Debates of May 3rd, 2005
House of Commons Hansard #90 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was marriage.
- Interparliamentary Delegations
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- Civil Marriage Act
- Patent Act
- Citizen Engagement
May 3rd, 2005 / 6:30 p.m.
Mauril Bélanger Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
That the committee take note of citizen engagement.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased to participate in this take note debate on citizen engagement in the democratic process.
Take note debates provide an important opportunity for the government to listen and, of course, to take note of the views of members of Parliament.
As Minister responsible for Democratic Reform, I and my officials have been working to better comprehend the root causes of the democratic deficit in Canada. The government believes that, rather than jump to solutions, it is critical first to gain a better understanding of the nature of the problem.
And my view is that it is essential to involve parliamentarians in this process of renewal. Indeed, it would be foolish to fail to engage them in an examination of Canadian democratic institutions and practices. This take-note debate is an important part of that process.
Why citizen engagement? With the support of opposition House leaders and opposition critics, I have chosen citizen engagement as the theme of this take-note debate because I believe it is at the very heart of democratic renewal. I would like to thank the critics of the other parties, the members for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean and Ottawa Centre for their contribution and their suggestions.
In recent years, it has become clear that Canadians wish to play a greater role in public policy-making. Gone are the days when citizens were content to participate politically only at election time. Studies have shown that Canadians wish to have more opportunities to involve themselves in policy-making processes. They want their elected representatives to make decisions. But they do want their voices to be heard before those decisions are made.
Citizen engagement is important not only because it improves the quality of government policies, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, because it encourages active citizenship.
A healthy and vibrant democracy requires citizens who are informed and who participate actively in promoting their own conception of the public interest.
Beyond taking an interest in their communities and their country between elections, active citizens also exercise their right to vote—and do so in a more informed manner.
The question arises, then, as to how we can improve citizen engagement by the government and also by members of Parliament.
The first area I would like to deal with is how to improve citizen engagement by ministers and their officials.
In the development of public policy it is important for departments to involve citizens. Canadians expect to be involved by the government of the day and in some instances the Government of Canada is legally obliged to consult the public.
The executive branch of government in the country currently does a significant amount of public consultation. However, while it may often seem from our perspective that departments have vast resources at their disposal to consult and engage citizens, often there are time and financial pressures against involving citizens. Moreover, in many instances there is still a lack of expertise in many departments concerning public involvement techniques.
The New Brunswick commission on legislative democracy has recently recommended the creation of a public dialogue office. This government agency would have permanent staff and resources to put on public engagement exercises for departments as required.
The advantage of having a single office responsible for public engagement is that it would be a repository of knowledge and experience for engaging citizens on a wide range of issues. It may be worthwhile to consider a similar structure federally.
However, citizen engagement by the executive raises serious questions about the role of members of Parliament in representing Canadians. Specifically, can investments by the executive branch of government in consultation and engagement processes undermine the role of parliamentarians? Are parliamentarians not expected to be the primary conduit for the views of citizens into the policy-making process?
My view is that we must be careful not to undermine the representative roles of members of Parliament. This is not to say that the executive branch should not be involving citizens in policy development. It should and we should improve its capacity to do so. It is just that we have to be very careful not to sideline parliamentarians.
Ultimately the question is one of legitimacy. If ministers and their departments have significant resources to be able to engage citizens and members of Parliament only have the means to be able to reach out to Canadians in a fairly limited manner, then their legitimacy with citizens will decline over time.
Therefore, the next issue I would like to raise is how well members of Parliament perform in connecting with the citizens we represent. I suspect that most of us are quite proud of the work we do in helping our constituents to navigate their way through what can be a maze of government services. What about actively engaging citizens on policy issues?
If we are speaking on behalf of our constituents, how well do we really understand their views in a variety of areas? Today all members of Parliament have constituency offices. These offices play an important role in assisting our constituents with immigration processes, helping with passports and dealing with the difficulties of employment insurance claims, for instance. These services are important for the citizens and we reach them this way.
However, what about the majority of citizens who do not use constituency offices? Are we effective enough at reaching out to talk about the concerns of Canadians? Should constituency offices have additional staff with a knowledge of citizen engagement techniques to be able to reach out on policy issues? Are constituency offices set up in the right places so they can be our hubs of community oriented activity? Are they meeting places for people looking to solve local challenges? Finally, should constituency offices have greater resources in order to be more effective?
The expertise on this matter lies first and foremost among members of Parliament. I would be interested in the views of the members of Parliament on this important question. It seems to me that we can do a great deal more with constituency offices to connect with the citizens we serve.
Another key area where I would like to seek the views of other members is in citizen involvement in the work of parliamentary committees. Here I have a number of questions about the nature of the committee hearing processes.
