House of Commons Hansard #51 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Jonathan Tremblay Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, the bill definitely would not pass. We do not know what kind of parliamentary system the people want. They deserve to make that decision and they deserve a thorough debate about the future form of our parliamentary system, our House and our Senate.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

November 22nd, 2011 / 11:20 a.m.

NDP

Pierre Dionne Labelle Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, my colleagues, as elected members, have a duty to be accountable, but members of the archaic Senate do not have this moral duty.

This relic is a home for numerous defeated politicians who are appointed for partisan purposes, which was the case for some Conservatives who lost the election and were still rewarded by the Prime Minister. I am not the first person to use the word “relic”. In fact, the Prime Minister himself described the Senate as a relic of the 19th century. Now that he is no longer talking about abolishing it, as he used to do, he wants to reform it based on equally outdated values. Why not donate this relic to the Museum of Civilization?

You do not have to be able to predict the future to know that this bill will fail, as did the 13 other attempts at reform before it. The NDP's long-standing belief in abolishing the Senate dates back to the 1930s, and it has constantly been reaffirmed by the party. Yes, the New Democratic Party will vote against the bill and will voice its desire to abolish the Senate, pure and simple. If the government is wondering about the public's opinion on this, we invite it to ask Canadians to voice their opinion through a referendum.

Here is why this bill is going to end up in the dustbin of history. It is undemocratic. The government wants to limit the tenure of all senators summoned after October 14, 2008 to a maximum of nine years. Considering that these individuals are accountable only to the Prime Minister, this is an invitation to hit and run. Moreover, they are entitled to a pension when they leave the Senate. While elected members must face voters at each election to get their verdict, senators are free to completely reject the opinion of Canadians.

The nine-year term set out in the bill confirms this situation, because even if senators were appointed after being elected, they would have the luxury of behaving as they please, without any obligation to go back before voters. The term “election” thus becomes devoid of any moral compass that is part of democratic duty. Since senators will not be allowed to run twice, how can they be accountable to the public? In this regard, the bill does not change anything in the undemocratic basis of the Senate, whose members are accountable only to the Prime Minister. A senator will only be accountable to the Prime Minister, as has always been the case. The bill only provides that a list be submitted to the Prime Minister. It does not in any way affect his discretionary powers.

Some may argue that the Prime Minister will never dare oppose the public's choice, but recent history has shown that the Prime Minister can violate this principle, as he did on the issue of fixed election dates.

I am going to digress a bit and talk about my thoughts while listening to hon. members and what the majority of people think of the Senate. To most people, the Senate is not a big concern. Except for the fact that it costs a lot of money, people do not wake up in the morning thinking about the Senate. For years, I too did not think about those individuals sitting over there and quietly passing the time while waiting for a well-deserved retirement. I did not think about the Senate until Ms. Verner was appointed there. To me, that was a fundamental violation of the democratic process. Someone who had lost all authority through a democratic process was promoted to the Senate with a golden pension for the rest of her life, this for services rendered to the Conservative government. There is a problem there.

There is a second problem. The Senate blocked two bills passed by a majority of members in a Parliament that required the agreement of all parties in order to make a firm decision. I am referring to Bill C-311, An Act to ensure Canada assumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change, which the Senate killed, and Bill C-393, An Act to amend the Patent Act (drugs for international humanitarian purposes) and to make a consequential amendment to another Act.

In addition to posing a problem of legitimacy, the people appointed to the Senate have begun to kill bills duly passed by a democratically elected assembly. This is starting to get serious. Do we want to continue down that road? The Conservative government is going down a path that is fraught with danger for the future and for democracy.

It has been said the Prime Minister will take into consideration the provincial nominees or the list submitted when elections are held. I am the first to doubt this, and I am convinced that my colleagues and my friends in the NDP and other parties also have serious doubts about that.

