Canada says that:
|| Proportional voting would obviously help the NDP. Almost 80% of votes cast for the NDP don't help to elect anybody. But this is about what's good for all voters.
He goes on to say:
|| If you are a Conservative in Toronto or a Liberal in Calgary, the current system is not working for you. The plain fact is that most of us are 'represented' in Parliament by people we voted against. Canadians demand more viable political choices.
There are some myths floating around and Fair Vote Canada attempts to counteract those myths.
There are trade-offs between good democracy and good government. In his landmark study, “Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Democracies (1999)”, internationally renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart assessed and compared the performance of majoritarian democracies associated with winner take all voting systems and consensus democracies associated with proportional representation systems.
||—the overall performance record of the consensus democracies is clearly superior to that of the majoritarian democracies” and “the good news is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is no trade-off at all between governing effectiveness and high-quality democracy – and hence no difficult decisions to be made on giving priority to one or the other objective.
The other myth that he dispels and talks about is the fact that proportional representation means coalition governments and that is bad because it requires deal-making. Let us put this idea to rest today once and for all. Here are the facts. Governments formed under any voting system are coalitions of different groups that negotiate and make deals. That is the way democracy works. The two largest big tent parties are coalitions of factions, which are generally hidden from public view except during leadership races. These internal factions compete with one another and then negotiate and compromise on the party platform.
Do people think we do not have differences of opinion in our party? Of course we do. We come together, and that is how we should be coming together in Parliament.
The primary difference between this and the formation of multi-party coalition governments under fair voting systems is transparency. Coalition negotiations among parties are generally more visible to the public and the compromises are publicly known. Majority rule under fair voting systems, the resulting coalition or governing group represents a true majority of voters.
That is what Canadians want. That is probably one of the reasons why they are not voting or coming out in large numbers to vote.
Let us look at some facts to dispel the fact that once we get proportional representation, we will have chaos and bedlam. The examples often cited are Italy and Israel. Let us apply some perspective.
With more than 80 nations using proportional systems, critics can find only two examples, which I just stated, of a system that appears to be chaotic. Opponents of fair voting do not like to talk about long-term stability and the prosperity of Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, or about most of the other 81 countries using proportional systems. In the last half of the 20th century, many of the large European countries had about the same number of elections as we had in Canada.
Coalition governments created under fair voting systems tend to be stable and productive for two reasons.
First, the parties know that a fair voting system makes it highly unlikely any party will gain a majority of seats because seldom do a majority of voters support any one party. The parties understand that the only way they can ever govern is by creating constructive partnerships with other parties. What a revolutionary idea, creating constructive partnerships so we can govern for the people of Canada.
Second, because election results reflect the way people vote, the parties have no motivation to force frequent elections, or prorogation, because of small shifts in public opinion. With Canada's first past the post system, a small shift of votes can trigger a huge swing in seats, which is something that cannot happen with a fair voting system.
Far from creating chaos, Lijphart's study on effective government demonstrated the countries using fair voting systems readily matched and often exceeded the economic and social performance of nations run by single-party governments, which are usually, as he says, false majorities. As Dr. Lijphart concluded, there is no trade-off between good democracy and good government. In fact, it is good democracy that leads to good government.
I submit that the timing is right as we discuss the reforms of the Senate, which is not working, as we discuss the House of Commons, which often is dysfunctional as we are often accused of partisanship and going against each other. Is it not time to come together and have a sensible system of voting so we can co-operate and have the actual proportion of people who voted reflected in the House of Commons?
I would like to say that proportional representation is an important step towards a healthy and very strong government.
It is imperative that we have in the House of Commons a representation that truly reflects the votes that people have cast.
I am sure our motion will be supported by all members in the House of Commons. I am sure that each and every one of us wants to ensure what is reflected here truly reflects the votes that people have cast in the last election. This could be a major breakthrough for democracy in our country.
I am ready to take questions.
Mr. Brian Murphy (Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, I wish to advise at the outset that I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Ottawa—Vanier.
I rise today to speak to the motion on Senate abolition, put forward by my colleague from Hamilton Centre.
The issue of Senate reform has been on Canadians' minds for a long time and is very complex. Accordingly, the motion put forward today is complex in its many subsections, the details of which I will get into. I had occasion to speak previously to Senate reform in this Parliament and the Parliament before. We have had some elections and prorogations and the aspect of Senate reform has not been touched upon in any real way by the government and this Parliament, except by the Conservatives stuffing the chamber with political hacks in order to put forward their program and to squelch democracy.
However, I think we need to start on the basics and the history of the other chamber. I would like to quote from the Bible: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand”. That is the gospel according to St. Mark, chapter 3, verse 25.
These two houses have been working together for some time, with arguments of course on their efficacy. However, it is important to remember the origin of the houses and it is important that we not forget the history of the founding of the Senate and the history of the founding of this country. This country was born of two major influences. I would argue three, but there are two major Canadian influences, which were those coming from the United Kingdom, the British Empire, and those from our francophone or French Quebec background.
