Ms. Kellie Leitch (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as I was mentioning a few days ago, the Senate reform act will also introduce term limits for senators. The act will restrict the length of time that senators can sit in the Senate to a nine year term limit. This will apply to all senators appointed after the royal assent of the bill. It will also apply to current senators appointed after October 2008 whose terms would end nine years after royal assent.
We believe that a nine-year term provides enough time to enable individual senators to gain the experience necessary to carry out their legislative functions while also ensuring regular renewal of the upper chamber. At the same time, a nine-year term does not compromise the Senate's role of sober second thought in independent legislative review and in in-depth policy investigation.
Unlike the selection provisions which do not amend the Constitution, the term limits provision would change the Constitution. However, this change is within Parliament's exclusive constitutional authority under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
I would now like to address in more detail some of the concerns that have been raised about the constitutionality of this bill.
While some commentators would argue that this bill presents a fundamental constitutional change requiring the support of the provinces, I disagree. Our government has been careful to ensure that our approach to Senate reform falls within the federal government's constitutional jurisdiction. Let me explain.
Concerning Senate consultations, I have already noted that the process would not require constitutional amendment because it does not change the method of selecting senators. The bill does not require that the Prime Minister recommend the names of individuals selected as a result of the consultation process. Any provincial process would only be consultative in nature and not legally binding. The fact that these processes would be consultative is a key aspect of this bill, especially considering that consultation with citizens is a fundamental element of our democratic system. In many ways, these consultative processes would resemble non-binding referendums or plebiscites.
In that vein, I would note that the majority of provinces have legislation that enables them to seek the views of citizens through a referendum on any matters of public interest or concern. I would also note that the Prime Minister already consults with a number of people when making recommendations on Senate appointments and this bill would not change that. The bill simply proposes a method to enable the Prime Minister to consult with Canadians on who should be selected to hold a position in the Senate.
In 2006, the Senate convened a special committee to study the issue of Senate reform. The committee heard from a number of distinguished constitutional scholars, including Peter Hogg, Patrick Monahan and Stephen Scott. In its report, the committee noted that Professors Hogg, Monahan and Scott supported the view that if the result of a consultation process was simply to create a pool of individuals from which the Prime Minister could make a selection, then there “would not likely be any objection on constitutional grounds”. Since this is the approach presented in the Senate reform act, I am confident in the constitutionality of these provisions.
Concerning term limits, I would point out a similar amendment was passed by Parliament, acting alone, in 1965. At that time, Parliament reduced the tenure of senators from a lifetime appointment to mandatory retirement at age 75.
The Constitution provides specific authority for the Parliament of Canada to legislate with respect to the Senate. The Constitution also very clearly sets out those types of changes to the Senate that requires some level of provincial consent. Our legislation has been very carefully designed to ensure that we are acting in those areas where we have authority to legislate.
In its 2006 study, the special Senate committee concluded that the constitutionality of term limits was sufficiently clear and that a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada was not necessary. In fact, the committee further reported that most members of the committee endorsed the principle of the bill and agreed that “a defined limit to the terms of senators would be an improvement to Canada's Senate”.
As a final point, I would note that nothing in the Senate reform act would fundamentally alter the role or powers of the Senate. The House of Commons would continue to be the chamber of confidence and the Senate would continue principally as a revising chamber, offering its valuable insight in the review of legislation. While our proposed agenda focuses on achievable reforms, that does not mean that the more fundamental issues, such as Senate powers and the appropriate representation of the provinces, are insignificant.
These are important questions that must be considered and discussed; however, we will continue to concentrate on our incremental approach and how its successful implementation will possibly ignite interest in further enhancing the role of the upper chamber.
The reforms proposed by the Senate Reform Act are not radical changes but are important changes that provide an alternative to the status quo which is no longer acceptable to Canadians. Doing nothing is simply not an option.
Our government is doing its part to ensure that we can improve and enhance our institutions to make them better for Canadians. Our reforms are practical and achievable, and we hope they will lay the foundation for more fundamental reform. To implement these changes, however, we need the co-operation of parliamentarians. Until now our government has faced resistance to our attempts to modernize the Senate, in particular some from within the Senate itself.
It is my hope that we can count on all parliamentarians to come together to implement these important reforms for all Canadians.
Mr. Dennis Bevington (Western Arctic, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, on this fine morning I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this bill regarding the selection of senators and amendment of the Constitution Act,1867.
For a long time this Parliament has been made up of two chambers, one elected and one unelected. When the provinces were first set up they had the two chamber concept but all of them got rid of the second chamber. History has shown us that the legislatures of Canada can function very well without a second chamber. The legislatures representing the provinces across this country do not have senates now and they are doing a fine job.
What has been my experience with the Senate here in Parliament over the last five years? I have a very difficult time identifying the positive work of the hundred or so members in the other chamber. It is not that they are not good Canadians or that they have poor work habits or that they are not intellectually capable people; it is that they are simply not listened to when they make reports. In the last while, there has been a change in the Senate. It has become much more political. The senators who are there very much play a role in determining government policy. Now that the government has a majority, the Senate acts in accordance with the government's wishes in moving forward government legislation or in blocking legislation that comes forward from other members of this House.
I would say that the climate change bill is at the root of the change that has taken place. That bill was voted on and approved by elected members in the House of Commons but was summarily rejected by the Senate. This represents for me a clear delineation of the problem with the Senate. Ignoring the Senate and allowing it to remain a basket of good intentions where reports are written and nothing is done with them is the old model. The new model is one in which the Senate acts as a policeman over the House of Commons for any of the private members who might not agree with the prevailing view within that Senate, whether there is a Liberal majority or a Conservative majority in the Senate. That is what has been happening.
Of course the New Democrats have supported the abolition of that institution for a long time. We are very concerned that the Senate does not add to the democratic process. In reality, it is taking away from the democratic process. It is taking away from the rights of elected members and from the directions that are given clearly by the majority of the elected members in this House of Commons. The situation is not good and it is getting worse.
I am glad to have the opportunity to debate Senate reform. I want to assist in improving the democratic process that we use to run this country, to provide protection for the rights of Canadians and to give good direction to the future for our country. I am positive we are all here for that. However, what we have here does not strike me as a likely addition to the good work of this body.
I cannot help but continue to support our position to abolish the Senate and look for ways to find approbation among the people of Canada for that position, because that is the democratic process.
A referendum on the future of the Senate and opening the debate to Canadians is a great idea. We support that idea. When this bill fails, as it is likely to do, perhaps the government will consider that to be a better way to go about this exercise. This is a better way to determine which direction we should take. My colleagues can rest assured the people actually can make choices. They have the capacity to look at what is going on and make good choices.
Having spoken to the general direction of the Senate, this bill purports to make changes to the Senate to give us exactly what I am not sure. I am not sure what the government's vision of the Senate would be after the bill passed, which is very unlikely, or what its vision of the Senate should be.
The Prime Minister uses the Senate as an instrument of control over the democratic process in this House. Would the changes made in the bill increase the Prime Minister's use of the Senate? Would it become even more of a tool for parties to use when they are in government? Or when a party is thrown out of government, would that party use the Senate as a tool to subvert the democratic will of the House of Commons?
Four years from now after the next election when the people have turfed out the present government but it has a very large majority in the Senate, I can see a situation where things could be made very difficult for a new direction for Canada. I do not want that.
I am not here to create a situation where those who are not in power have their hands around the throats of those who have been democratically elected to represent the people of Canada. I am not interested in that. I hope the other side is not interested in that either. I appeal to hon. members as Canadians to think about that. When Canadians make a choice, that choice should be represented in the House of Commons and not in the Senate.
What do we see in the proposed changes to the Senate? All senators would be restricted to a single nine-year term. They would need to be registered with a political party in order for people to vote for them in the elections that would be held in the provinces. People would have to register, for example, as a Conservative, a Liberal, a New Democrat or a Green Party. However, once they were elected, it would be for one electoral term and that is it.
Where is the recourse of the voter to senators? They would be in there for nine years. They would be under the direction of the government or the opposition, whichever party they were registered with. How would that work for sober second thought, for careful delineation of what is going on in the House, for advice given to the House, for supporting the democratic process in the House? How would that actually help? Where is the vision?
The Prime Minister would not be required to appoint any of the people elected by the provinces through registered parties. The Prime Minister could make his choice.
