House of Commons Hansard #240 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was marriage.

Topics

Supply
Government Orders

6:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

I am afraid I really did not hear any noes at that time.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

June 8th, 1999 / 6:30 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell
Ontario

Liberal

Don Boudria for the President of the Treasury Board

moved:

Motion No. 1

That Vote 1, in the amount of $30,051,000, under PARLIAMENT—Senate—Program expenditures, in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000 (less the amount voted in Interim Supply), be concurred in.

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to respond to the motion before the House and the objection raised by some hon. members in connection with the vote for the Senate program expenditures for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000.

I would like to use the time I have been given to try to expand the debate and to describe the context surrounding this initiative by the government.

First, I think we need to draw a distinction between two aspects of the debate: On the one hand, the place of the Senate within our parliamentary system and, on the other, the financial requirement in connection with the exercise of that role. It is one thing to promote the improvement or even the abolition of the Senate, but the issue before us today is rather whether the Senate ought to obtain the moneys it needs to fulfill its mandate under the constitution.

In other words, I think it would be wrong to block this vote simply because one favours improving or, even for those who want that, abolishing the Canadian Senate. Let us all agree on one thing. The current Senate is an institution which has its foundations set down in the constitution and is therefore fundamental to the functioning of the Parliament of Canada. It has a constitutionally mandated role to play. Therefore, it must have the resources it needs to fulfil that role.

The Senate, in its current form, may not be the most popular there is within our system of government in the eyes of some. It is easy for members to sidetrack the debate with knee-jerk speeches about its usefulness and its legitimacy. It may be that changes could be made to the current Senate so as to enhance its legitimacy and make it more representative. My party has advocated such changes in the recent past.

Nevertheless, there is now, and I do not think it is any secret, no consensus as to what those changes should be and how they should be made neither among Canadians nor within parliament. In the meantime, the Senate must continue to fulfil the role it has been assigned, and it is the government's role to ensure that it has the means to do so and that includes an adequate supply process.

I am not surprised by the criticism that has been made by some hon. members who have opposed this vote. For those who feel that the current Senate is ineffective, any vote for the Senate expenditures, no matter what the amount, will always be for them too much. It is easy to question the relevance of a vote for the Senate program expenditures, but it must be emphasized that these votes are essential for our parliamentary system to function and that the members of the House have a responsibility to concur in them.

Our government has made modernizing our federation one of its top priorities. We have made our system of government more efficient in many areas and have ensured that government programs and co-operation agreements concluded with our provincial partners better serve the interests of the community. Indeed, co-operation between the two orders of government is an inherent part of our system of government.

I am dwelling on this aspect of the debate because the reason the hon. members have opposed this vote is because they believe the Senate ought to be reformed or abolished. We all know that there is no consensus on this issue among Canadians, as I have already stated. Furthermore, the issue can be resolved only through a constitutional amendment. You don't amend the Senate by cutting the supply. Few members of the House can seriously claim that the current context lends itself to such an initiative of amending the constitution.

More specifically, under section 42 of the Constitution Act, 1982, reforming the Senate would require the consent of at least seven provinces representing no less than 50% of Canada's population. That is the prerequisite. It is not cutting supply.

To then abolish the Senate, for those who think that is a proper course of action, the government would likely have to comply with section 41 of the Constitution Act, which requires the consent of the House of Commons, the 10 provincial legislative assemblies and the Senate itself which would have to vote itself out of existence. That is the prerequisite for doing that under our constitution.

I do not think I am going out on a limb in saying that the constitutional debate is not a priority for Canadians today. I was in my riding all last weekend and amending the constitution was not the favourite issue raised by my constituents. They had many other topics in mind. A grand total of zero people have raised it with me in the last several months. I think we can all agree that this is not a scenario that could be really taken seriously in the short term.

Our government is not opposed to Senate improvement, but we have to be realistic and operate in the context of how things really are. In terms of constitutional amendments, when the population has asked for those we have provided and have accommodated that, be it the issue of schools in Quebec, the issue of amending the Constitution to recognize the linguistic duality of New Brunswick, even the school situation in Newfoundland and several other such changes that had to be made.