Let us imagine for a moment that cross-Canada elections are held for senators. The list of new senators includes Amir Khadr, a symbol of the new Quebec left. This man is a leading light. His views could lead to social progress in Canada. Would the Prime Minister agree to appoint him to the Senate? Never, that is clear.

François Saillant, a champion of Quebec's homeless people, has been involved in every fight to increase social housing in the past 25 years. Would the Prime Minister appoint him if he were on the list? Never.

If Steven Guilbeault were on the list submitted by Canadians, would he be appointed as a senator by the Prime Minister? Of course not. I am convinced that members of the Green Party share my belief. Steven Guilbeault would never be appointed, nor would Laure Waridel of the organization Équiterre. The government does not want supporters of fair trade. We know that trade is unfair in the House. We have to leave it alone.

Would David Suzuki be appointed if he were on the list? I am convinced that the Conservatives would not want to appoint David Suzuki to the Senate.

Would astrophysicist Hubert Reeves be appointed? Would the Prime Minister appoint an astrophysicist, when this party denies scientific facts and scientific actions? Never.

Vivian Labrie founded the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté, which fights to try to get the government to take the reality facing those most in need into account when making decisions. It fights to prevent decisions that will affect the poorest one-fifth of the population. Would this government appoint Ms. Labrie to the Senate? Never.

So this shatters the illusion and the fantasy that the Prime Minister would definitely appoint all of the senators proposed. That is not true. I would like to come back to my speech, which does not necessarily address that, but this raises a question. Basically, is it not dishonest to claim such things, when we all know the political stripes of the people appointed to the Senate?

The Prime Minister is under no obligation to appoint someone who has been elected by a province or territory. This bill therefore does not change how senators are appointed, since the Prime Minister is still free to choose whomever he wants to appoint to the position of senator. How can anyone believe that he will respect the democratic will of the people? He clearly does not understand the notion of democratic accountability. The Conservatives say that the provinces would be able to choose any system they like to elect senators, as long as the system complies with basic democratic principles. The facts show that this government knows very little about basic democratic rules. We cannot help but be cynical, since the government acts as though it was elected by 100% of the population when, clearly, that is not the case.

Quebec has called this bill unconstitutional. The provincial government said that it would go to court if this bill were passed without prior consultation with the provinces. What do the Conservatives want to do, reopen a constitutional debate? What a great way to be put through the wringer.

In closing, I wish I could find the words that would bring this government back to its senses and make it see that this issue must be resolved by the people.

We invite the government to hold a referendum if it is certain about the reform it wants to propose. I remain convinced that all Canadians would like to do away with this relic and relegate the Senate to the Canadian history museum.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, the member opposite makes the exact point that we are making. This bill would allow for the election of senators. If the individual, who the member was speaking of before, Mr. Suzuki, was interested in becoming a senator, and he might even be a non-partisan senator, who knows, this bill would give him the opportunity to run for that position. It is exactly the democracy that we are advocating for on this side of the House.

Why are the New Democrats opposed to David Suzuki having the ability to run for the Senate?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Pierre Dionne Labelle Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, if the hon. member is so fond of David Suzuki, Hubert Reeves, Vivian Labrie and Steven Guilbeault, why did his government not appoint them directly instead of appointing Ms. Verner and other associates involved in the financing of their party? He is all talk.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Mike Sullivan York South—Weston, ON

Madam Speaker, I found that to be a very enlightening and interesting speech.

It is clear that the member on the other side of the House has not read the bill. Whether a person runs for election or not, it does not mean that the person would become a senator. It means the person's name would be put on a list which the Prime Minister could look at. The Prime Minister would have the right to say no according to this bill. The Prime Minister certainly would say no if somebody on that list was someone with whom he vehemently disagreed. He would never appoint the person to the Senate.

Would the member like to comment further on that?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Pierre Dionne Labelle Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his question.

I did mention people and, if I took the time to talk about them, it is because they actively participate in Canadian debate but the Conservative government will never recognize them as having a vision for Canada's future. This government is lacking a vision for the future, a vision on climate change, trade, industry and energy issues.