We really have changed nothing. If the Prime Minister did not like a particular candidate, he could ignore the person throughout his time in office. If it does not extend to six years and the Prime Minister is thrown out after the next election, perhaps that person who was elected by the people in the region would have a chance to be appointed by the new prime minister. As long as that happened within the next few years, they would have that opportunity. If not, good-bye to the voters' intent to put somebody in to represent them.
If the Senate is to represent the regions and the only way people can get elected to the Senate is to be part of a registered political party, and once they are in there, they still must be appointed by a prime minister, I just do not see how that would push forward the regional issues that someone who is actually elected by the region to represent the region would be in a position to do so. I think it would leave that senator much indebted to the political party and very little indebted to the region that will never get vote for him or her again anyhow.
Those are some of the provisions that the Conservatives have put forward to change the Senate.
What do we see? Not much of this will make a difference to what is happening now. It will not make a difference to the fact that the Senate is now being used to subvert the will of the majority in this House of Commons, which happened in the last two years. Nothing will stop that. If the government does not succeed in being re-elected four years from now, it will have a stranglehold over in the Senate. We will fight our way through that, as a new government, with extreme difficulty. That will become a vehicle for non-change and a vehicle for continuing the will of a government past its time, which is unfortunate to a Canadian democracy. That will not work.
The Conservatives railed at the Liberal senators for three years, until they got a majority. They hated them. They said that they were always standing in their way and always making it more difficult for them. What were they going to do? They were going to perpetuate, through this legislation, the continuation of that problem that the Conservatives saw very clearly when they started their time as government.
Where is their vision? What is their vision for the Senate of Canada? They should tell us.
However, like most legislation that the Conservatives put forward, they do not put a vision forward with it. They are scared to do that. They are scared to tell us what they are really thinking and what they really want for this country, which is unfortunate because this country needs leadership and direction right now. They need to work to make things better.
However, the only way we will do that is with disclosure, with understanding. When we do not have it, this will not work.
Mr. Tom Lukiwski (Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to enter into the debate on Bill C-7, Senate Reform Act.
First, I tend to share some of the feelings that members opposite may have about the Senate because I was there at one time. Before I was first elected to this place in 2004, I had many misgivings about the Senate in its current form. I did not know, frankly, whether the Senate actually served any useful purpose. I was not sure whether the Senate should still remain as an institution in our democratic system or whether it should be abolished. However, it was not really until I came to this place that I started to more fully understand what the Senate was, what it did and the benefits it could provide to Canadians and to our democratic institution.
I am now firmly of the belief that the Senate plays a very important role in Parliament and should not be abolished, but it needs to be reformed. That is what Bill C-7 intends to do, to make some incremental preliminary steps to reform this institution, to make it a more democratic, more accountable system in today's society.
This debate will also serve the purpose of perhaps, and hopefully, pointing out to Canadians what the Senate actually does and how it works on their behalf.
We have seen in news stories emanating out of New Brunswick today that New Brunswick Premier Alward has stated that he wants to see democratic consultations on Senate appointments made in New Brunswick. He believes New Brunswick will need a strong, regional representative voice in the Senate should our Parliament go forward with expanding the number of seats in the House of Commons.
I think most members of this place know that one of the primary functions of Senate is to provide that regional representation in the House and in Parliament.
I can point to a very quick example in my own province of Saskatchewan many years ago of where this regional representation really came into play. Back 40 or 50 years, there was a Liberal government of the day. Unfortunately for the government it had no elected Liberal members of Parliament from the province of Saskatchewan. Therefore, Saskatchewan had no effective representation in Parliament, at least in the House of Commons.
The prime minister of the day appointed a Saskatchewan Liberal senator by the name of Hazen Argue to cabinet and made him the minister of agriculture. in that fashion, Saskatchewan had representation. That is probably the most glaring and best example of how the Senate and senators can represent their region in Parliament.
Beyond the regional representation, on many occasions I have seen senators provide very useful services and provide a very important function to Parliament. We have seen, time and time again, where senators start to examine bills that have been passed by our Parliament, by the House of Commons. After due diligence and post-examination of some of those bills, Senate reports have come back recommending amendments or changes or improvements to legislation, which in fact have strengthened the bill.
There is a reason why the Senate is called the chamber of sober second thought. It allows that second set of eyes to examine legislation that is brought forth from this place.
I could go on with many more examples of why the Senate is a useful institution, but I want to concentrate on two elements of the Senate that I think need reform. Those two areas are what Bill C-7 purports to do.
As we all know, currently senators are appointed. They are appointed by the Governor General. Many people think it is the Prime Minister who appoints senators to the Senate. That is not correct. The Prime Minister provides advice to the Governor General who then makes the appointments. However, one of the reasons I think Canadians have been so upset over the years with Senate appointments is that on many occasions senators have been appointed for purely partisan reasons.
If people have been good soldiers for a political party that happens to be in power at the time, whether they have been local campaign workers and good volunteers or have been fundraisers over time, it seems, on many occasions, that their reward for all of this partisan work on behalf of the political party they represented was an appointment to the Senate. Too many times we have seen blatant partisan appointments where the competency, the integrity and the independence of that senator comes into question, and rightfully so.
With Bill C-7, what we purport to do is allow Canadians to have a direct input into the Senate appointments coming out of their region. Let me be clear. We are not talking about direct Senate elections. That would require constitutional change. We are not talking about a system in which Canadians would elect a senator, where on the results of that election, they would automatically go to the Senate. The legislation does not intend to do that. We do not want to reopen the Constitution. We do not want to try to engage provinces and others in constitutional discussions about revamping the Constitution to allow for direct Senate elections. What we are however talking about is allowing Canadians in various regions the ability and opportunity to voice their opinion on who they would like to see as their senator or senators.
How would we do this? It is quite simple. Each province has the ability and flexibility to set up a process for consultation. They could have an election, if they want to call it an election, in which the voters of particular region or province would cast a ballot, usually in conjunction with a provincial election or a federal election, and then the people who would come out of that consultation process or election would have their names given to the Prime Minister with a recommendation that the next appointments to the Senate should be that person or persons. However, it would still be up to the Prime Minister and the Governor General to make the official appointments.
In other words, provinces would be able to hold a consultation process to seek the input from their citizens on who they would like to see as their senator. That name would then be passed along to the Prime Minister, who would then have the ability to either suggest that name to the Governor General for appointment, or reject that name.
Let us be quite clear that any prime minister would be walking a very thin political line if he or she did not take the advice of the provinces on the choice they wanted or had made in terms of Senate appointments. A prime minister could ignore the advice of the province and appoint someone else. That would be within his or her purview, but the prime minister of the day would be doing that at his or her political peril if he or she did not follow the consultation process that the provinces had set out.
The beauty of this is that it would not require a constitutional amendment because the Prime Minister and the Governor General, as they have always done, would be the ones who would make the final appointment. It is just that in this fashion they would be able to take advice from provinces on who the appointment should be.
This is a very important first step in democratic reform of the Senate. Why? Should this legislation pass, for the first time Canadians will have the ability to directly consult with their citizens and will have a direct opportunity and have a hand in the appointment process.
We have seen and heard time and time again from Canadians that they do not believe the Senate serves any useful purpose because there is no accountability and because appointments are made for partisan purposes and for no other reason. The consultation process that we are bringing forward in the legislation would provide accountability because the citizens of each province would have direct input into the senators who would represent their interests. Accountability is paramount is a democratic institution. It is certainly paramount in determining which senators represent which regions.
I do not think there can be any hesitation on behalf of Canadians. In fact, most of the polling data that I have seen seems to indicate that Canadians from coast to coast to coast are very much in favour of having some form of direct input on senatorial appointments. I believe this would be a process that would find Canadians approving of the attempts by the Prime Minister and the government to reform the Senate and allow accountability to finally come into the Senate.
I could talk about a few other matters that are important with the consultation process, but I should also point out that most of the provinces are onside with this. Most of them have either changed or introduced legislation to allow for some form of consultation process or have at least indicated that they would be willing to entertain such a system. Saskatchewan has already brought forward legislation that would allow for the consultation process to take place, Alberta has had this consultation process established for a number of years. Several other provinces have indicated their willingness to enter into such a process so they would be able to engage their citizens in a discussion and ultimately an election or referendum of sorts to give to the Prime Minister a name or names of possible Senate appointments.
