House of Commons Hansard #18 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senate.

Topics

(Return tabled)

*Question No. 72
Starred Questions
Routine Proceedings

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all remaining questions be allowed to stand.

*Question No. 72
Starred Questions
Routine Proceedings

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Is that agreed?

*Question No. 72
Starred Questions
Routine Proceedings

12:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-19, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate tenure), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:10 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Bloc Québécois about Bill C-19, which would reform the Senate. To start, I would like to say that the Bloc Québécois is against this bill in principle. I will give five reasons, which I will explain later on.

First, Canadian institutions cannot be reformed. By using bills to reform the Senate instead of a constitutional amendment, the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party are confirming what has become clear to us, the sovereignists: it is impossible to significantly amend the Constitution.

Second, Parliament cannot unilaterally change the Senate without amending the Constitution.

Third, even if it were reformed, the Senate is a useless institution. A second elected House is useless and all the provinces have already scrapped their upper chamber.

Fourth, limiting a senator's term and indirectly electing senators does not make the Senate democratic, as I will explain later on.

Fifth, by further legitimizing the federal Senate, the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party want to undermine the authority of provincial premiers.

The very first point I made at the beginning of my speech was that Canadian institutions cannot be reformed. It is becoming increasing clear to Quebeckers that Canada just cannot be reformed. The failure of Meech and Charlottetown speaks volumes. Twice Canada has rejected Quebec's aspirations.

Our party, the Bloc Québécois, was born out of the realization that Canada could not be reformed. It was established in 1990 in response to the federal government's failure to find a formula meeting Quebec's minimum demands so that Quebec could rejoin the constitutional fold, which it chose not to do in 1982.

Even the Conservative government recognizes that Canada cannot be reformed. By reforming the Senate through bills instead of a constitutional amendment, the Prime Minister and the Conservatives are confirming what has become obvious: it is impossible to amend the Constitution in any significant way.

The many attempts at reforming the Senate illustrate the Canadian impasse, or dead end, perfectly. Senate reform proposals were brought forward as early as 1874. A mere seven years after Confederation, the Senate of Canada was the subject of criticism and calls for reform. On April 12, 1874, as reported in the April 13, 1874 Debates of the House of Commons, the House of Commons considered a resolution by David Mills, subsequently Minister of Justice and member of the Supreme Court. The motion recommended that the Constitution be reformed “so as to confer upon each Province the power of selecting its own Senators”. That is an except from the April 13, 1874 Debates of the House of Commons.

One hundred and thirty-three years later, we are still debating the issue. According to Senator Serge Joyal, who wrote a piece on Senate reform, in the past thirty years alone, there have been at least 26 proposals for Senate reform. Take for example the ones put forward by the Canada West Foundation in 1981, the Alberta select special committee in 1985, the Molgat-Cosgrove committee in 1984, the Macdonald commission in 1985, the Meech Lake Accord in 1991, the Beaudoin-Dobbie committee in 1992 and the Charlottetown proposal in 1992.

Our party, the Bloc Québécois, believes that the proposed Senate reform is a slap in the face for Quebec federalists. In fact, the minimum position of successive governments in Quebec on Senate reform has always been clear: there will be no Senate reform without first settling the question of Quebec's status. In 1989, Robert Bourassa, who cannot be accused of being a sovereignist premier, said that he did not wish to discuss Senate reform before the Meech Lake accord was ratified. In 1992, Gil Rémillard said that Quebec's signing of an agreement on senate reform would depend on the outcome of negotiations on the concept of a distinct society, the division of powers and the federal spending power.

With the Conservative government's Bills S-4 and C-47, the Prime Minister is proceeding with piecemeal reform of the Senate without satisfying the minimum conditions stipulated by Quebec. I reiterate that any Senate reform without the agreement of Quebec is a slap in the face for Quebec federalists.

The second point raised is the fact that the Senate cannot be changed unilaterally and without a constitutional amendment. The Canadian Constitution is a federal constitution. Consequently, there are reasons why changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made by Parliament alone and should be part of the constitutional process involving Quebec and the other provinces.

In the late 70s, the Supreme Court of Canada examined Parliament's ability to amend on its own the constitutional provisions concerning the Senate. According to its decision, known as Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] 1 S.C.R. 54, decisions pertaining to major changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made unilaterally.

Under the Constitution, all reforms of Senate powers, the means of selecting senators, the number of senators to which each province is entitled and residency requirements for senators, can only be made in consultation with Quebec and the provinces. Once again, the Conservative modus operandi of this Prime Minister and of this government is to not respect the Constitution.