In civil society, these people participate in this thought process. However, the members opposite do not. The proof? We are discussing the Senate and no one is rising to speak today. The Conservatives have decided that they are not interested and that everything is fine. They do not act like a majority government but like a government that does not care about Canadians or about the message that the provinces and the people regularly send about these different bills. The Conservatives do what they want. Despite the fact that 70% of people are against some of the provisions they are bringing before the House, the Conservatives are stubborn; they fight and they introduce those provisions.

Clearly, the speeches and the responses that have been given today are really intended to show Canadians the government's infamous way of making a mockery of democracy.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

The hon. member for Nickel Belt for a quick question.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Claude Gravelle Nickel Belt, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to commend the hon. member for Rivière-du-Nord for his wonderful speech about the Senate.

Many provincial premiers have said that the Senate should be abolished. Why does the hon. member think that the government does not hold a referendum to find out what Canadians want to do about the Senate?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Pierre Dionne Labelle Rivière-du-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, I am finding it difficult to get inside the Prime Minister's head. How has he switched from a vision in which he called for abolition of the Senate, when he called the Senate a relic of the past, to a vision of a Senate of elected representatives?

Recently, the Senate has been used for undemocratic purposes and a lot of people on that side of the House are pleased with that undemocratic atmosphere. I have the impression that they want to keep going in that direction and systematically block democratic debate, as we are now seeing in committees and in the House. That would be another way of infringing the prerogatives of Parliament.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, I am very happy to be speaking to the Senate reform bill.

First, let me say that I am very disappointed that the government has put up no speakers. I wonder just how important this bill is to the Conservatives if they have nothing to say.

As members know, New Democrats have long advocated for abolishing the Senate. This has been our position since the 1930s. Very recent polling shows that Canadians are open to having a closer examination of the value of the Senate in the 21st century and that we should carefully look at Senate abolition because it is achievable and it is a balanced solution.

The NDP believes that the Senate is a 19th century institution, an anachronism that is unnecessary in a modern 21st century democracy like Canada's. Senators only sit 90 days of the year and they cost taxpayers over $90 million annually. The Muskoka minister's $50 million pales in comparison. Democracies such as Denmark and New Zealand have long since eliminated their outdated senates. This decision was also undertaken many years ago by our own provincial governments. There are many who support the NDP position, including the premiers of several provinces.

For example, the premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, stated in May of this year:

I support abolishing the Senate. I don't think the Senate plays a useful role. I think that they've outlived their usefulness to our country.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty echoed Ms. Clark's comments:

We think the simplest thing to do is abolish it, and I think, frankly, to reform it in any substantive way is just not possible. We have one elected accountable body that sits in Ottawa for us in the House of Commons. I just don't think we need a second, unelected, unaccountable body.

Even Conservative-friendly premiers condemn the Prime Minister's recent patronage appointments.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said, “It takes away momentum for change at the provincial level and it will probably increase calls that we hear from time to time saying, 'Do we really need this institution?'”

The Senate has become a repository of failed candidates, party fundraisers and professional organizers. These taxpayer subsidized Conservative senators even torpedo legislation passed by the elected members of Parliament. We are talking about bills passed by elected and accountable members of Parliament, such as the late Jack Layton's private member's bill to ensure action on climate change. Also, there was the member for Ottawa Centre's private member's bill to provide affordable AIDS drugs to those suffering in Africa. Both bills were killed by the Senate.

Both of these bills were extremely important and valuable not only to Canadians, but to people around the world. These bills were an opportunity for Canada to shine on the international stage, but the unelected Senate trashed them and left Canadians wondering what on earth has happened to our democracy.

New Democrats would like to abolish the Senate.

In addition to what has already been discussed, this bill has some other problems. It restricts all senators appointed to the Senate after October 14, 2008 to a single, non-renewable nine-year term. Senators would never have to be accountable for campaign promises they made because they would not have to keep them, or for any of the actions that they had taken while in office.