I want to also point out that the legislation would allow individual provinces the flexibility to establish this consultation process however they wish. In other words, a province may want to have a consultation process wherein a first-past-the-post system would be established and the name of person who received the greatest number of votes would be suggested to the Prime Minister for appointment purposes. However, another province may want to have a preferential balloting system, if there were multiple openings for the Senate.
The flexibility remains with the provinces to determine how they wish to consult with their citizens. It would not force the provinces to follow a set-in-stone path for the consultation process. I believe this is one of the reasons why most of the provinces have tended to agree with our attempts to reform the Senate because they would have a direct say in these democratic reforms.
The appointment process is one of the elements of Bill C-7, which is the ability for provinces to have a direct say in the appointment process for senators. However, I believe the second part is also extremely important, and that is setting term limits for senators.
I mentioned at the outset that I had some concerns before I came to this place about the Senate itself. One of my concerns was that beyond being appointed for purely partisan reasons, senators could be appointed for an extended period of time and there was no recourse. Outside of perhaps being charged and convicted criminally, once an individual was appointed to the Senate, that person was there for up to 45 years potentially. One could be appointed at 30 years old, with 75 years of age being the mandatory retirement age for senators. For that period of time, unless someone appointed to the Senate did something against the law or contravened the Constitution, a person could remain there and the government or citizenship would have absolutely no ability to remove the individual.
I think we all recall a story from a number of years ago that got great play in Canadian newspapers and media. There was a senator who had been in the Senate for several decades, and his attendance record was absolutely abysmal. This senator actually spent more time in Mexico than he did in the Senate. If memory serves me well, in the last year of that senator's duration, he had spent fewer than five days actually in the Senate. In other words, he showed up for work on fewer than five days out of a year. Eventually, once the story became public, the Senate took steps, and that senator eventually was forced to resign.
However, the fact of the matter is that constitutionally, once people are appointed to the Senate, there is no way to either reprimand them or force them to resign should they not be doing their job, and that is something I do not think most Canadians can abide by. I certainly cannot see the rationale behind allowing someone to be appointed at age 30 and then serve until age 75 with absolutely no accountability or recourse.
In this legislation, we are suggesting that senators would be appointed for a nine-year term, and for only nine years. They could not be reappointed. In other words, if a senator were to run in a provincial consultation process and ultimately be appointed to the Senate, if that senator wanted to run again after nine years, he or she could not do so. The only flexibility built into that system would be that if the senators, once appointed, had to resign because of, for example, medical issues, they could run again in their province and perhaps be reappointed, but only to serve out the remainder of their nine years. In other words, whether it was an interrupted term or a consecutive term, nine years would be the absolute limit.
Why is that important? It's very important because it would allow those senators to be beholden to the people of the region rather than to the people who appointed them.
As an explanation, right now we have people who have been appointed for partisan reasons. Who are they responsible and loyal to? Human nature being what it is, they are probably going to be more loyal to the person who appointed them than to the people they are supposed to be representing.
If senators were appointed for a nine-year term and appointed based on some consultations with the people of their region, in my view they would be more loyal to the people who appointed them. If they were only there for nine years with no chance of being reappointed, those senators would not have to curry favour with the Prime Minister or anyone else, because they would know that at the end of nine years, their terms would be done. Those senators would be there for a finite period of time and to represent the wishes of their region. That is what the Senate is supposed to be all about.
In conclusion, let me just say that while I believe there are more reforms needed in today's Senate, these two steps, as small and incremental as they may be, would be the first steps toward a total and needed reform of the Senate. I would ask all members to please get behind these reforms, get behind Bill C-7 and show Canadians that while we understand the role the Senate can play, we understand the need for reform.
Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-7, An Act respecting the selection of senators and amending the Constitution Act, 1867 in respect of Senate term limits.
I begin by acknowledging the work that the member for Hamilton Centre has done on Senate and democratic reform over a number of years. He has spoken quite clearly regarding our opposition to the bill for a number of good reasons.
The members who have risen to speak to the bill have stated that this is an opportunity to raise awareness regarding the Senate as well as some of the issues we face when discussing the bill. Therefore, I will take this opportunity to refer to the legislative summary for Bill C-7 wherein there are a couple of key points I want to raise.
It states in the background that the Prime Minister made an appearance before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform in September 2006 wherein he spoke of a step-by-step process for Senate reform. The process involved legislation to introduce short senatorial terms that would be followed by legislation to establish an advisory or consultative election process for senators on a national level.
As well, the summary states that Bill C-7 sets out a model statute that prescribes an electoral process which provinces and territories may choose to adopt. It is the word “may” that is a sticking point.
It also states that the provinces and territories may select senatorial nominees and submit them to the Prime Minister who would be obligated to consider them in making his or her recommendations to the Governor General for appointment to the Senate. Again, the word “may” is a critical part of this conversation.
We have heard the parliamentary secretary say that the provinces are largely getting on board. We know that simply is not true. The Ontario and Nova Scotia premiers have openly called for the abolition of the Senate. The B.C. premier has stated that the Senate no longer plays a useful role in Confederation. Manitoba has maintained its position on Senate abolition. However, if the bill goes forward, it will prepare legislation to deal with the outcome of the bill. Quebec has called the legislation unconstitutional and has said it will launch a provincial court appeal if the bill proceeds without consultation of the provinces.
The legislation is being touted as the forerunner of great Senate reform yet the provinces may or may not be on board. It appears that they have not been consulted in depth.
The summary also states:
|| It should be noted that the bill imposes no obligation on provinces or territories to establish a selection process for Senate nominees modelled on the framework as set out in the schedule. It provides provinces and territories with an opportunity to propose qualified individuals to the prime minister, who must consider--but is not bound to accept--the names of the persons proposed. The bill effectively sets out an optional alternative to the current selection process. If a particular province or territory chooses to take no action, the current process--whereby the prime minister alone selects Senate nominees--would continue.
The bill highlights several other issues regarding this supposed great Senate reform. First, the Prime Minister is not required to accept the nominees suggested by the provinces. We heard government members say that the Prime Minister would honour that process, but there is nothing in the legislation stating that.
We heard the parliamentary secretary speak to the partisan process currently in place. We have seen its track record over the last five years, wherein Conservative Party candidates who were defeated in elections were appointed to the Senate. We have seen party officials appointed to the Senate. There is nothing in the legislation to prevent the government from continuing to recommend partisan appointments if the provinces choose not to engage in the process as it is outlined.
New Democrats support abolition of the Senate. It is difficult to see how Senate reform would be mandated in the context of this legislation when it contains so many loopholes.
In terms of history and background, proposals for Senate reform have been ongoing since 1887. I will touch on a few of those.
During the first interprovincial conference of 1887, provincial premiers passed a resolution proposing that half the members of the Senate be appointed by the federal government and the other half by the provincial governments.
In 1972, a special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons report recommended that senators continue to be nominated by the federal government but that half of them be appointed by a panel of nominees submitted by the provincial and territorial governments.
In 1979, the Task Force on Canadian Unity recommended the abolition of the Senate and the establishment of the Council of the Federation to be composed of provincial delegations led by a person of ministerial rank or by the premier of a province.
In 1984, the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and of the House of Commons on Senate Reform recommended that senators be directly elected.
The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada recommended that senators be elected and those elections be held simultaneously with elections to the House of Commons.
Finally, in 1992, the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on a Renewed Canada recommended the direct election of senators under a proportional representation system. There were a number of other proposals in between.
I mention those recommendations to point out that Senate reform is not a new conversation in the House.
The bill before us reflects some of those recommendations in terms of an electoral process. Substantial work has been done and therefore, it would seem appropriate on the basis of this work to go back to the Canadian people to discuss what it is they want in terms of a Senate. Do they want it abolished? Do they want Senate reform? Do they want an electoral process? Do they want to minimize the Prime Minister's influence on those appointments? The amount of work that has been done, and the fact that virtually no change has occurred as a result of it, shows that there is an appetite for looking at the Senate seriously. Whether this bill is the way to do it is the question.
I mentioned that there has been virtually no reform since 1867, but there has been one, which has been mentioned in the legislative summary, that has affected the tenure of senators. In 1965, the British North America Act was amended to establish a retirement age of 75 for senators. Prior to that reform they were allowed to serve for life. Despite the dissatisfaction that has been raised with this long-standing institution's performance, there has been no other reform introduced since that time.