Benoît Pelletier, the Quebec Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, recently reiterated Quebec's traditional position. And Benoît Pelletier is not a sovereignist minister; he is a member of the Liberal Party of Quebec. He said in a press release:

The Government of Quebec does not believe that this falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction. “Given that the Senate is a crucial part of the Canadian federal compromise, it is clear to us that under the Constitution Act, 1982, and the regional veto act, the Senate can be neither reformed nor abolished without Quebec's consent.”

That is an excerpt from Minister Pelletier's press release on November 7, 2007.

That same day, Quebec's National Assembly unanimously passed the following motion. I am taking the time to read it because it is the view traditionally espoused by all Quebeckers, including federalist Quebeckers.

That the National Assembly of Québec reaffirm to the Federal Government and to the Parliament of Canada that no modification to the Canadian Senate may be carried out without the consent of the Government of Québec and the National Assembly.

The Bloc Québécois is against this bill for a third reason, which is that even a reformed Senate would be a useless institution. A second elected house is not necessary.

Initially, the Senate was supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought that also protected regional interests. Regional equality in the Senate was supposed to counterbalance representation in the House. However, it seems that partisanship has gained the upper hand over regional representation, thus rendering null and void the purpose of the other place, which has a tendency to follow the lead of the House of Commons.

Indirect election of senators would not improve this situation; quite the opposite. The electoral process tends to emphasize the role of political parties to such a degree that indirectly elected senators would likely be more concerned about their party's interests than about their region's.

How can this government justify having a Senate whose responsibilities would be much like those of the House of Commons at a cost of $81 million per year, according to the 2006-07 public accounts?

Moreover, given the uselessness of the Senate, I should point out that all provinces have done away with their upper chambers. No province has had an upper chamber since Quebec abolished its legislative council in 1968.

It is interesting to note that several provincial upper chambers at least had the virtue of being elected, unlike today's Senate of Canada. Prince Edward Island's legislative council was elected as of 1862, and the Province of Canada's as of 1857. Nevertheless, as I said, all of those upper houses have been abolished.

Fourth, limiting the tenure of senators would not make the Senate democratic. In many respects, despite the proposed reform, that is, an eight-year term and the indirect election of senators, the Senate would remain a democratic aberration.

On one hand, despite Bill C-19, it would be nearly impossible to remove senators. Once appointed, senators would never have to face the public again. Thus, they would be less sensitive to public opinion, since there would be no risk of losing the next election.

Furthermore, public consultation is not binding. The Prime Minister maintains the authority to appoint or not appoint the senators chosen by the public. The Prime Minister could therefore decide not to appoint a candidate selected by the public. Besides, how can we trust this Prime Minister, who did not hesitate to appoint Michael Fortier to the Senate, even though he himself criticized the Liberals' partisan appointments to the Senate?

In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear as time goes by in this Parliament that the Conservatives and the Liberals are one and the same.

Voters are not represented equally in the Senate. The distribution of seats on a regional basis, rather than on a demographic basis, leads to democratic aberrations. For instance, how can anyone justify the fact that a senator from Quebec represents 244,000 voters, while a senator from Prince Edward Island represents 27,000?

Does the vote of a Quebecker mean less than that of a voter from Charlottetown? These are the questions that need to be addressed.

Not everyone is eligible to become a senator. The Constitution still requires that, in order to become a senator, a person must be at least 30 years old and own at least $4,000 of equity in land in the province represented. These conditions make it impossible for underprivileged people and young people to access such a position. Lastly, an indirectly elected senate would undermine the parliamentary system, a British parliamentary system. The executive branch relies on the trust of the House of Commons, members of which are elected.

The election of the Senate alone would undermine the preeminence of the House of Commons and would create confusion. The election of two Houses would complicate the issue of preponderance and consequently would weaken the parliamentary system. This is why all the provinces did away with their upper house. Once again, we do not understand why the Conservatives are not reacting and why they do not understand this reality, a reality that the provinces have understood for several generations, which is why they eliminated their upper house.

The government's real motivation, and that is the issue, is to marginalize the nation of Quebec. Under the pretext of an orthodox reform of federalism, the Conservative government is proposing shattering the balance of the federation.

In Australia and the United States, having an elected senate has enhanced the legitimacy of the federal government and has “nationalized” public life rather than serve the representation of the federated states within federal institutions.

To be heard in Congress, the American states have been reduced to being lobbyists. Senators elected to represent an entire province would overshadow the authority of the provincial premiers and run the risk of supplanting them as regional representatives.

That is what the proponents of a “triple E” Senate want: a federal Parliament that would be more legitimate because its elected members were more sensitive to regional interests.