First, while committees sometimes hold hearings in various parts of Canada, my question is should they be doing more to reach out to citizens to provide Canadians with more opportunities to engage with the policy-making process?
Second, are committee hearings as welcoming to citizens as they should be or could be? Many citizens see committee hearings as overly formal, distant, uninviting forums where they would feel reluctant to put forward their views. How do young people feel about committee hearings, for example?
Third, do we need a parliamentary public dialogue centre which would be a repository of resources and expertise to be used by parliamentarians when engaging citizens? This centre could be used both by parliamentary committees as well as by individual members of Parliament wishing to engage citizens.
Overall I put the question to the members. How can we improve and open up the committee process to better serve Canadians?
The last issue related to public engagement that I would like to discuss today is civic literacy. All forms of political participation—from voting to advocacy work—require a certain level of civic literacy.
Civic literacy, at a basic level, involves an understanding of political structures and processes, along with knowledge concerning the issues facing one’s community, one’s country and the world.
Beyond this, civic literacy is also the knowledge and experience concerning how to make a difference, whether that is through creating a group of citizens to address a local issue, writing to the media, meeting with one’s member of Parliament, or lobbying a minister.
The data that we have on civic literacy is limited. However, what we do know about the issue is not especially comforting. In 2000, for example, 46 % of Canadians could identify no more than one of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and the Leader of the Official Opposition
I would be interested in the views of my fellow parliamentarians on a number of questions:
First, do we all agree that rates of civic literacy are low? Second, if we do agree on this, what steps should the Government of Canada be taking to address this issue?
Moreover, given that education is a provincial responsibility, what is the role for the federal government in this area? Finally, what programs are needed, if any, to provide young people with the knowledge and experience necessary to be active citizens?
Mr. Chair, in conclusion I would like to quote from Judith Maxwell, President of the Canadian Policy Research Networks, who has noted that:
Dialogue is an essential ingredient for representative government in 21st century Canada … It is about governments listening to a sustained conversation among citizens themselves on the issues that matter most to them as citizens.
Of course, representative democracy is also about the dialogue that takes place in this House. This is why I look forward to hearing from other members on this important matter.
Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB
Mr. Chair, without kowtowing to the government, I do want to express appreciation for being able to speak to this issue tonight. It is a worthwhile activity and I think there is an appetite and a thirst to explore some of these very topics.
There are two items that I would like to comment on or at least ask for further expansion on from my colleague.
My colleague asked for input regarding constituency offices and how members of Parliament manage to expand the role of Parliament into the constituency, or the services at least offered by the House of Commons. I would simply inform him that my constituency office should be more properly called an immigration office. I will try to express the frustration I think members of Parliament feel with trying to deal with the enormous backlog of immigration issues.
As a government member I would ask him to take into consideration that this is a reflection of an immigration system that is not working very well, if so many people have to ask their members of Parliament to intervene for them for simple things, such as a visitor's visa, things that were otherwise a normal course of action which they applied for through the normal channels and received within a reasonable period of time. People now talk about months of delays for a simple visitor's visa.
I will not go on and on but I would ask him perhaps to take note, seeing as this is a take note debate, that we are frustrated as members of Parliament. It is a misnomer to call our offices constituency offices. They are immigration offices, plain and simple, in the inner city.
The other thing I would like to express an interest in is that I too am concerned about the rates of civic literacy and civic participation or engagement, the lack of engagement of ordinary Canadian citizens in this most important privilege that we have, and that is the democracy that we enjoy. It irritates me to no end but I do not see any specific action plan on behalf of the government. I understand the member wants input from us to give some direction to the government, I suppose, but I would encourage him strongly to have an active program to educate and invite the increased participation and engagement of citizens, whether that is at the high school level or whatever.
If he could take note of and comment on either of those two things I would appreciate it.
Mauril Bélanger Ottawa—Vanier, ON
Mr. Chair, I share the member's concern about constituency offices becoming immigration offices. I represent a riding here in Ottawa and an overwhelming percentage of our time and resources are dedicated to meeting people and trying to help them with their immigration difficulties. We must recognize that because I have heard the same from members on all sides of the House. We somehow have to come to grips with that. One could easily argue that was not the purpose for which we set up our constituency offices.
I am quite prepared to acknowledge that is a difficulty for urban constituency offices. There may be similar difficulties in rural constituency offices. Colleagues in rural communities have told me that their constituency offices sometimes become passport offices. There may have to be a rethink of the relationship between the member of Parliament, the constituency office and the expectation that citizens have vis-à-vis the government and the constituency office.
I do not have a great deal of difficulty taking note of that point. I will pass it on to my colleague, the Minister of Immigration, and to the cabinet at large because it is a situation that all members are facing.
On the matter of civic literacy, it is, I suspect, one of the first times we may be debating this in the House, in this forum. I will take a step back for the member and perhaps others who may be listening.