We have heard the conversation surrounding constitutional amendment. The legislative summary is not clear regarding whether this will require constitutional amendment. It is important that Canadians be made aware of the two opinions that exist on this.
Professor Patrick Monahan, a constitutional law specialist who was vice-president, academic and provost of York University, believes that a non-binding election for the nomination of senators would not need a constitutional amendment. It should be noted that certain changes are possible in federal institutions without formal constitutional amendment, such as the appointment of senators on the basis of non-binding elections.
Of course there is an opposing opinion. It has been suggested that this advisory or consultative election process may constitute an alteration to the method of selection of senators, in which case an amendment to the Constitution Act, 1867 would be required. In accordance with paragraph 42(1)(b) and section 30 of the Constitution Act, 1982, any such constitutional amendment would require the concurrence of at least seven provinces, representing at least 50% of the population.
Despite the government's assurance that no constitutional amendment would be required, constitutional experts disagree. It begs the question as to whether or not we will end up in some sort of long legal wrangling over that.
There have been arguments raised in favour of term limits for senators. Regarding term limits the legislative summary states:
|| Term limits could enhance the prime ministerial power of appointment, eroding the independence of the Senate and its sober second thought function as well as its historical role of protecting regional and provincial interests. As previously noted, prime ministers with a majority government lasting two or more terms could conceivably fill all or most Senate seats by the time they left office, effectively controlling the Senate. This would also exacerbate political partisanship in the Senate, further eroding the Senate’s capacity for independent and thorough legislative review and regional and provincial representation.
In the context of this bill and the many assurances offered by the government as to how it would deal with some of the challenges, including partisanship, there are simply far too many questions remaining to actually satisfy the concerns that have been raised.
Part of what the New Democrats are calling for is a process to engage Canadians in discussions involving democratic and Senate reform. Although the 43rd report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs did not deal specifically with Senate reform, I will quote one paragraph which deals with the importance of engaging Canadians when talking about reforms of this magnitude.
|| Despite different approaches to the study of electoral reform, it is clear that no contemplated change can be done without citizen engagement. A successful consultation strategy will ensure that the process is, and is seen to be, objective, transparent and accountable. Citizen engagement also gives legitimacy to the recommendations that are made. The electoral system must reflect the views, the priorities, and the values of Canadians, and their involvement is essential.
Therefore, when we are talking about Senate reform, it is essential that we engage Canadians in the conversation rather than hammer through a bill that could affect the democratic process we have in place. New Democrats have consistently called for democratic reform. We believe there should be a system of proportional representation in the House. It is important that the bill be taken off the table and that we engage Canadians.
Members on the other side constantly say that in the last election they were given a mandate to establish this kind of reform. I would argue that as members of Parliament we have a due diligence to consider the legislation that comes before us.
We must also consider whether Canadians are actually in favour of it. To state that an election process stipulates that Canadians are in favour of all aspects of a legislative agenda a government chooses to bring forward simply is not true. If that were the case, that government would be required to present that agenda to Canadians at that time. That does not happen, nor is it realistic.
On July 6, 2011, Deborah Coyne wrote an article entitled, “The wrong road to Senate reform”. Although I do not necessarily agree with her approach and what she says regarding Senate reform, she does make a couple of valid points about this piece of legislation. She states:
||....the Conservative government is misleading Canadians into believing that mere tinkering with a Senate structure dating back to the 19th century – establishing nine-year term limits and à la carte elections – is sufficient.
She goes on to say:
|| Senate reform is too important a component of any serious plan for improving the functioning of Canadian democracy to be left to the legislative fiat of shortsighted politicians. Rather, the people of Canada must be directly engaged in the debate over this vital issue, and must ultimately be consulted through a national referendum.
|| Due to an insufficient amount of democratic legitimacy in Senate, our national leaders have increasingly deferred to provincial premiers on matters of national concern in unaccountable federal-provincial negotiations. The national interest is too often equated with the haphazard sum of disparate provincial-government interests, dependent on highly improbable provincial-government co-operation for even the minimum national standards or actions.
|| The result is a lack of national action on climate change, an increasing patchwork of health-care policies, the absence of a national clean-energy strategy, a crumbling national infrastructure, and a stalemate on pension reform. This ongoing drift toward national incoherence has not only failed Canadians, but has also led to Canada’s increasing insignificance on the global stage. Among other things, we are ignored during international climate-change discussions, and are no longer considered worthy of a UN Security Council seat. Furthermore, with our recent infamous UN vote blocking the addition of asbestos to the list of hazardous chemicals, we have relegated Canada to the sidelines of history on this issue, further devaluing the Canadian perspective on the international stage....
|| To engage Canadians, we must take the Senate-reform debate to the people, and away from the day-to-day operations of Parliament. A non-partisan commission of informed Canadians should be tasked with holding hearings across the country to listen to Canadians, explain the issues at stake, and discuss possible options for reform.
New Democrats would like to see one of those possible options of reform as abolition.
She goes on in her article to state:
|| Any proposal that the commission makes must then be made available for Canadians to vote on in a national referendum. Ratification cannot be left only to the first ministers, since they are able to stifle all possible progress in the national interest....
In closing she states:
|| [The] Prime Minister...has made the disingenuous claim that the May 2 election somehow performed the function of a referendum, and that, in that “referendum,” Canadians provided the Conservatives with a strong mandate for their Senate tinkering. Our national representatives need to be reminded that, at all times – whether during, or in between, elections – they govern in trust for the people of Canada. It is their democratic responsibility to engage Canadians in fundamental debates, and they cannot shirk this responsibility for the sake of convenience.
I think that says it far better than any of us in this House have so far about the importance of engaging Canadians.
In closing, I would refer to a speech of February 10, 2011 by Jack Layton called “Canada's Senate: Second thoughts about sober second thought”. I want to raise this because he talked about a number of democratic reforms that should be required, including true implementation of the accountability act and proportional representation. He also talked about what the current Senate appointments have done to very important pieces of legislation in Canada. I quote from Jack's speech:
|| Last fall, the Conservative-dominated Senate was used to veto legislation the Prime Minister simply didn’t like. The Climate Change Accountability Act was Canada’s only federal climate change legislation. It passed twice in a minority Parliament. It was good, solid legislation—supported by a majority of elected MPs. Legislation embodying the direction Canadians want to take. But on November 16, 2010, the Senate defeated Bill C-311 at second reading. No committee review. No witness hearings. Canada’s only legislative effort to fight climate change—gone
Of course, we have seen other circumstances where the Senate has disregarded the will of the House. I think it is a good reminder that the Senate has a kind of influence that people would think is undemocratic because of the way the partisan appointments take place there.
Later in Jack's speech he said:
|| Real political reform, of course, involves more than just the Senate. To really change the way politics works, we need to reform the elected House as well. It’s up to all of us, in a minority Parliament, to make sure our political system works for the people we’re elected to serve. To bring Canadians back in touch...Let’s bring about the electoral reform New Democrats have been working for since the days of Ed Broadbent. Incorporating proportional representation would produce a fairer House that truly reflects the political choices of all Canadians. And it would bring us up to speed with most of the world’s democracies.
In conclusion, New Democrats simply cannot support the legislation that has been put forward. First of all, the legislation itself has no teeth because of the loose way it could be applied. It would allow a prime minister to continue to make partisan appointments, as he can currently. It does not engage Canadians in what could be a significant change to the way our democratic process works. It certainly does not go far enough in looking at the kind of electoral reform we need in this House. In the last election, only 39% of Canadians elected a majority government, which simply is not reflective of the will of the majority of Canadians.
I urge all members to say no to this legislation. I urge the government to do that kind of consultation process with Canadians. It is very important to the democratic process.
Mr. Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, as this is my first speech in this Parliament since the May election, I will take this opportunity to thank all the voters of the great constituency of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, for putting their faith in me for a third consecutive term. I will commit to them that I will continue to put their interest first in all that I do as their member of Parliament and as their humble and faithful servant.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the volunteers who worked so hard on the last campaign, either in the office, at the door or putting up signs in the over 15,000 square kilometres that encompasses our riding, from Rolly View to Genasee, from Buck Creek to Strachan, from Alhambra to Alix and all points in between. The job is daunting, to say the least. I am proud of each of them for exercising, not only their democratic right but for taking their responsibility so seriously that they got involved and participated more than just the act of voting.