The program expenditures in the main estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000 total $30,051,000. This may perhaps strike the members with objections to the allocation of credits as a lot, but I would ask them what other choice does the government have under the circumstances?

If the Senate seems to them to be an inefficient institution, and they have every right to think so, how does restricting the credits it needs to operate render it any more efficient? Of course, the answer is obvious.

I will go still further. This debate provides me with the opportunity to rectify certain points. The Senate, in its current form, already fills an important role, which too many of our citizens are unaware of. The Senate committees perform an important function in our legislative process by clarifying and improving legislation from the House of Commons.

We need only think of Bill C-49, which was before the House on Friday last and which will come back in a few days. The Senate has made some constructive amendments, and we all realize it, if we are prepared to admit it.

The changes proposed by the senators to these bills have frequently improved them. I have just given one example. Our Senate colleagues' contribution in clarifying certain laws means time saved for the courts. This too must not forgotten.

All too often parliamentarians say that it is the role of this House to legislate not that of the courts. We have a House that helps us legislate and clarify the law and some people want to abolish it. The effect of this would probably be to transfer even more powers to the courts, which we say every day that we do not want.

A number of senators have vast experience in varied fields, such as law, the world of business, public administration and so on. I am thinking of people such as Senator Eugene Whelan who will retire in a few days. He is an eminent Canadian who served as minister of agriculture for many years. He is a parliamentarian with three or four decades of experience. This is the calibre of people they are. There is also Frank Mahovlich, a world famous personality and a member of the Senate. Senator Wilbert Keon is a doctor with a worldwide reputation.

I have named only a few. This is the sort of person who represents us in the other place. We must not forget it either.

The experience of these senators becomes very important for all Canadians when it comes to crafting legislation that is a faithful reflection of Canadians' needs and aspirations. Obviously this cannot be readily measured, but one thing is certain and that is that it is part of the legislative process and part of our reality in Canada.

Furthermore, on several occasions senators have been called upon to look specifically at such problems as poverty, unemployment, inflation, the status of the elderly and science policy. There is even a Senate committee that is studying monetary issues right now, and the list goes on. The reports these studies produce have had an impact on the resulting legislation.

Since we are now debating the granting of supplies to the Senate, I would even go so far as to say that these studies have enabled Canadians to realize important savings since they have made it unnecessary to establish royal commissions of inquiry. God knows how expensive these commissions can be, I remember some. The senators are already being paid, already have staff and, most important of all, they have an extensive institutional memory. They have contributed much to this process and will continue to do so.

In conclusion, I would like to ask the House to support the estimates of the other place.

The government's position on Senate reform is simple. We support the idea of such reform but when the circumstances are right, when there is first of all a consensus to that effect among Canadians and when all partners in our federation are resolved to move ahead with such a project.

We also believe that such a reform must be carried out in a comprehensive and considered manner, not piecemeal and certainly not on the fly as certain opposition parties too often suggest in the House.

In the meantime, our government is pursuing the same policy, one of common sense. It appoints as senators people recognized for their competence, people wishing to contribute with us to the well-being of Canadian society.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.

NDP

Lorne Nystrom Qu'Appelle, SK

Madam Speaker, I have a couple of questions for the government House leader who appears to be running for a position in the Senate with the speech he made today.

He says that there is no consensus on the Senate issue. I want to say that he is right in one way but I think he is wrong in the other way. I want him to concede that tonight.

There is a division in the country as to whether the Senate should be reformed or abolished. According to the polling it is roughly 50:50. According to the polling, only about 5% of the people support the existing Senate. About 95% think the existing Senate is not the proper institution for a democracy. I want to know whether or not the minister recognizes the reality that about 5% of the people support the existing Senate.

The minister also talked about giving the Senate supply. The Senate got an extra 10% last year. This year it wants another 6.1%. That is 16.1% over two years.