As members know, an amendment was made to the Speech from the Throne calling on the government to look at democratic reform and electoral reform. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was appointed to suggest a process whereby Canadians could be consulted.
In the meantime, knowing that a recommendation would be coming from the committee any time now, the government engaged in what we call a multifaceted diagnostic exercise involving, for example, the debate tonight, but also involving focus groups. Four discussions have occurred in Calgary, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto. One will be held in Vancouver after the May 17 election and referendum. Studies have been conducted.
A whole exercise is going on and one of them will involve civics. A colloquial is scheduled on civic literacy to which we have invited participation from the provinces. We are waiting for confirmation on that.
As the hon. member will recognize, there is an element of uncertainty in the air so that may throw a monkey wrench into those plans, but nonetheless we recognize that we have to become much more engaged in civic literacy while still respecting jurisdictions and acknowledging that education is a provincial responsibility.
However a number of instruments and tools can be developed to encourage that without, in any way, shape or form, threatening a jurisdiction battle.
In terms of how far we have progressed in our diagnostic exercise, the government recognizes that civic literacy may be one of the things we should engage in first and rather aggressively.
Gary Goodyear Cambridge, ON
Mr. Chair, I would like to acknowledge that I do appreciate that the member is here trying to open dialogue with the citizens of Canada.
One of the issues that we have, and it has been mentioned before, is the issue of passports and how it seems that the immigration department is downloading its services to MPs' offices, which is clearly not their function. Not only does it render a huge burden on our budgets but it takes up valuable time when we could be helping constituents with other issues.
I have two issues I would ask the hon. member to address and ask him if there is a solution, or perhaps he could even carry it forward. One issue has to do with the crack between a provincial disability situation, and as I am the member for the Cambridge riding it would be the Ontario disability, and the Canada pension plan. It would seem that a number of constituents are falling through the cracks. They do not qualify for the Ontario disability pension under the provincial framework and they do not qualify for Canada pension.
The second issue of great concern in just about every riding in Canada is, for lack of a better word, the stealing of physicians from other ridings. Frankly, millions of dollars are being spent in recruiting physicians into, in my case, my riding. It is not millions of dollars in my riding of course but overall.
I would like the hon. member to comment on the fact that the government has failed to put in place an accreditation process. Despite its promises to do so, these have been delayed. We need to fill in the cracks for people who fall through them with pension issues and increase the number of doctors by putting in place an accreditation process immediately.
Mauril Bélanger Ottawa—Vanier, ON
Mr. Chair, on the matter of immigration caseloads in constituency offices, I have already commented on that so I would be repeating what I have said. However, on my part in any event, I have acknowledged that the situation needs to be looked at because in many constituency offices, the urban ones in particular, immigration matters have become a preponderance in the caseload that members try to help constituents with. There is a recognition that constituency offices were not designed or created for that purpose, so there has to be an attempt to rectify that situation.
On the matter of the Ontario disability legislation and CPP, I cannot comment on that. That is not my area of responsibility. However I would use the opportunity to comment that we have seen in the previous Parliament one of the better examples of citizen engagement being done through one of the subcommittees that was dealing with disability questions. It was a subcommittee of the Human Resources and Skills Development department, which was not called that at that time. It really did engage through the Internet and it was one of the very first attempts. I am hoping that one of our colleagues tonight will give us a sense of how that went, but there are occasions where citizens themselves, if we engage them, can provide answers to the questions the member poses.
Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON
Mr. Chair, I am delighted to rise tonight to speak on the subject of citizen engagement. I will start my comments by making the simple premise that the more democratic the system is, the more citizens will participate.
As the critic for democratic reform for the official opposition, I will focus my remarks on the subject of democratic reform and I think it will be evident how this will improve rates of citizen participation. Democracy, which is my portfolio, is also my passion. It is the reason I am in politics. I developed this passion while I was living in Washington State in 1990-91 and saw referendums in action. I saw what an effective and intelligent decision making tool they were.
This was added to when I lived in Australia in 1997 to 1999. There, I sat in on the country's constitutional convention in which Australians were debating whether or not to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic. Again, the level of intelligence of the debate impressed me deeply, as did the level of citizen participation. The number of people who came to sit in the viewers' galleries in their old Parliament House and listen in on these debates was very impressive.
Since that time I have gone to Switzerland to attend a landsgemeinde, the traditional citizens' assembly in the town square, and to Vermont to participate in a New England town meeting.
This is something I do very much believe in very passionately. I do believe that the more transparency and directness we have in our democracy, the increase in democracy, the more likely we are to see citizen engagement.
Other Conservative members speaking tonight will speak on other issues relating to democratic reform and the democratic deficit, but my particular topic tonight is Senate reform.