I just returned to Ottawa last night from my home in Lacombe, Alberta, after this past weekend. I have been away for a couple of weeks. I was so glad on Thursday to step off the airplane into the fresh, crisp Alberta evening air. Right away, my senses were overcome as I could smell the wheat and barley dust in the air. The harvest is still in full swing. It took my memory back to the times when I was a child growing up on a farm in central Alberta and the salt of the earth people with whom I grew up and was surrounded by.
My memory also went back to a time when I was a little bit younger than I am now. I am still fairly young, at least I like to think so. To brought me back to a time when one of those fields was used for more than just growing a crop in Alberta. It was one of those fields that one could see clearly from the air when landing an airplane in Calgary. Etched into that field all those years ago, some 20, if not more, years ago, were three large letters, EEE for a triple-E Senate, back when the movement in Alberta to elect our senators was in full swing. I believe that field, at that time, or still does belong to now-Senator Bert Brown. I cannot think of a better use of a field, other than growing some wheat or barley.
This is the crux of my speech today. I am so proud as an Albertan and as a Canadian that this Parliament is moving forward to reform and enhance our democracy. The change is but a small step in implementation but a leap forward in making our democracy more accountable to the people it represents.
The 2011 Speech from the Throne reaffirmed the government's Senate reform priority and that our government would reintroduce this legislation, encourage provinces and territories that have yet to do so to hold elections for Senate nominees, and to limit those term lengths that they now enjoy.
In keeping with that commitment in the throne speech, on June 21, 2011, earlier this spring, our government introduced the Senate reform act that we are debating today.
There has been some criticism that the reforms do not go far enough and do not meet all the pillars of the triple-E Senate, for example, that the reforms constitute a major change in the Senate structure, that it should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, or that the changes may be unconstitutional or may change the Senate for the worse in the long run. I do not believe any of those are true.
These reforms are consistent with the government's incremental approach to reform and are completely within the jurisdiction of Parliament. While the bill encourages provinces and territories to hold elections for Senate nominees, it does not change the method of selection for senators. Moreover, it does not bind the Prime Minister or the Governor General when making appointments to the Senate.
Our government is approaching Senate reform in a step-by-step fashion in order to avoid the all-or-nothing confrontational approaches that have failed in the past.
One of the important initiatives in this bill, when implemented, is that our government would be very willing to consider other worthwhile proposals. If anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.
The government has encouraged the provinces and territories to implement a democratic process for the selection of Senate nominees. The Senate reform act would provide a voluntary framework for provinces to implement a democratic process that enables voters to select nominees to represent them, their province and their region in the Senate.
The act would include a voluntary schedule based on Alberta's senatorial selection act, which would set out a basis for provinces to enact these democratic processes. As we said, Alberta already has established a democratic process for the selection of senators in which we have seen most recently the appointment of Senator Bert Brown in 2007.
However, it would require the Prime Minister to consider the recommended names from a list of elected Senate nominees when making or recommending Senate appointments. In Alberta, for example, there is some criticism. The Edmonton Journal has led the way in speaking out against our reforms by printing an op-ed by the hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville and a negative editorial. On the other hand, our former premier, Don Getty, says that the reforms do not go far enough to bring democracy to the Senate.
Despite those criticisms, much of which is hypothetical and speculatory, the one thing that is standard across the board is that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Everyone agrees that it has to be reformed. We just simply may disagree right now on how to go about it.
Generally speaking, our reforms have been perceived to be balanced, moderate and reasonable. We are not going so far as to suggest that it should be abolished. I do not think the Conservatives like to tear down their house before seeing if they can fix it first. However, members of the New Democratic Party and the member for Hamilton Centre specifically, have been very vocal on that point.
We are acting on what I think everyone agrees must happen but we need to change things up. We need to make it more democratic and accountable and that the status quo simply cannot continue. Our government received a strong mandate from Canadians to reform the Senate and to implement our Senate reform commitments. We were very clear, not only in this past election campaign but in every election campaign in which I have been involved as a Conservative candidate, that we would bring democratic reform to the Senate.
The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Senate suffers because senators have no democratic mandate from Canadians and can serve terms as long as 45 years. I have been here for almost six years and have served as an executive member of the NATO parliamentary assembly. I am an executive member of the interparliamentary union of 144 countries that get together to discuss how to enhance their parliaments and democratic processes and I am continuously amazed when parliamentarians from places like Mexico, Indonesia, Poland and even Australia are amazed that Canada does not have an elected Senate.
The Senate reform act would change that. It also would change how long senators can sit in the upper chamber. We have specifically chosen terms that are long enough to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate as a chamber of sober second thought while still providing regular renewal in Senate membership. Limiting Senate tenure is within Parliament's exclusive constitutional authority under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and is similar to an amendment passed by the Pearson government in 1965, which also reduced the tenure of senators.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that our government is prepared to be flexible in the consideration of amendments to Senate term lengths so long as any amendment does not undermine the principle of the bill. By proposing a nine year term, our government has already demonstrated that it can be flexible in the details of the bill. However, we would not accept a length of term that was so long that it would defeat the purpose of the bill, which is to ensure that the Senate is refreshed with new ideas and perspectives on a regular and ongoing basis.
As the Prime Minister stated when he appeared before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, the fact that senators can be and occasionally are appointed for terms of 15, 30 or even 45 years is just not acceptable today to the broad mainstream of the Canadian community.
Our position has been supported by many of Canada's leading constitutional authorities, as well as the Senate Special Committee on Senate Reform, but that is not what the opposition would like Canadians to believe.
Our minister has met with opposition critics in the House and discussed Senate reform broadly. The NDP's former leader and the member for Hamilton Centre always maintained a strict Senate abolitionist position as their preferred and ultimate goal. While they have stated publicly that some reform is better than no reform, I fully expect that the NDP will oppose the bill.
The Liberal critic, the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, is highly knowledgeable on the file and has expressed specific concerns, all of which have been publicly dealt with. The Liberals are concerned that a dispute resolution mechanism between the two chambers does not exist. They claim that other conventional and constitutional tools necessary to deal with changed circumstances with Senate reform would cause numerous problems. They oppose incremental reform and argue that the provinces must be consulted and that this legislation should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada before proceeding. They have argued and prefer longer term limits than those proposed by the government, if and when they support term limits at all.
We expect Liberal senators to oppose and obstruct the legislation and to encourage Conservative senators with reservations about the bill to speak publicly and to oppose it. Furthermore, we expect the Liberals to profess support for wholesale Senate reform in general, but opposition to incremental reform through legislation such as this bill.
We have heard the opposition ask questions about these reforms affecting people representation within the Senate chamber. However, under the current appointment system, there is no guarantee that minority groups will be properly represented in the Senate. Our government is hopeful that women and minority candidates will participate fully in any selection process by putting their names forward as candidates.
Provincial political parties could play a role in the nomination of potential Senate nominees, as they do in the nomination process for members of the legislative assembly. The government hopes that parties will encourage the participation of groups that have been traditionally under-represented in our political institutions.
The Prime Minister's prerogative to recommend qualified individuals for appointment to the Senate would not be affected by any consultation process that may be implemented. Should the Prime Minister feel that it is necessary to take steps to address an imbalance in the representation of women or minority groups in the Senate, he or she would retain the power to do so.
I will now discuss what Senate reform has done in my home province of Alberta, but I will first talk about a very interesting thing that happened in my province this past weekend.
I congratulate Alison Redford, the premier-elect and now the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. She will be one of three women leading various provinces across our country in the very near future. I convey to her my congratulations and offer her goodwill as she takes on the task of taking over the helm of our province.
I also thank outgoing premier, Ed Stelmach, and his wife, Marie, for the decades of service they have given to Albertans. I wish them well as they move on to the next phase of their lives after the next provincial election.
Alberta has been ahead of the game for quite some time. We passed the senatorial selection act in 1989, an act that allows voters to select nominees through a democratic process. Under that act, the Government of Alberta submits the names of elected nominees to the federal government. The act does not require the prime minister or the governor general to appoint the individuals selected as nominees through the process.