I look across at the minister in charge of homelessness and ask her whether or not her budget was raised 16.1% over two years for the homeless in the country. I know it has not. I know she is struggling in cabinet for money for the homeless.

Let us look at the health budget, the education budget, the agricultural budget or any other budget. None of them have been raised by 16.1% over two years. My friend from Sarnia tells me that the budget of the House of Commons is going up by around 2% this year. The Senate wants three times as much as what is going to the House of Commons.

Since the minister is responding tonight on behalf of the government on the very important issue of the other place, how can he possibly justify an increase of 16.1% over two years?

I want him to answer that question and to admit today that there is a consensus in the country that the other place is not working and is a blight on democracy. It is not elected. It is not accountable. It is not democratic. Over 90% of the Canadian people do not support the existing Senate. The debate is what to do with it. However they do not support the existing Senate. There is a consensus on that.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:50 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to draw the attention of the hon. member to two points. The second point he raised was about the issue of supply, the amount that we are voting tonight. The hon. member talked about the increases this year and last year. He forgot about the decrease the year prior because it is not convenient for his argument.

When the hon. member talks about increases perhaps he should remember that there were decreases in the past. He made a comparison between the two houses of parliament. If he goes back over the last number of years he will find that his argument is inaccurate.

He raised a question on another facet of supply with respect to what this money will be used for. I remind the hon. member across the way that a portion of it is the increase that we voted on in the House regarding the compensation for parliamentarians in both houses. I will not reflect upon that vote. We voted and that is done. Once we vote for something we have to furnish the funds to accommodate that on which we voted. It sounds like a rather elementary proposition.

The next part of that component is the one involving the collective agreements of the employees. I know that the NDP is not always together with the unions. Sometimes they have differences. In this case there is one.

Perhaps the hon. member thinks that the employees of the Senate, having duly signed a collective agreement, should not get their paycheques. He can take it up with the union people. That is his privilege. Meanwhile he will know that those two expenditures, one that we voted on in the House and the other being the collective agreement of the employees, form the majority of the increase. He knows that. I have told him that in answers in the House on several occasions.

His first proposition was about reforming the Senate. He said that many Canadians would prefer if senators were chosen differently than the way they are now. Me too. What is the point? The point is not whether the hon. member and I want to choose senators differently. The point is that he wants to abolish the Senate and I would like to see it elected.

Some provinces want the Senate abolished. Some want it elected. Some want to change the number of senators a jurisdiction has and so on. Some members across the way say they want a triple E Senate. They want the same number of senators for P.E.I. as for British Columbia. They have a right to think that way. I do not happen to think that is proper and equitable.

There has to be some other mechanism of arriving at that. Every province in Canada has a different definition of what that should be. The provincial premiers cannot agree among themselves on a proposition, and the hon. member knows it.

Yes, I agree with him. I would prefer to see senators chosen by another system when the constitution is amended. That is not the point. The point is until it is amended there is only one way of naming senators, and that is by the Prime Minister choosing them and choosing high calibre people, which he does all the time.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:50 p.m.

Reform

Rob Anders Calgary West, AB

Madam Speaker, since 1993 there have been 34 appointments by our current Prime Minister to the Senate and there are currently four vacancies. That makes for a total of 38 seats. If there were an election in 2001, another 14 seats would be available for a total of 52, the majority of seats in the Senate since the Prime Minister has taken office.

What has changed since some of these quotes were made? The first one reads:

I...support Senate reform. If it is done properly, a restructured and revitalized upper chamber can give Albertans a voice in the governance of Canada. If elected Liberal leader, I pledge to work for a Senate that is elected, that has legislative powers of its own, and contains strong representation from all regions of Canada.

That was at the Liberal leadership on June 23, 1990. The next one reads in part:

—a reformed Senate is essential. It must be a Senate that is elected, effective and equitable.

That appeared in Hansard of September 24, 1991. The next one reads:

The Liberal government in two years will make it (Senate) elected. As Prime Minister I can take steps to make it happen.