There are many democratic reforms that our party proposes. The Conservative policy document, amended in March of this year in Montreal at our convention, calls for changes to the answerability of officers of Parliament. They would be answerable to Parliament directly. That is one policy.
We believe in a substantial improvement in the nature of free votes. We have committed ourselves to free votes, including free votes of members of the shadow cabinet, or of our cabinet should we find ourselves in government, on issues of moral conscience such as abortion, the definition of marriage and euthanasia.
We would ensure that nominees to the Supreme Court of Canada would be ratified by a free vote in Parliament after receiving the approval of the justice committee of the House of Commons. This sort of ratification process would substantially increase citizen interest and participation, I think, just as the genuinely free debates that have occurred in the 38th Parliament, as opposed to the elected dictatorship that was the 37th Parliament, have increased citizen interest and citizen participation.
We would also work on Senate reform. I will read for members what our policy says on Senate reform before getting into more detail. It states:
i) A Conservative government will support the election of senators. The Conservative Party believes in an equal Senate to address the uneven distribution of Canada's population and provide a balance to safeguard regional interests.
We also state, and this is the democratic part, that:
ii) Where the people of a province or territory by democratic election choose persons qualified to be appointed to the Senate, a Conservative government will fill any vacancy in the Senate for that province or territory among those elected persons.
The House may rest assured that citizens will participate in Senate elections. We know this because there have been Senate elections in the province of Alberta and we know that more votes were cast for Bert Brown and Stan Waters when they were voted for the Senate than have ever been cast for any member elected to the House; a larger number of votes were cast for those individuals. That, I think, is a testament to the effectiveness of the system.
We know as well that individuals can be appointed to the Senate after having been elected, because this was done in the case of Stan Waters. Admittedly, the Prime Minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, was reluctant to make that appointment, but he finally conceded the point and did appoint Mr. Waters to the Senate, where he served as Canada's only elected senator so far. Hopefully he will be the first in a series that will become permanent.
With regard to the Senate, our party's policy and the Alberta elections to the Senate, I want to contrast what I have just said with the current Prime Minister's record on the subject of Senate reform.
The current Prime Minister came to office on December 12, 2003. On December 19, one week later, he said something to the effect that “I am going further than any Prime Minister has gone before to make the Senate of Canada a democratic place. What I am going to do is ensure that all senators must be approved by the House of Commons”. I do not have the exact words. This statement sounded very dramatic and on its face was a very Conservative proposal, or rather, a very democratic proposal.
When I heard this statement being made, I was absolutely astounded. I issued a press release under the title “Martin Kills Senate Reform”. I will read from it. I will substitute the words “Prime Minister” for the Prime Minister's name, although that is what was used in the original. I said:
Placing one house of Parliament in charge of appointments to the other is a dangerous and unprecedented departure from the traditional practice of federal, bicameral systems.
I noted that “no other federal system” in the world “allows the lower house any role in the selection of members to its upper chamber”. I said:
The Senate was intended to be a chamber of sober second thought, reviewing rash decisions taken in the Commons. [The Prime Minister] would rob it of its independence from the Commons. This reflects a surprising ignorance about how the separation of powers is supposed to operate under our Constitution.
I then pointed out that this would have certain other perverse impacts. I said:
Under [the Prime Minister's] proposal, Quebec's 75 MPs would get three times as many votes as Alberta's 26 MPs, as to who becomes a senator from Alberta. Ontario's 103 MPs would have a greater say than Quebec's MPs, as to who becomes a senator from Quebec. Only a prime minister who is completely deaf to the regional nature of Canadian federalism could dream up such an ill-conceived proposal.
I pointed out that the Prime Minister could have taken decisive steps. I said, “He could have called for Senate elections”. He could have appointed Bert Brown and Ted Morton, the two senators in waiting, as had been done with Stan Waters earlier.
The last thing I said was this:
So, in [the Prime Minister's] world, nationwide Senate elections are impossible, and so are local initiatives to introduce elections. This is [the Prime Minister's] way of simultaneously killing any prospect of a democratically elected Senate, and transferring the blame to others.
That is because he said, “I will not allow for piecemeal reform to the Senate. We can't do it unless the whole thing is done”. Of course, making all the changes required for an elected and perhaps somewhat regionally different but equal Senate would require not merely the consent of the provinces but the consent of all of the provinces. If it is piecemeal we cannot have it, he said, for reasons that he has never actually articulated. I am not sure that he knows why himself, except that it assures no change to the Senate.
Incidentally, what happened when I released that press release was that the very next day the Prime Minister called up one of the newspapers and said he was badly advised and was withdrawing his proposal. He said he did not actually want to do that after all, but of course piecemeal reforms cannot happen. That has been the state since then. Since then there has been nothing on the Senate except for the same old kinds of appointments, the same old undemocratic appointments that existed back in the bad old days. We see no prospect of that changing.