Quebeckers would never stand idly by as their own province blithely accepted Senate reform. The Bloc Québécois is still the only defender of the interests of Quebeckers and of the National Assembly of Quebec. That is why I am pleased to reiterate the position of the National Assembly, which was presented by Mr. Pelletier, a federalist minister. You can see why Quebeckers have been voting for us in election after election since 1993: because sometimes we are able to put aside our orientation to deliver a message from Quebeckers. In this case, we are also delivering a message from federalist Quebeckers who feel wronged by the Conservative Party, as they were by the Liberal Party.

I will read the motion of the National Assembly that was passed unanimously, in other words, by all parties in Quebec:

That the National Assembly of Québec reaffirm to the Federal Government and to the Parliament of Canada that no modification to the Canadian Senate may be carried out without the consent of the Government of Québec and the National Assembly.

I find it very difficult to understand, politically, how members from Quebec can rise in this House to go against a unanimous resolution of the Quebec National Assembly. It is probably very difficult to understand because Quebec is the province that, for a number of reasons—because it has been ostracized by the federal Canadian system—is the most aware of everything going on here, in Ottawa.

When the federalist and sovereignist parties in Quebec City decide together to deliver a clear message, that the Senate cannot be changed because the Constitution requires the provinces' consent, and when Quebec says that the Senate should not be changed—as stated in the motion—I find it difficult to understand how elected members from Quebec here, in Ottawa, can rise in this House and defend bills like Bill C-19, which goes against the wishes of the Quebec National Assembly. This means that they have decided to oppose the position traditionally held by all Quebeckers.

It is even more difficult to understand because the current Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities was a minister in a Quebec government. I do not understand how he can defend a bill today, when, even under the government in which this minister was elected—the Bourassa government—Quebec had always refused, as long as it had not rejoined the constitutional fold, to agree to any amendments related to the Senate.

Politics has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of. The Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities proves that every day when he gets up to defend the Conservative government's position and goes against the interests of Quebeckers. This is not the first time.

The Conservatives went against Quebeckers' interests this week on the issue of assistance for the manufacturing and forestry sectors. They dared to vote against a Bloc Québécois motion calling on the government to reinstate assistance programs in regions hit by the crisis in the manufacturing and forestry industries, which are in an economic recession. Tables provided by the Conservative government prove as much.

But the Conservatives stood and voted against the motion and the Liberals from Quebec remained seated, unable to defend the interests of working people who are going to have a tough time this Christmas. The Christmas season is around the corner. People will be celebrating everywhere, but some families will find Christmas more difficult this year, either because workers have lost their jobs or because they are about to. These people will have to think twice about giving gifts this year. I am disappointed that the Quebec members did not stand up this week to defend the interests of the people in their ridings who are losing their manufacturing and forestry jobs.

These sectors are being doubly hit by the increase in gas prices, the higher Canadian dollar and the softwood lumber crisis in the forestry sector. Because of the collective lack of conscience of the Conservative and Liberal members from Quebec, many people are becoming disinterested in politics. It is very difficult, because we have to live with that every day.

Bill C-19, which the Conservatives have introduced, runs counter to the interests of Quebeckers, as expressed in a unanimous motion by the National Assembly. They are going to vote for Bill C-19, which is intended to bring about Senate reform that is not wanted by Quebec, by the Government of Quebec or by the National Assembly, which passed a unanimous motion.

Day after day, we watch as members who were elected in Quebec fail to defend the interests of Quebeckers. There is a good reason why Quebeckers have chosen mainly Bloc Québécois members to represent them year after year since 1993 and will continue to do so, no matter what happens in the next election.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Pontiac
Québec

Conservative

Lawrence Cannon Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I cannot remain silent on such a debate and on the words of my colleague and good friend.

I share with my friend and hon. member a number of values as a Quebecker, but I do not share his vision for the future of Quebeckers and neither do a good number of our colleagues in this House.

I always marvel at Bloc Québécois members who say they have been defending the interests of Quebec in this chamber since 1993. They make countless references in their speeches to the best interests of Quebec, or the interests of Quebec.

But it is action that counts. I have a question for my hon. colleague. I can anticipate his response and it will not be the one I am hoping for. I know full well that in his heart, he is not in favour of reforming Canadian federalism. If he were in favour of reforming Canadian federalism, he would not be here in the House.

Rather than find ways to honestly and truly represent what Quebeckers have done, said and asked for—I am talking about a population that has twice in its history chosen to stay within a united Canada, to remain a nation within a united Canada—the Bloc focuses on its own agenda.