When we look at this place, this Parliament in general and this system of government, we are happy to see vestiges of our British heritage, the coats of arms, and the fact that we have a head of state who is a British sovereign. There is no doubt about that influence. What we cannot ignore is at the time there was a great negative influence from the south. Our largest neighbour was a young republic going through the throws of a civil war, one of the most bloody wars in the history of humankind, and the country that is the United States today was very much in the minds of the founding fathers, not just because of the Fenian Raids in the 1866 period, but also because the neighbour to the south had formed its government almost 100 years before that on a broken model, as was perceived by the founders of our model.
We did not want at that time to completely copy the British model. I do not make a practice of quoting Conservative politicians, but since time has passed and he was our first Prime Minister, I will quote Sir John A. Macdonald who said very clearly that the model of the House of Lords was not for Canada.
|| An hereditary Upper House is impracticable in this young country....An hereditary body is altogether unsuited to our state of our society, and would soon dwindle into nothing.
Let us be clear that the Senate we have is not the House of Lords. It never was intended to be. All the arguments of our good friends from the NDP fall flat on their face in that respect.
What was the upper house founded for? The upper house was founded on the idea that provinces did not want to enter a union without some protection of their rights. They agreed to become part of that union including Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to protect their provincial rights because the model of the south, the American constitution which gave states sovereignty, was broken in 1867. It had broken in 1861 and led to the calumny which was the civil war. We did not want to follow that, so Canadian forefathers said they would set up a Senate which protects provincial rights.
Here is where I come to a major disagreement with the government in this respect, going back from the time of its election over five years ago. The provinces came together to form a union and the provinces have not been consulted. In 2007, the then minister of democratic reform, who was moved to a much more vaulted post now, said:
|| I know there are those who wish to see the Senate remain unchanged. There are many members in the Liberal Party who want to see it remain unchanged because it has served them very well over the years as an institution dominated by appointed Liberals.
My, how time has changed because the Senate now is dominated by and controlled by a Conservative majority. I wonder what that minister thinks of those words that he said in this chamber then.
I wonder what the minister thinks of the words he said in the chamber then. He must have second thoughts. He must be wondering, “What was I thinking? The Prime Minister did not give me the playbook and did not tell me, as the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, that I was going to pack the Senate with Tory hacks and control the Senate”. He should have had those notes then and I feel bad for him.
I really feel bad that he was sent out on that errand, suggesting that the Senate is just for Liberals. We see now that it is just for Conservatives. The Conservatives will not go anywhere near this motion and we know that. It is because they have the House stacked the way they want.
Let us lower the temperature and talk about what the Senate has done. The Senate is a great example of some wonderful Canadians being appointed to do good work. Who can argue with that? Even the NDP is not going to argue with the quality of the persons appointed to the Senate, the work they did before they were appointed and the work they have done since.
No one is going to argue with the naming of General Roméo Dallaire or Conservative Senator Wilbert Keon, a heart surgeon. No one is going to argue that Charlie Watt, a Liberal senator representing aboriginal interests, was a bad appointment and does bad work.
Frankly, the NDP may argue with this one. There was an appointment of a member of the NDP to the Senate. She has turned out to be a wonderful senator and a great representative of the west. I speak, of course, of Senator Lillian Dyck, a person of great accomplishment at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. She completely filled out the card with respect to a CV.
She was an appointed member of the NDP. What did New Democrats do with a wonderful person like that? They said, “You can't join our caucus. We have nothing to learn from you. How dare you try to sit in our caucus”. This woman has contributed to Canada. She brings background that is important to Canada. They stuck their heads in the sand and said that we cannot reform the Senate because we will never be in power, but we are never going to take any advice from a good senator.
Those are some of the good examples of great Canadians who have contributed to the Senate and to Canada's oversight.
The Minister of State for Democratic Reform really did not get to answer the questions in 2007 and 2008, but if he were to predict how little provincial-federal consultation there has been since the time he gave his speeches and the last time we last talked about democratic reform of the Senate in the chamber, he would be dismayed to learn there has been nothing in the way of federal-provincial negotiations on Senate reform.
As I asked in a speech back then, how bad could it be to have a real meeting with the provincial and territorial leaders, something more than just a main course of bison and a dessert of crème brulée in a two-hour meeting where they are rushed out to the airport before any real discussion takes place? That was back in 2007. Premiers and territorial leaders do not even get the bison and the crème brulée any more. There are no more conferences on this topic. This motion has nothing in it with respect to provincial consultation.
It is the underpinning of how the Senate was founded. It is in the Constitution. The only real reform that has ever taken place in the Senate was in 1965 before patriation, before there was an amending formula, and it was done unilaterally in the dark of night without any opposition because all it did was to say that at age 75 senators will have to retire.
What have the Conservatives done with the Senate? They have packed it with people like Irving Gerstein and Doug Finley who have been charged with contravening the Canada Elections Act. They have failed to enforce section 140 of the code of the Senate. People charged with criminal allegations is nothing new to the Senate. Does it not make a mockery of our system when the Conservative appointed senators do not even follow the rules of the Senate with respect to reporting a criminal charge when section 140 of their own code says they should? I say—
Hon. Mauril Bélanger (Ottawa—Vanier, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to be able to speak to this matter. First, I want to congratulate the hon. member for Hamilton Centre for sponsoring this motion. I followed his speech with much enthusiasm and I want to tell him from the outset, in order not to create false expectations, that I will not be supporting the resolution. Out of respect for him and for others who have spoken to this issue today, I will explain why I cannot support his resolution. The main reason has to do with the part about the Senate.