I want to spend a moment dwelling upon this theme of “I will not engage in piecemeal reform. I will never do it. There's something wrong with it”. If the Prime Minister really believes that, then there is a question we have to ask. Why did he support the proposal for Senate reform in the Charlottetown accord?
The Charlottetown accord of 1992, when of course he was a member of Parliament in the opposition, had in section 4 surely the most piecemeal proposals ever imagined for a national Senate. There was a proposal for two senators per province and one per territory, but if the territories became provinces they still would get only one. That was one piecemeal element: half-representation for these new provinces when and if they became provinces. There was going to be provision for the indirect election of senators in some provinces but not others. That was under section 23(a) of the Charlottetown accord.
There was going to be provision for some provinces, but not others, to have special measures to provide for equal representation of males and females. That was Ontario's proposal. That would exist in Ontario but nowhere else. There is something that is piecemeal.
The determination of electoral boundaries and districts in relation to the election of senators would be set up by the provinces. At least on paper this is not incompatible with multiple member districts in some provinces and not in others. Perhaps it is some system of proportional representation. In other words, it is one more element of piecemeal reform.
Finally, I will read from the Charlottetown accord: “Where a law of Parliament and a law of a province or territory under the paragraphs above conflict, the law of the province or territory will prevail to the extent of the conflict”. This is thereby ensuring more “piecemeal”.
So he was willing to consider piecemeal reform. We should be willing to consider piecemeal reform. The United States went from an unelected to an elected Senate through the use of piecemeal reform. Oregon started it in the first decade of the 20th century. Within another decade it became the law of the land through a constitutional amendment.
I think this makes a lot of sense. I think it would greatly increase citizen engagement. I very much would encourage all members to consider the possibility of piecemeal reform, starting with elected senators. Then we will work around to the other question of making our Senate more equal than it is today.
Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB
Madam Chair, my colleague made some really interesting observations about the possibility of Senate reform, an interest I share with my colleague. I know it is the official position of my party to abolish the Senate, but that is not my position. I hope that some day my party might see fit to pass a resolution that we would in fact support a Senate but an elected and equal Senate.
The member and I do share that interest. We also share an interest in the Charlottetown accord. I took part in the five “ordinary Canadian” meetings that took place across the country. I simply answered a letter in the Globe and Mail and said I was an interested Canadian. I was a carpenter by trade at that time. That was a fascinating introduction and education along these lines.
I am interested in one thing, which I wonder if my colleague could expand on, and that is the way the United States came to have an elected Senate. This is news to me. It is something I am learning about tonight; that in fact it began as a reform movement in one state and then spread throughout the whole country. Could my colleague expand on the importance of an elected Senate for progress as he sees it and how it came about in the United States so that we might be able to use it as a model for Canada?
Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON
Madam Chair, I would like to talk a bit about the abolition of the Senate first before directly answering the member's question.
Polls show that the abolition of the Senate is a popular option. It is not necessarily the majority option, but it has strong support in Canada. That has been the policy of the New Democrats and others in Canada for many years. It is a respectable position. Other countries have done it. New Zealand, for example, abolished its upper house in the early 1950s. All of the maritime provinces and Quebec had upper houses and got rid of them. The idea of going from a bicameral to a unicameral system is certainly respectable.
We would be very well advised not to take that course for a very specific reason and we should look at what happened in New Zealand as a model. New Zealand adopted a unicameral system, so there was no check from the upper house on the lower house. It retained a first past the post system. My colleague who went to New Zealand with me a month ago will recall this.
It entered into a period of unbridled power. In fact, the definitive textbook of New Zealand politics at the time was called unbridled power because there was nothing to stop the dictatorship of whoever controlled the lower house under the first past the post system, even when that person got a fairly small percentage of the vote. Therefore, the country was whipsawed back and forth between parties that would get elected on a mandate, abandon the mandate, and adopt policies that were dramatically at variance with where the people wanted to be. Typically in New Zealand's case, these were hard right policies and they campaigned on the left, and one party would replace the other. In the end, there was a tremendous frustration and so a new system of representation was adopted in the lower house.
I think the system has stabilized a bit, but that is the danger. One cannot get rid of the upper house without adopting electoral reform in the lower house. In particular, if one did that, I think one would have to have the kind of electoral reform that ensures some kind of perpetual minority government in order to keep things stable.
I would go further and say one would want to design a system of electoral reform for the lower house that ensures that the parties that hold the balance of power tend to be centrist parties as opposed to parties at the margin in order to ensure that one does not then get whipsawed between left wing coalitions and right wing coalitions but instead tend to get centrist coalitions, which unfortunately I do not think has been achieved in New Zealand. That is a long way of not dealing with the question the member actually asked me.