We have had Senate selections in 1989, 1998 and 2004. Two senators have been appointed as a result of these processes: Stan Waters in 1990 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Bert Brown in 2007 by our current Prime Minister.
In Alberta, candidates for Senate nominees can run as independents or as candidates of a registered provincial political party. Recently, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives have nominated candidates in each of these selection processes. The Liberal Party of Alberta has not had and did not have any candidates in either the 1998 or the 2004 process. The New Democratic Party of Alberta, which has stated its preference for Senate abolition, has yet to endorse a candidate for a selection process.
In past processes, candidates have also been nominated under provincial parties formed specifically to contest Senate elections. For example, the Reform Party of Alberta supported candidates in the 1989 and 1998 selections but did not run in the 2004 selection process. Stan Waters was a Reform Party of Alberta candidate in 1989 and sat as a Reform Senator when he was appointed in 1990.
In other cases, candidates have run under provincial party banners that have no federal equivalent. In 2004, three candidates ran under the Alberta Alliance Party. The Alberta Alliance Party changed its name to the Wildrose Alliance when it merged with the Wildrose Party in 2008. Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith has indicated the party's plan to run full slate of candidates in the next senatorial selection process and has noted that the selections are one of the ways our regional issues can be most fairly represented.
The Canada West Foundation estimates that voter turnout for the 1998 process was about 30% overall. On average, voter turnout for the Senate vote was about 10% lower than ballots cast in municipal races.
In 2004 Alberta held its senatorial selection process in conjunction with the provincial general election. Previously, in 1998 and in 1989, these processes were held at the same time as general municipal elections.
Voter turnout for the 2004 senatorial selection process was nearly 44.2%. However, once rejected and spoiled ballots were considered, voter turnout for the senatorial process was closer to 35%. In comparison, voter turnout for the 2004 provincial general election was just over 44%.
I know what some rural Canadians are thinking. If Senate nominees are selected from provincial-wide constituencies, would candidates from urban centres not have an advantage over Canadians from rural areas?
I want to be very clear here. Our legislation improves the current consultation process in terms of Senate selections. Under the current method of selection, there is no guarantee that all regions in a province can be represented at the same time. However, the proposed bill empowers the provinces to implement a consultation process that will best meet the needs of its citizens. It will be up to each province to decide upon a process to ensure that all citizens in the provinces are properly represented.
The role of the Senate and the individual senators would not change as a result of this legislation. Senators will continue to play an important function in legislative review and their status will not be affected by whether they have been appointed directly or selected on the basis of popular consultation.
Similarly, the status of senators will not be affected by the type of electoral system that is used to select them. Over time, as more senators are appointed on the basis of a consultation process, it is our hope that the democratic legitimacy of the Senate as a whole will improve and that this would lay the basis for longer term future reform.
The bill does not provide funding for provincial or territorial consultation processes. Our government believes that provincial or territorial processes should be funded by provincial or territorial governments. For example, Alberta has held three consultation processes and the Government of Canada has never contributed funding. Alberta estimated that the cost of the most recent consultation process held in 2004 was approximately $1.6 million.
Our preference is Senate reform, not Senate abolition, like some of the opposition would suggest. That is why we acted quickly in reintroducing Senate reform legislation so the Senate would better reflect the values of Canada and Canadians in the 21st century.
On the equal part of the triple-E, we need more seats for the west. Across the country, there may be varying viewpoints, opinions and ideas on what to do with the Senate. These are all things for legitimate debate, but most important is the status quo. What we are doing today is simply no longer palatable to the Canadian public.
That is why we are proceeding with Senate reform that is reasonable and within the constitutional authority of Parliament. The federal government has to take a look at the processes that have worked for our provincial colleagues.
Alberta is firmly committed to an elected Senate and to Senate reform. Not only that, but Alberta has proven that democratic processes are feasible and possible, holding its first selections more than 20 years ago.
We in this party encourage all provinces to follow Alberta's lead and start electing their Senate representatives.
Mr. Dean Del Mastro (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, what a rare honour it is to follow the very astute comments by the member for Wetaskiwin. Did he not speak well? He spoke well in defending democracy, pushing toward updates and reasonable changes to our democracy.
Our party has been very clear that the economy and job creation are top priorities. Those are the priorities of the Conservative government. That is why we have taken Canada's economic action plan to the next step. That is why we unveiled advantage Canada way back in 2007 and started working on a framework and foundation that would guide Canada not just through good times but through tough times. Has that plan not worked well? That does not mean we do not continue to work toward improving this place. It does not mean we do not continue to work at making our streets and communities safer and that we do not try in every way possible to make Canada an even greater nation than it is today.
I am honoured to represent the electric city of Peterborough, Ontario and the great hard-working people of Peterborough. In fact, you, Mr. Speaker, represent the riding adjacent to mine. We share one of the most beautiful regions in the country. The Kawartha Lakes region is in the name of your riding, Mr. Speaker, but I have most of it in my back yard. However, we are not going to fight over that. The bottom line is we are very privileged to represent one of the truly great regions within Canada.
When I talk to people in my riding, they understand that the Senate needs to be changed, that it needs to be reformed and that we should constantly work to improve democracy in this country. One thing is clear. If we go back to 1867 and the foundation of this country, the Senate was prescribed in a given fashion. However, the country has matured. It has become a more mature democracy. We have seen reforms in many ways. In fact, we have seen Canada grow up. I would argue it is an experiment that continues to evolve, to become stronger and even more united. In fact, I would argue patriotism in this country and the identity behind the Canadian flag has never been more clear, passionate or stronger than it is today.
In May our government received a mandate; a strong, stable, national Conservative government was elected on May 2. It is a majority government, as the member for Kitchener—Conestoga correctly pointed out. One of the things we made very clear in the election campaign was that we would continue to fight for reform of the Senate.
New Democrats had a very confusing policy on the Senate. They said that they would come to Ottawa and fight for Senate abolition, but they cannot do that in isolation. They know that requires the agreement of the provinces. One of the key provinces that has voiced concerns over that is the province of Quebec. When the New Democrats take their Senate abolition message back to Quebec, I wonder what they are hearing from the provincial government and constituents in Quebec. I wonder what they are hearing because that is not what we are hearing. In fact, we are hearing that the Senate should be reformed, not abolished.
Our government has been clear about our commitment to bring reform to the Senate chamber. We pledged to do this and we are following through.
We believe the Senate can play an important role in our parliamentary system. It reviews statutes and legislation. It serves to represent regional and minority interests. It provides research and thoughtful recommendations to the members of the House. It can be a place where a broader range of experience and expertise can be brought to bear on the issues facing our country.
I heard a member point out that one cannot assume a position in the Senate until the age of 30 and felt that was discriminatory. I do not believe that is discriminatory when we look at the role the Senate plays. I was elected, I thought as quite a young person, at the age of 35, but I brought a considerable amount of experience, small business experience, charitable experience and experience on the farm growing up. I had a resumé of life experience that I could bring to bear.
I think the younger that members are, regardless of how intelligent or well intentioned they are, it is the life experiences they bring with them to Parliament, whether it is here in the House of Commons or in the Senate chamber, that allows them to be truly representative of a broader scope of people, but also to fully understand and comprehend the impact of the decisions that are made here in Parliament.
Unfortunately, the contributions of our Senate are overshadowed by the fact that senators are selected and appointed without a democratic mandate from Canadians. Their effectiveness and legitimacy suffer because they have no democratic mandate and they can serve as long as 45 years.
As I said, the Senate does good work. One of the most transformative and important reports to come out of the Senate in a very long time is the “Out of the Shadows at Last” report by Senator Keon and Senator Kirby, two very outstanding Canadians who worked very hard to bring forward their study on mental health and mental illness. From that our government acted. We put together a Canadian mental health strategy that is now working to organize and build capacity in that regard here in Canada. That is the kind of good work and the kind of solid report we see come out of the Senate. That is why there is value in what the Senate does.
Much of that work is overshadowed because the Senate is still stuck in 1867. Our government does not believe the current situation is acceptable in a modern representative democracy and neither do Canadians, certainly not the people of Peterborough.
Our government has long believed the Senate status quo is unacceptable and that it must change in order to reach its full potential as a democratic institution and a more legitimate chamber of this Parliament. The alternative is status quo. Canadians are with us in saying no to the status quo.