In my opinion, this is a relatively clear signal. For everyone here, this means we have to work on reforming Canadian federalism. I would like the hon. member to tell me how an unelected upper chamber, in its current form, can necessarily advance the democratic governance of our country. I would ask him to explain just that. I do not want him to look back at 1992, or 1993 or Meech or all that. I would like him to say a few words specifically on this.

When someone says they are here to represent interests, I could play cat and mouse with him and ask him why his political party voted against the economic statement, thereby refusing to allow Quebeckers to have $12 billion in tax cuts, both in income tax and the GST. But I would not do that.

I would like him to stick closely to the wording of my question.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I will be pleased to reply to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. I will quote Benoît Pelletier, Quebec minister of intergovernmental affairs. By the way, if the Minister of Transport ever wants to speak with him, Mr. Pelletier is a member from the Outaouais whom he must surely see at various events because part of his riding is probably adjacent to that of Mr. Pelletier. Therefore, I will share with him what Mr. Pelletier said recently.

Given that the Senate is at the heart of the Canadian federal compromise, it is evident to us that any Senate reform or its abolition cannot proceed without the consent of Quebec, in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982 and the Act respecting constitutional amendments (regional veto).

Once again, we do such a good job of defending Quebec's interests that, in this House, we quote a federalist Liberal minister who rightfully puts on notice the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities and all his Quebec colleagues. Why are they heading down this road? The Senate is an example of Canadian federalism; they should not be fiddling with it! They do not have the right to make changes without the consent of the provinces.

For the benefit of the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, here is the motion recently adopted by Quebec's National Assembly.

That the National Assembly of Quebec reaffirm to the federal government and to the Parliament of Canada that any reform of the Senate of Canada cannot be made without the consent of the Government of Quebec and of the National Assembly.

My colleague is a member of the Conservative Party and I am a member of the Bloc Québécois; in this House, it is my party that represents the interests and the values of Quebec. Once again, even Quebec federalists are disappointed by the Conservative's treatment of the constitutional file.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would have a few little comments to make concerning the remarks of my friend from the Bloc Québécois.

He has given an impression which suggests to me that he is mistaken about the importance of the second chamber, the upper chamber, among all the legislative assemblies. He said that here, in Canada, all the provinces had abolished their second chambers. Granted, that was the practice in Canada, but it is a very different story in the rest of the world.

In the other big federations besides Canada, such as the United States, Australia and other geographically smaller but nonetheless very important federations like Switzerland, Germany and Austria, there is a second chamber which plays a very significant role with respect to legislation. The same is true of the states, provinces or townships of federations worldwide.

In the United States, only one of the 50 states, Nebraska, has abolished its second chamber. In Australia, Queensland is the only one to have done so.

What is the practice in Canada is therefore not a universal practice. As regards chambers at the national level, there are only seven countries seriously considering abolishing their second chambers. In my opinion, that is a mistake.

In addition, the member suggested that, in Australia and the United States, introducing a second democratic chamber had weakened the strength, power and legitimacy of the states. I do not think that is the real reason behind the states' loss of power in these two federations. We are therefore not at risk here.

In the other two federations, it was the federal spending power in state jurisdiction that weakened the states' power. In Canada, our government has put in place measures dealing specifically with that problem. I just want to point out that this danger does not exist in our country.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:35 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, first of all, I am rather surprised by these comments from my Conservative colleague, since he just said it was a mistake for the provinces to abolish their upper houses. On the contrary, I think the provinces did so in a moment of great lucidity. My colleague did in fact say that they made a mistake. He said that, in Australia, only one province has eliminated its upper house and that, in the United States, only one state has done so, as though eliminating their upper houses was a mistake on the part of Canada's provinces.

I would not want to be in the position of the Americans or the Australians, given their way of doing things. I am happy the provinces abolished their upper houses. I am even more surprised by the fact that he compared power and the loss of state autonomy to Congress in the United States, saying that this would not be the case in Canada. On the contrary, this worries me, since that is exactly what the Conservative Party wants to do.

It is not true that the Conservative government wants to limit the federal spending power. We know this. In the Speech from the Throne, the Conservatives talked about shared-cost jurisdictions. Yet, they no longer exist. This means that they reserve the right to spend in all other jurisdictions. That worries me even more. I was against this bill before, and now I am opposed twice as much, after my Conservative colleague's speech.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:35 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I truly appreciate the opportunity to speak to this issue because it is one I feel very strongly about. The basis for that is the fact that every one of us here had to knock on thousands of doors, be accountable for what we have done, and what we are going to do. We know that we have to go back to those same doors and be accountable for what we did here, what we said, and how we acted. In that other place, one only has to knock on one door, once, for life.