With regard to the senate in the United States, the American senate actually served quite effectively for over a century as a house of the states. The senators were appointed by the legislatures of the various states.
An hon. member
Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON
Two senators for each state. There was no change in that respect.
We will remember the talk about the triple E senate being equally effective. While it was a double E senate, it was equal and effective. There were very high level debates in the senate. The office of senator was highly respected, although it was not an elected office. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, for example, were debates of two candidates for the senate in the late 1850s.
There were a number of things that were problematic about this. It was not democratic for one thing. In addition, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates point this out, they went to these debates in front of vast audiences and argued the democratic and republican positions on the issue of slavery, western expansion and so on, and then people voted for their members of the state legislature largely based on who those people would then vote for in the state house to send to Washington as their senator, which means that to some degree the legislature was being turned into an electoral college for senators.
I do not want to exaggerate the importance of this transformation into an electoral college of the state houses but it was a problem. Of course, having discharged that one responsibility, a person then had to get on for the next two or four years, depending on the state one was in, with actually governing the state and other issues under state jurisdiction might not have been discussed in the fullness with which they should have been discussed. That was a problem.
What happened was the progressive movement of the 1890s and particularly the first decade of the 20th century arose and there was a movement for a variety of improvements, many of them democratic, including the introduction of the primary system to control the party bosses. There were some temperance movements that were tied in with it as well.
It was very much a populace movement. There was a lot of citizen engagement, some of it unfortunately tinged with racism and so on. None the less it was a genuine populace movement.
The state of Oregon decided that state elections would be held to select senators with the first election being held in, I think, 1906. This movement was already taking place in other states, but the election happened first in Oregon with the senator being accepted. The senate had the capability to reject a member of its body, but that was not done and the senator from Oregon was elected.
Senate elections occurred on a two year cycle. In 1908 there was a larger number. This number also increased with the 1910 elections. In 1913 an amendment was proposed which required acceptance by three-fourths of all the states making senate elections mandatory.
I do not think, as a result of that, the quality of the United States senate has gone down. It was always regarded as the chamber in which a more thoughtful level of debate occurred than that which occurred in the House of Representatives. Tocqueville points out that comparison.
Although the House of Representatives has become better, the senate has still retained a kind of gravitas that comes from the length of service. For example, Ted Kennedy has been around for years and so have many other senators. Unlike the lower house, it also has the advantage of not being subject to gerrymandering which is a severe problem unfortunately in the United States.
Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC
Madam Chair, I congratulate you for saying my riding name. The fact that I am in my seat today, and not closer, does not mean I have no interest in participating in this debate which might be described as important. It is, however, a bit of a delusion to think that a take-note debate this evening on a supposed democratic reform or democratic deficit is going to settle everything.
The debate the government has begun this evening is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. In the few minutes I have, I am going to try to show that by addressing five different points.
A few years ago, during the watch of the previous Prime Minister, Parliament was already aware of the existence of the democratic deficit. The government and the present Prime Minister were committed to solving the problems of centralization of power and favouritism.
I will, moreover, quote the present PM when he was a simple member of Parliament and a minister. In October 2002 he said that the absolute powers of appointment enjoyed by a Prime Minister were too extensive. So what the government wanted was to see a greater delegation of powers, to ensure that the power was less and less centralized at the PMO.
Can we conclude today that the arrival of a new prime minister and the commitments made in 2002 resolved the problem? Of course not. The new Prime Minister could have resolved the situation by officially responding to the consensus expressed repeatedly by the Quebec National Assembly—which, in passing, is a democratic institution—and the people of Quebec.
If the federal government had wanted to engage in a real democratic, transparent and open process, and answer the call to resolve the democratic deficit, he would have recognized, for example, the existence of a fiscal imbalance, which the National Assembly ratified in a parliamentary motion. But no, the government and the Prime Minister have refused, both in the throne speech and the budget, to recognize the existence of this fiscal imbalance.
Is the government's and the Prime Minister's refusal to recognize the decisions of and the messages from the Quebec National Assembly about the existence of the Quebec nation and the fiscal imbalance not proof of a democratic deficit? No, the government calls this fiscal pressure instead.
Second, if the government has wanted to resolve the democratic deficit, it would have respected, first, the will of this Parliament. Many times since 2004, Parliament has expressed its opinion on serious issues by adopting parliamentary resolutions and motions calling for measures in numerous areas. Why is this government not responding to the members of this House, by proposing concrete measures?
The first measure involved cull cows. We have demanded aid for cattle producers as a result of the mad cow crisis. Why has the government not responded to the calls of parliamentarians?
The same situation occurred in the case of the textile industry. Members will recall that in February 2005, when six textile mills in Huntingdon were hit with closure, we called in this House for action. Why did the government not heed this call from members?