With the introduction of the Senate reform bill, our government is responding to the concerns of Canadians who made it clear that the status quo is simply not acceptable. If we are to begin the journey toward reform, we must do what we can within the scope of Parliament's authority.
Our government believes that Senate reform is needed now. We are committed to pursuing a practical and reasonable approach to reform that we believe will help restore effectiveness and legitimacy in the Senate. Canadians do not want a long drawn-out constitutional battle, as we have been down that road, especially when, as I said at the start of this speech, Parliament needs to focus on the well-being of the Canadian economy and on job creation. It does not mean that Parliament should not act, but a long drawn-out constitutional battle is not in our interest, nor in the provinces' interest, nor in the interest of any Canadians. These battles would detract from the government's focus in all areas.
Achieving the necessary level of provincial support for particular fundamental reforms is complex and lengthy with no particular guarantee of success. That is why we are moving forward with the Senate reform bill.
Through this bill, our government is taking immediate and concrete action to fulfill our commitment to Canadians to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of the upper chamber and to work co-operatively with the provinces and territories.
The bill provides a suggested framework for the provinces and territories that wish to establish democratic consultation processes to give Canadians a say in who represents them.
I have often said it is a real shame that many Canadians can name their member of Parliament, they can name other members of Parliament, they can name ministers and opposition critics, but many Canadians cannot name the senators who represent their province or any province. That points to a fundamental flaw in the current system. They are the people who are supposed to represent the regions, including Nickel Belt, for example.
The member who is arguing for abolition as I am speaking should know that the people from Nickel Belt can have representation in the Senate; they can have a say in who represents them in the Senate. It is important regional representation for northern Ontario. I hear from people in the north all the time that they feel they are under-represented in this place, that they are under-represented at the provincial level. The regional representation in the Senate can give them a voice, and they should have a say in who represents them there.
We have consistently encouraged provinces and territories to implement a democratic process for the selection of Senate nominees. The Senate reform bill gives clarity to our flexible approach.
The bill requires the Prime Minister to consider the names selected from democratic processes when making recommendations on appointments. It does not bind the Prime Minister or the Governor General when making Senate appointments, nor does it change the method of selection for senators.
The bill also contains a voluntary framework for provinces and territories to use as a basis for developing a democratic selection process to consult voters on the preferences for Senate nominees based on Alberta's senatorial selection act.
The framework is meant to facilitate development of provincial or territorial legislation. This is a co-operative venture. The provinces and territories can adapt the framework that best suits the needs of their unique circumstances. Built-in flexibility will further encourage provinces to provide a democratic consultation process to give greater voice to their citizens and the provinces in the Senate.
Our proposed approach has already been successful. In 2007 the Prime Minister recommended the appointment of Bert Brown to the Senate. He was chosen by Alberta voters in 2004, and I might add, ignored by the Liberal government that oversaw the selection process here in Ottawa. We thank Senator Brown for his tireless work for reform both inside and outside the Senate.
Alberta is not the only province, however, that has taken steps to facilitate this reform. In 2009 Saskatchewan passed its Senate nominee election act. In British Columbia the premier's parliamentary secretary has introduced a similar bill. Just on Saturday, October 1, Premier Alward of New Brunswick announced his government's support for our approach. We look forward to seeing New Brunswick take the steps toward Senate reform.
It is building. Provinces are taking up the challenge of improving our democracy. It is exciting. We encourage our colleagues in all provincial and territorial legislatures and assemblies to consider supporting and moving forward with similar initiatives.
In addition to encouraging the implementation of the democratic selection process for Senate nominees, the act would also limit Senate terms which can span several decades under the current rules. In fact, a term could be up to 45 years under the current rules. Polls have consistently shown that over 70% of Canadians support limiting senators' terms. This is quite different from some of the speeches we have heard in the Senate. I listened when senators who have served for decades reach the age of 75 and point out there is no legitimate reason for them to have to bow out from the job.
But there is a legitimate reason. I would hope that every member in the House would understand that it is not enough simply to be elected; it is not enough simply to be here. People have to contribute. They have to bring fresh ideas to the table. New people have to be given a chance to bring in new ideas. More people have to be given an opportunity to contribute toward this great country. That is one of the reasons term limits are so important.
The nine-year term would also apply to all senators appointed after October 2008, up to royal assent. The nine-year clock for those senators would start when this bill receives royal assent. The Senate reform act would keep the mandatory retirement age for senators in place. In 1965, Parliament introduced mandatory retirement at age 75 for senators. Prior to that, senators were appointed for life. This clearly demonstrates Parliament's authority to put these laws in place. In 2007 the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended that the mandatory retirement age of 75 be maintained while examining a previous Senate term limits bill.
Some opposition members argue that the bill presents a fundamental constitutional change requiring the support of the provinces. Personally I think they are entirely wrong, as do many others, including the provinces that are signing onto the bill and putting in place mechanisms to elect senators.
The Constitution also very clearly sets out those types of changes to the Senate that require some level of provincial consent. Our government has been careful to ensure that our approach to Senate reform falls within Parliament's constitutional jurisdiction.
I have listened to the speeches and questions from the opposition members and I have to say that they are missing the point. Our goal is to begin the reform process. We want to be as constructive as we can while ensuring that we move this place forward.
In contrast to the position of other parties, it is clear that our government's approach is the practical and reasonable way forward. It is the approach that can truly achieve results on behalf of every single Canadian in this country.
In fact, the stated positions of the opposition parties are essentially arguments in favour of the status quo. This is what is so dishonest about their approach. They understand full well that standing in this place and arguing anything other than this bill is in fact an argument for the status quo. It is an argument for the Senate to stay stuck in 1867. Their proposals would not achieve anything, and we would have no reform at all. That is not acceptable to Canadians.
The NDP, as I have said previously, would try to abolish the Senate. Canadians just do not support that kind of radical and fundamental change. There is no wide agreement among the provinces for that proposal. As I said earlier, I encourage the Quebec members to go to the National Assembly in Quebec City and see how much support they get for that position.
The position of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, has been to advocate for a process, not a result. How Liberal.
Perhaps we could have a summit. After the summit, we could have round tables. After the round tables, we could go to telephone consultation. After that, maybe we could do a mail-in campaign, and maybe sometime, a decade or two down the road, the Liberal Party might be prepared to act; we are not sure.
The Liberals do not support the reform of the Senate. That is the bottom line. The Liberals' 13-year record of inaction demonstrates their opposition. They have been clear about this, yet their suggestion is to open up the Constitution and begin a process that we know would end in bitter, drawn-out national conflict without Senate reforms being achieved.
We have seen how the Liberal Party responds whenever the Constitution is opened. It is simply to be contrarian. When we were seeking to bring Quebec into the Constitution, for example, when former Prime Minister Mulroney entered into constitutional reform, we know it was the Liberal Party that fought against it. We know it was the Liberal Party that was trying to tear down that House that would have, in my mind and in the minds of many others, put an end to the question of Canada being a country that spans from sea to sea to sea.
The Liberal approach is a recipe for accomplishing absolutely nothing while dragging us into a constitutional quagmire at a time when the government, the Liberal party, the New Democratic Party and all their members should be focused on the economy and jobs.
In conclusion, our government is dedicated to reforming the Senate so that it better reflects the values of hard-working Canadians across the country.
My constituents tell me that they want change. I believe that the time for change in the Senate has come. With the Senate reform act, our government is presenting modest but important and attainable changes that would improve the Senate by providing it with greater legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.
Every member in this House has the opportunity to do something truly historic, something fundamental to our democratic process. They have the opportunity to bring the Senate, even if just marginally, into the 21st century to begin the process of reform.
We see what happens when we introduce democracy into the parliamentary system or into the governing systems of countries. It becomes infectious. People demand more democracy. They want even greater participation in their political process.
Every member in this House has the opportunity to do something historic, to give something to their constituents that they have never had before: a say in who represents them.
Can members imagine that in the 21st century in Canada we have a political body structured such that the people we all represent have no say in who represents them?
Let us do something historic. Let us support this bill. Let us move forward. Let us reform the Senate. Let us make Canada an even stronger and better country than it is today.
That is the charge I put to every member of this House.