As someone who has travelled as a member of Parliament to other countries to assist in observing their elections, I want to say that it is downright embarrassing when those countries look at us as the evolution of the democratic process and hold it out as an ideal that they would love to be like Canada. Then we have this embarrassing albatross around our neck where the upper house is appointed for life.

I know I am not going to get through all my issues now, so I will be looking for other opportunities to speak because there is a lot to be said about this issue.

I have had the opportunity to work with individual senators and I would like to say that it was a horrible experience, that they are not very good people, and that they do not work very hard and this and that. However, none of its true. My experience with individual senators is that they are outstanding individuals. They truly are. Whether they have been the head of a mission that I have been a part of internationally or working on committee, they are hard-working, they care, they are certainly more than competent, and it is a joy to work with them as fellow Canadians. Where I have trouble is that they are fellow lawmakers.

I care enough about some of them that if one takes a look at my current calendar for December, it is me and a Conservative senator no less, arm in arm no less, waving Merry Christmas from Kiev, Ukraine where we were on one of those international election monitoring missions. By the way we were both cold sober.

It is a reflection of the fact that to me it is not about the individuals. In fact, the more I meet the more impressed I am. However, that alone is nowhere near reason enough to sustain the Senate. If we need good people to do good deeds, we have lots of opportunities to do that and if we do not think there are enough we can create more.

Telling me that senators produce good reports and individually they do good things does not cut it. If that is all they were about, a place of good deeds, that would be a whole other matter; a little expensive, a little bit of unnecessary pomp and ceremony one might argue, but if that is all they did, we would not be having this debate.

No, the issue is not whether or not the work that they do is good. The question is whether or not the powers they have are legitimate in a modern democracy. I argue and my colleagues argue, no.

I would like to go through some of the issues that I believe others have or will use in support of keeping the Senate, amended or otherwise.

First, this is a place of sober second thought. No, I am not going to touch the word “sober” because it is not about personalities and I am not going to go there and play those games.

We know historically that they were appointed to keep the House of Commons, which was the ordinary commoners, from running amok. We get into this mob atmosphere and we start doing crazy things, but we have these grown-ups in the other place who are there to be above that, who do not get bothered by partisan politics and some of the pettiness that goes on in the House of Commons. They are above that. They will look at the issues and say, “What is good for Canada? Unlike those House of Commoners who only care about elections, we will look at the issue”.

If that was the truth and that was the beginning and the end of it, I might have some room to give it a little bit of weight. The reality is that most senators go to their caucus meetings, but not all. There are independents. Not all go to their caucuses and not all vote according to their caucus line, but that is the same here, so there is nothing special about that. However, most of them go to caucus meetings. They do not go to caucus meetings to have sober second thoughts. They go to caucus meetings to be a part of their party's position on the issue of the day and then they just carry out their part of it in that place.

If we have any doubt about that, we should keep in mind that in the Senate there is a government leader in the Senate who is in the cabinet. How much sober second thought do we think is going on among cabinet ministers? Do we think that senator says, “Wait a minute. I need everybody to get above this partisan discussion and talk about what's in the best interest of Canada”? Come along. The sober second thought thing sounds good, but has nothing to do with reality.

The fact of the matter is that most of the time when the Senate has used its powers--and it has great power; it just does not use it often, but it does use it a little bit--we know when senators block legislation, it is for partisan reasons. It is no different from what happens in this place. That is what is so upsetting about arguing that this is all about sober second thought, that a check and balance is needed on those of us who are elected here by the people, that somehow we may run amok, or not put the interests of our nation first when, at the end of the day, we decide what to do.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Louder.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will speak louder if the member has trouble hearing me. I don't usually have that problem, but I will speak louder for him.

Let us face it. Many senators, not all, but many of them are full time party organizers. They are chairs of national campaigns. They are chairs of fundraising. It is all about politics because they do not have the nuisance of having to go back to a riding and talk to Canadians, let alone be accountable to those same Canadians.

What is another issue? That senators represent their provinces. I suppose at some point maybe they do, and I will offer up that maybe in some of the smaller provinces there is a closer relationship between the MPs, the senators, the government of the day and ensuring that the provinces' rights are put forward, but I always thought that was the responsibility of each of us.

I am a member of this national place. I am an Ontario MP. I happen to be chair of the Ontario NDP caucus. My role, and your role, Mr. Speaker, and that of every member here is to represent our constituents and by doing that we are representing our community and our province. I would also--

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

The hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George is rising on a point of order.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Mr. Speaker, I hope it is a point of order, but I need some clarification. I have been here for a number of years and I have never seen the complete official opposition benches empty. I am wondering whether this is--