The same thing occurred again concerning the return of the Mirabel land. The same was true regarding reversal of the burden of truth. We demanded a bill in the House to amend the Criminal Code to reverse the burden of proof. Why did the government not respond to the call of a majority of parliamentarians, if it really wanted to resolve the democratic deficit once and for all? The case was similar in connection with supply management. As regards the setting up a trust for tainted money, why did the government or the Prime Minister not respond to the call of parliamentarians in establishing this trust?
Had the government really wanted to settle the matter of the democratic deficit, it would have responded immediately to the wishes of Canada's Parliament by establishing the measures provided in the motions adopted in this House. That is one way to resolve the democratic deficit once and for all.
However, the government literally ignores the decisions made by this Parliament. It continues to do what it likes. We on this side of the House might have thought that a minority government situation would lead to democratic openness and the discovery of solutions to the democratic deficit. No, the context is unchanged.
The situation is the same regarding the role parliamentary committees play in appointments. I will remind you of only one of these appointments with respect to the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development. At issue was the appointment of Glen Murray, a former mayor of Winnipeg. The committee had indicated it did not want this candidate and rejected the appointment. What did the federal government do? Nothing. Mr. Murray continues to sit at the national round table on the environment and the economy, despite the committee report on this appointment. Why is the government sitting on its hands?
I remind you of another element, which is the government commitment made in October, 2002. The current Prime Minister said he wanted candidates' qualifications examined by the competent standing committee before appointments were confirmed.
When we considered the case of Mr. Murray at the parliamentary committee, the appointment was in effect. We had not considered the candidates' qualifications before the appointment. On the contrary, the appointment was confirmed and we had considered seven possible appointees at the parliamentary committee. In appointing the chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the government decided to ignore the committee's decision and that of the House of Commons.
I have a question for the government. Where is the democratic deficit in the role of committees? The government, or the current Prime Minister, refused to keep the October 2002 promise on appointing various people, including Mr. Murray.
Since I have only one minute remaining, I will conclude by adding that the same thing happens when it comes to appointing judges. The former president of the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party summed up quite nicely how judges are appointed in Canada. He is convinced that anyone wanting to be appointed judge, or to be given an important mandate, has to have close ties to people who can influence the political machinery.
Has the government resolved the democratic deficit problem? The fact the question can still be asked gives us the answer.
Decisions are still as centralized and partisan as ever. The role of parliamentarians, in adopting reports in committee or passing motions in the House, has no impact on the decision the government must make. So, the democratic deficit has not been resolved, despite the Prime Minister's promises.
Joe Comartin Windsor—Tecumseh, ON
Madam Chair, I thank my Bloc colleague. One of the suggestions I heard was to have more democracy and more engaged people, as well as to enhance the powers and rights of the political parties. I would like to know whether my colleague has any comments on this. Does he think this is a way to encourage the people of Canada and Quebec to become more engaged with the political system?
Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC
Madam Chair, naturally, the political parties must be given a greater role in this Parliament. Naturally, the political weight of the parties in this House, a forum in which representatives are elected to voice the public's ideas, must be greater. It is also important, among other things, for Quebec to be able to retain this significant representation in the House of Commons.
I think it is possible to ensure that the diversity of opinions and the ideas represented by each political party can be expressed both in committees and in the House. However, we must never forget that each political party has this important duty. When a party makes decisions, it must do so in accordance with the true opinions of the voting public. In my view, this is fundamental.
The last few days and weeks have been quite unprecedented. We cannot deny that. The NDP was asked to form an alliance with the Liberal Party of Canada. Is this really what voters wanted? I cannot answer that question. However, by electing us, voters have given us an awesome duty and responsibility. So we must do our duty, in keeping with the convictions of the public, who have agreed to delegate some of their responsibilities to their elected representatives.
So, yes, greater transparency is essential. The political parties must play a greater role. Naturally, the electoral system plays an important role in how these political parties are represented. We must ensure, too, that this balance is maintained, respecting the ability of each province, and ensure a healthy and equitable representation in this institution.
Joe Comartin Windsor—Tecumseh, ON
Madam Chair, I rise with some appreciation for the process that we are using but I want to say to my colleague from the Bloc that I share a great deal of his concern over the historical role that the present Prime Minister has played and the previous prime minister and the one before that in concentrating so much power in the Prime Minister's Office, oftentimes to the exclusion of the departments, the ministers, this House and the electorate generally in Canada.
In preparation for this evening I spent some time reviewing material of other authors and researchers who have done work on the whole issue of the term that is becoming popular, which is civic literacy. In the course of doing that, I have to acknowledge the work of our colleague from Ottawa Centre who provided me with a good deal of this background and pointed me in a certain direction.