I believe ours is a system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislative branches, between the government and opposition, and between the two Houses. Having a bicameral parliament is part and parcel of the system of checks and balances.
As opposed to abolishing the other chamber, I believe we might want to improve it. Therefore, I cannot and will not support the motion because of the portion of it that deals with the Senate. I do not think it is appropriate to propose an abolition.
Some of us may remember than in the previous parliament, the 39th parliament, Bill C-10 was a bit of omnibus legislation that contained an element that we all missed in this House. Perhaps the government should have been more forthcoming in explaining the elements of the bill. Nonetheless, the Senate caught something that we should have caught in this House, which would basically have given the Minister of Heritage some powers equivalent to censorship in the making of films. After strenuous debate, that portion of the bill was abandoned. Thus I think the Senate saved the day there.
Furthermore, in some instances, the Senate initiates very thorough studies. I remember the one that was tabled by the Senator Kirby on mental health, which has had a significant impact to the benefit of all of us in this country. There are other studies of that nature on poverty and security. I think there is certainly a great deal of work that is done by the Senate that is quite good and that is why I support the Senate.
Perhaps amending the Senate might be something we should consider. For that, I think we need to look at another mechanism rather than just striking a House committee. Perhaps the way to go could be a royal commission or a mechanism involving provincial authorities when looking at possible reform of the Senate. If such reform is impossible, then at some point down the road perhaps there will be outright abolition. However, at this point I think that would be premature.
I did listen quite closely to comments by my colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan.
I am sorry about the inclusion of the elements of the Senate in this motion, because I really rather agree with where the rest of the motion is going.
I was at one point the minister for democratic renewal, and I remember the discussions I had with Ed Broadbent, who was the member for Ottawa Centre at the time. I said that I personally agreed that there may be a use in our system for an element of proportionality. I tried to define that element.
I recall an op-ed in the Globe and Mail a few years ago calling for a “12-per-cent solution”, which apportioned a reduced number of seats on a proportional basis, but regionally. The reasoning then was that if we had greater regional representation within caucuses, for instance if the Liberals had more voices from Alberta and the Conservatives more voices from Quebec and the NDP more voices from other provinces, in other words, if we had more provincial voices speaking in the respective parties' national caucuses, the national perspective might win the day more often.
I think that would be healthy for our country. Therefore, I do support, notionally, an element of proportional representation.
I understand there are concerns and that proportional representation is a complex system. We had B.C., Ontario and P.E.I., where the people spoke on this. We had mixed messages. In B.C., a majority but not quite a sufficient number of people supported at one time having a single transferable vote, which is indeed a complex method. I think the problem there was that there was too great of a fixation on that particular method of altering the way of voting. We also had Quebec and New Brunswick, if I recall, that took a very serious look at elements of proportional representation and yet have failed to enact anything.
It is a complex situation, and I think the nature of our country, the federation, will help us evolve because, at some point, one of the provinces, if not the Government of Canada, will find a way to perhaps try some elements of proportionality. We will then see how that evolves.
The other concern of course is that some people say that if we go that way, we will always have a minority Parliament. That may be so. Some of my colleagues do not like the prospect of forever having minority parliaments, because it is quite difficult for members of Parliament if they are on constant electoral alert. However, I believe that is what Canadians may want; Canadians may want to have a little shorter leash on their representatives.
It behooves us all to learn to work together, not just to say we want to work together and pretend that we want to work together, but actually to find mechanisms to work together and make Parliament work. That is well within our grasp and capacity, and if the Canadian public decide that is what they want of us, then somewhere down the road, somehow, we will have to find a way to do that.
If we ever do go down the road of having an element of proportional representation within our electoral system, then we had better find a way to work together, whether by reconstructing committees or the way the House works or way we deal with legislation. In any event, that is well within our grasp.
All of that is to say that despite all of the concerns with the concept of proportional representation, an element of that, not a majority or perhaps not even as high as 50% or even 25%, but an element of that, might help our democracy. I say this because the other concerns about where we are going are equally valid. Here I refer to the concerns about lack of participation and declining participation, especially among young people. We have to be concerned about that. It is a concern that we cannot ignore, one that we ignore at the peril of our democracy and the well-being of our very nation.
When we weigh all of this together, perhaps the way to go would be to create a committee of the House of Commons and to give it a mandate, perhaps a little clearer than what we see before us today and with a little more authority, to go out and sound this out in a rational, responsible, realistic manner and come back to Parliament with its conclusions. Then Parliament should take them up in debate and see where they would lead us.
If we were to do that, and we will not do so today, I gather, from the indications of where the votes are, and to debate a motion that did not deal with the Senate, I would certainly be willing to support it and would encourage my colleagues to support it and to see where it takes us. I am sorry the Senate was included in the motion today, because I think we could otherwise have seen a little progress today.