This was in a speech to 400 delegates at the annual general meeting of the Alberta branch of the federal Liberal Party in 1990. The next one reads:

You want the triple E Senate and I want one too.

That was a statement on February 2, 1990 to the Toronto Star . The next one reads:

As I said before, and repeat, reform of the Senate is extremely important. I believe in it.

That can be found in Hansard of May 14, 1991. On February 1, 1997, the next one is:

If he names him (Senator Stan Waters) that's the end of appointed senators who are not elected.

The last one reads:

I know that in western Canada they were disappointed that there was not, there's the Senate, because they wanted to have an equal Senate and an elected Senate and I thought it was a good thing to do.

That was on CBC Prime Time News on December 29, 1992. Those are all quotes from our current Prime Minister. What has changed?

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Madam Speaker, I agree with everything the hon. member has just said. He has quoted the Prime Minister so obviously I agree with what he just said.

The Prime Minister has been quite forthright. He says that he favours Senate reform. The hon. member across the way has just told us what the Prime Minister said in 1991 about an equitable Senate.

I campaigned on that in 1992, door to door in the rain, trying to get people to vote for the Charlottetown accord. In my riding we won it by almost 65%, the largest majority outside Quebec from Ontario all the way to the west coast of Canada.

Where was the hon. member and his colleagues? They were working against trying to get that Senate reform at the same time as I working for it.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:55 p.m.

NDP

John Solomon Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order to ask for unanimous consent to allow the government House leader to accept one more question, if possible.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:55 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Is that agreed?

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:55 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

6:55 p.m.

NDP

John Solomon Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the co-operation of the government House leader in this regard.

When I was a candidate in the 1993 election I went door to door with a petition calling for the abolition of the Senate. At that time I received about 39% of the vote. Some 99% of the people to whom I spoke on doorsteps over a six month period signed the petition, even though most of them did not vote for the NDP at that time.

I want the government House leader to understand that this is a very serious issue with respect to the Senate and the supply of money to the Senate.

Part of this supply will go toward the pay expenses, travel expenses and benefits of two senators, Senator Bernston and Senator Cogger who are convicted felons. How long will the government support paying salaries and expenses to these two convicted felons?

Will it allow this happen for two years as in Mr. Cogger's case, or three, four or five more years? Or, will the government take some action to at least suspend them and suspend all pay and benefits until such time as the long appeals which could drag out for years and years take place?

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

7 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Madam Speaker, the first question the hon. member raised was the issue of abolishing the Senate. I fundamentally disagree with the proposition of abolishing the Senate. As far as I am concerned, improving the Senate, electing it and all of these things, once we can get that consensus in Canada, is the right approach. Abolishing it outright is a different story. Personally I do not favour that. We would be the only federated country on earth without a bicameral legislature and that is wrong.

The hon. member across the way has just suggested a proper comparison is Russia. Let the facts speak for themselves.

On the other issue the member raised of whether it is the position of the government to protect, or whatever words he used, two Conservative senators, and I will leave out the other expletives, that is not for me to say. The courts, the appeal process and so on will deal with that. As to whether I support Conservative senators, I do not support Conservative anything, let alone Conservative senators so that should be quite clear.

If the hon. member wants to ask the leader of the Conservative Party if he thinks the members of his caucus should no longer be members of his caucus, he is quite free to do that. Of course he will have to do that outside the House because the leader of the Conservative Party does not sit in the House at the present time and perhaps never will, I do not know. That is a matter to be taken up in another forum, in the lobby or some other place, but obviously not in the House of Commons at the present time.

To repeat, I do not favour abolishing the Senate. I favour improving it. That is what I believe Canadians want. Do I favour Conservative senators, MPs, Conservative period? No.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

7 p.m.

Reform

Rob Anders Calgary West, AB

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order.

I would like to ask unanimous consent to extend questions and comments for 10 minutes since we have the rare privilege of debating with such a respected and knowledgeable minister in the House.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

7 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Is there unanimous consent to proceed in this way?

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

7 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Main Estimates, 1999-2000
Government Orders

7 p.m.

Some hon. members

No.