One of the authors he pointed me to was Henry Milner who has done a great deal of analysis on civic literacy and how it is achieved. A good deal of his work was done in countries in the northern part of Europe and then some comparison work with other democracies in the world. He came up with a list of ways of achieving a greater civic participation by all citizenry. One of the points that we should make is that he spent a good deal of time looking at Denmark specifically, as well a number of the other northern European countries.
While in Denmark he did quite extensive research in terms of trying to ascertain why the rate of participation in Denmark was substantially higher than it was in Canada, oftentimes exceeding 80% or 85% of eligible voters. One of the conclusions he came to was that voter participation was higher in countries where people read newspapers. In Denmark the average citizen reads three to five newspapers a day from a broad spectrum of newspapers across the ideological parameters and they do that on a regular basis. There was an exact correspondence to the people who read multiple newspapers to the percentage of the population that voted. It was almost an exact number.
He said that there were five things a government really had to do to make sure civic literacy was achieved to its epitome. The first one on his list was encouraging newspaper reading. He pointed out that a number of northern European countries provide public subsidies to newspapers to ensure they are widely available. It is an interesting concept given the way our newspapers function in this country.
The next one was to make sure that there was not an overreliance on commercial TV and that public broadcasting was readily available, well funded and, in effect, useful in developing that civic literacy. He talked a great deal about the need for society to ensure that the maximum amount of intellectual awareness is guaranteed and provided for by that particular society, and public television was one of the ways of doing that.
The next one is interesting given the current experience we are undergoing, at least at the federal level. He says that we should limit the authority and power of money in politics. Of course the last election in this country was run under legislation that substantially reduced the ability of large monied interests to have influence in politics.
Looking again at the experiences in both the province of Quebec and the province of Manitoba, which have been ahead of us in working on that, it has changed the way politics function in those provinces. More important, from the analysis that I have made of those provinces, it has engaged the average citizen more extensively than I see in other provinces where money is still a major factor in elections.
The next point he made was that society and governments had to enact transparent laws and regulations. Coming out of a legal background myself, I can identify with the difficulty that the average citizen has in understanding our laws, being able to read them and understand them, even with post-secondary university degrees. If one does not have a law degree, a good deal of our legislation is quite frankly not very comprehensible. That is something I would suggest that we need to work on, and it was the same findings he made.
The final point he made is what I think we will deal with to a more extensive degree in one of the subsequent take note debates on trying to expand democracy in the country. That is the issue of governance and the use of a consensual model, that the first past the post, which is the present system we have, does not lead to this and that we go to a consensual model of proportional representation where both during and after the election and during the whole period of governance after an election the interests and policies of a wide range of parties and interests are reflected in the House, first is the natural representation. However, in terms of the nature of not having majority governments. where one party dominates the House exclusively, we always will have a Parliament, the law-making body, forced to deal with the interests of other parties and other sectors of society. Therefore, we never have a very narrow scope. It always will be a broad one. We have seen some really good examples of how that does not work well at the provincial level in particular, but also at the federal level.
He comes back to the importance of this repeatedly in his analysis by arguing that if we do not have that model just about anything else we do to try to develop civic literacy is doomed to fail. If the average citizen does not feel Parliament, the House or houses if it is bicameral, are making decisions on a consensus basis, by building consensus in the country, they are going to be much less interested in participating on an ongoing basis in their governance.
I was interested to listen to the comments by the minister. We heard about a number of things we could do. I agree with him on the point he made about the need for most of us to have greater resources as members of Parliament. For instance, I have tried to hold public debates and forums in my riding and I have felt inadequate in my ability to do them as often as I like. If I had the resources, I could conduct public debates in my riding, and perhaps the city as a whole, where people from different perspectives could come to and take part in, or run seminars and forums that would encourage that kind of debate.
I just spent the weekend in Windsor speaking to one of our city councillors. She said that she needed to do more of that but she did not have the resources.
The minister spoke about the need to try to democratize our committees in the House. I agree that we should be doing that. We could look at the English experience and how they do much more work in advance before the laws are put to the House. Committees and representatives deal with them at that level.
I would like to conclude by saying we will be unable to do that unless we have a government forum that builds this consensus. If it does not come with that attitude, with that as an essential theme, we will not get any of those other democratic reforms in place.
Raymond Simard Parliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons
Madam Chair, I would like to pose a question to my hon. colleague. His comments were very valuable. I believe we on this side have offered a legitimate debate on citizen engagement. I think one reason Canadians are skeptical is because when we make this kind of an offer and people do not take us up on it and treat it seriously, it is an issue. I appreciate the comments. Some of these things are very valuable.
In the member's studies has he been able to identify some of the options when we work with different demographic groups? For instance, we know there is a huge issue with young people not voting. I thought the member's comments about people reading newspapers was very interesting. Are there any comments on how we can engage younger people in this process?