Mr. Claude Gravelle (Nickel Belt, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, since this is my first speech in the House of Commons in the 41st Parliament, I would like to thank the people of Nickel Belt for returning me to this House of Commons. I am grateful to the people from as far west as Foleyet, to the east of Garden Village, from the south in Killarney, and to the north of Capreol and River Valley, for returning me to this House.
One of their reasons for returning me to this House of Commons is due to the fine work that my staff is doing in Nickel Belt. I would like to thank them in this House, including Carmen McMurray in Nickel Belt and Val Caron, Ghislaine Millette in Val Caron, and Mona Noël and Don Pitre in Sturgeon Falls. I would like to thank them for the fine work they are doing.
Some of the reasons why we were re-elected to this House of Commons are because the people of Nickel Belt are more concerned about unemployment, health care, education and about their mothers, fathers and grandfathers. They are not too concerned about Senate reform. They are concerned about the things that affect them and Senate reform certainly does not affect them.
I am happy to rise in the House today to speak about the important principles of democratic reform and accountability.
I know the citizens of my riding of Nickel Belt want an electoral system where people are made to feel their vote counts. They want to feel good about government again, to see it as truly representative of them, and to feel they have a choice.
Five years ago, our Prime Minister was opposition leader. He recognized how wrong the unelected Senate was. He called it unfair and undemocratic. He called an appointed Senate a relic of the 19th century. Then, as opposition leader, he clearly did not like how the Prime Minister held a virtual free hand in the selection of senators and he made a promise that, as Prime Minister he would not name appointed people to the Senate. Sadly, we have seen another broken promise. Instead of fixing the problem with the Senate, the Conservative government has made the problem worse.
Consider the evidence. The Prime Minister now holds the all-time record for appointing the largest number of senators in one day. He has appointed Conservative Party faithful, spin doctors, fundraisers and insiders, his former Conservative Party president, his former national campaign director, and several defeated Conservative candidates. What more evidence do we need than seeing the architect of the Conservative notorious in and out scheme currently sitting in the Senate? Unnecessary Conservative senators spend their time voting down laws passed by elected members of the House of Commons, while burning through taxpayers' dollars to travel the country fundraising for the Conservative Party of Canada. Talk about doing politics differently; it is more of the same old, same old as we saw with the previous Liberal government.
Last fall, we watched in shame as the Conservative-dominated Senate was used to veto legislation that the Prime Minister simply did not like. The Climate Change Accountability Act, introduced by my colleague from northern Ontario, the hon. member for Thunder Bay—Superior North, was passed twice in a minority Parliament. Elected members representing Canadians passed the bill. A majority of elected MPs supported that legislation twice. Tragically, on November 16, 2010, the Senate, with its Conservative appointees, defeated Bill C-311 on second reading. There was no community discussion in the Senate and no witnesses. It was killed by unelected friends of the Prime Minister.
Unfortunately, the government's legislation related to the Senate is not about real democratic reform or delivering on commitments of accountability. New Democrats are talking about real democratic reform. We are calling for the abolition of the Senate. Canadians have had enough. The Senate has to go. Most Canadians would not miss it. Recent polling shows that only 18% approve of the actions of the Senate. Unfortunately, today's senators are too often partisan, working for their parties while being paid with public money. No sober second thought can come from unelected appointees with such obvious conflicts of interest.
Then there is the waste of money in the unelected Senate because Canadians are paying more and more for a discredited institution that does less and less at a time when people are dealing with slow economic recovery and the Conservative government is contemplating billions in cutbacks. Maintaining the Senate costs Canadians around $19 million a year. While folks are looking for jobs, trying to make ends meet when their EI runs out and scraping by on pensions that do not even cover basic necessities, senators are earning $132,000 a year for a three-day work week. Travel and expenses for senators cost $859,000 a year for an institution that will not play any relevant role in the lives of most Canadians.
I can think of a lot of things that matter to people, like creating family-supporting jobs, improving public health care, and building a decent future for our kids. Lining the pockets of party insiders probably is not high on anyone's list. I repeat that New Democrats want the Senate abolished. That has been the position of the New Democratic Party and its predecessors since 1930, and we are not alone.
The Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, and the Premier of Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter, have publicly called for the Senate to be abolished. The Premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, has said she does not think it serves a useful purpose within Confederation. Manitoba also maintains its position in favour of abolishing the Senate. Quebec has called this bill unconstitutional. The provincial government has said it would appeal the matter in court if this bill passes without prior consultation with the provinces.
We know real democratic reform is not achieved by tinkering with how senators are appointed or chosen from the provinces. We will need to introduce fair voting and proportional representation where the franchise of every voter is respected. We are calling on government to hold a referendum asking the Canadian public whether they support abolishing the Senate.
Today, I am asking the Prime Minister to start with two modest but vital first steps. First, I am asking the Prime Minister to stop appointing failed candidates and party insiders to the Senate. I am asking him to reach out to Canadians by making that a firm commitment.
Second, I am asking the Prime Minister to work with me to ensure all senators are banned from fundraising for political parties. No sober second thought can come from unelected appointees with such an august conflict of interest. It makes a joke of our democratic system, and it is not fair to Canadians.
In the long run, New Democrats remain firmly committed to following other modern democracies, as well as Canada's provinces, by abolishing the upper house and continuing to call for a pan-Canadian referendum to allow Canadians to provide a mandate on how to proceed.
We, as New Democrats, want Canadians to feel good about government again, to see it as the embodiment of their collective capacities as citizens, and to feel they have a voice. Let our elected members of Parliament, and only our elected MPs, speak on behalf of Canadians.
Second, let us stop wasting money on the undemocratic parts of our country that are not benefiting Canadians.
I want to bring out some key facts on this Senate reform. All provincial Senates were abolished by 1960, and provinces have continued to function properly. For those from the opposition who think we cannot work without a Senate, the proof is in the pudding. The provinces got rid of all Senates in 1968, and they are still functioning.
Public support for a referendum on the Senate is growing. An Angus Reid survey from July 2011 showed that 71% of Canadians were in favour of holding a referendum to decide the future of the Senate; and 36% of Canadians supported abolishing the Senate, up from 25% one year earlier.
If we really want to hear what Canadians have to say about the Senate, maybe we should have a referendum and let Canadians tell us what they want. With this Angus Reid survey, we know what Canadians want. They want the Senate abolished.
The Conservatives have said that they do not want to tear the other place down, they want to rebuild it. They are accusing us of wanting to tear the other place down. There have been 13 attempts to reform the Senate since the 1900s, 13 times Canadians wanted to remodel the Senate and failed every time. We are not going to accomplish anything this time either.
The government has been all over the map when it comes to Senate reform. A previous Conservative bill called for a federally regulated electoral process, while another bill called for eight year term limits.
The Conservatives have not properly consulted with the provinces about whether or not they agree with the content of this bill. When this bill was first introduced in June 2011, Conservative senators, even those appointed by the Prime Minister, pushed back against any plan for Senate term limits.
Senators will remain unaccountable to the Canadian people by only being allowed by law to serve one term as senators. They will never have to face the public to account for the promises they made to get elected or the decisions they made in the previous nine years, and they will get a pension when they leave office.
The safest, small c conservative approach to the Senate is to abolish it. We know how the House of Commons works, but we have no idea what will happen with an elected Senate.
The Prime Minister has called the Senate a relic of the 19th century. In 2006, the Conservative Party platform stated:
|The Conservatives...believe that the current Senate must be either reformed or abolished. An unelected Senate should not be able to block the will of the elected House in the 21st century.
That is exactly what happened to Bill C-311.
The government has used the Senate as a dumping ground for party operatives and fundraisers who are using public money to campaign for the Conservatives. We are seeing that right now with the provincial elections going on across the country. We are seeing senators going from province to province and riding to riding campaigning for the Conservatives at a cost to public money.
The Prime Minister has used the unaccountable and undemocratic Senate to kill legislation that had been passed by the House of Commons twice. As I mentioned previously, Bill C-311 and, this past spring, killing Bill C-393, generic drugs to Africa.
We have Alberta senator, Bert Brown, whose name has been mentioned quite often by Conservative members today making him the god from Alberta. Bert Brown made it very clear in his letter to the Senate dated June 15, when he stated:
||...our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform since he entered politics....
It was not to their regions or constituents.
What a shame that an appointed senator would say something like that. He is not there to represent the regions or his constituents. Who is he there to represent if he is not there to represent Canadians? It is a shame.