Provinces and territories are given the opportunity to hold elections if they choose. These elections are at the cost of the provinces. The prime minister can then decide if she or he wishes to appoint the senators, but there is absolutely nothing holding the prime minister to appointing anyone who has been elected.

Several provinces have indicated that they have no intention of holding Senate elections. The Province of Quebec has been perfectly clear and called the legislation unconstitutional and said Quebec will launch a provincial court appeal if the bill proceeds without the consultation of the provinces.

The Conservatives and the Liberals seem intent on maintaining an antiquated institution that they have increasingly used for partisan purposes.

New Democrats understand that the Senate is unnecessary and does not serve to further our democracy in any way at all. We will continue our call for a referendum on the abolition of the Senate. In the meantime, we will work hard to expose the dangers that the Conservative agenda on Senate reform pose to the very fabric of our democracy.

Six years ago when the Prime Minister was opposition leader, he knew there was something wrong with an unelected Senate. He thought it was unfair. He called it undemocratic. He also said an appointed Senate, a relic of the 19th century, was what we had. He did not like how the prime minister holds a virtual free hand in the selection of senators. He promised that if he ever got the chance to be the prime minister, he would not name appointed people to the Senate. He insisted that anyone who sits in the Parliament of Canada must be elected by the people he or she represents.

However, the Prime Minister has turned his back on those democratic principles. Instead of solving the problem, he is becoming the problem. The Prime Minister now holds the all-time record for appointing the most significant number of senators in one day. Who are his appointees? The Conservative Party faithful: spin doctors, fundraisers, bagmen, insiders, people such as his former press secretary, his former Conservative Party president, his former national campaign director through two elections, and let us not forget the several defeated Conservative candidates who were rejected by the voters.

The Prime Minister has broken his promise to do politics differently. Not only does he play the same old politics, he plays them better than anyone else, and I mean that in a very negative way.

Last fall the Conservative-dominated Senate was used to veto legislation the Prime Minister simply did not like.

The climate change accountability bill was Canada's only federal climate change legislation. It passed twice in a minority parliament. It was good, solid legislation supported by a majority of elected MPs, legislation embodying the direction Canadians want to take. On November 16, 2010, the Senate defeated Bill C-311 at second reading. There was no committee review or witness hearings. Canada's only legislative effort to fight climate change was gone, killed by the unelected friends of the Prime Minister.

Now unelected Senators seem poised to do the same thing to the NDP labour critic's bill requiring Supreme Court judges to understand both official languages. Former Bill C-232 was duly passed by elected MPs in the previous Parliament, and is now Bill C-208.

Just because someone flipped pancakes for the Conservative Party of Canada does not give that individual the right to override the wishes of elected MPs.

Too often today's Senate is doing partisan work for public money. Speaking of money, Canadians are paying more and more for a discredited institution that does less and less at a time when people are dealing with a slow economic recovery, and the Conservative government is contemplating billions in cutbacks.

Maintaining the Senate costs Canadians around $90 million a year. While folks are looking for jobs and trying to make ends meet when their EI runs out, or scraping by on pensions that do not even cover basic necessities, senators are earning $132,300 a year for a three-day work week. Add in travel and expenses and each senator is costing us about $859,000 a year, all for an institution that will not play any relevant role in the lives of most Canadians.

I can think of a lot of things that do matter to people, such as creating family-supporting jobs, improving public health care, and building decent futures for our kids. Lining the pockets of party insiders just is not high on my or anyone's list.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:45 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Madam Speaker, one of the things that I hope to address later today in my presentation on this bill is the constitutional difficulties of reforming the Senate. I am particularly attracted to the NDP proposal that the Senate should be abolished.

How does the hon. member for London—Fanshawe and her party contemplate getting around the constitutional aspects of Senate protection within our system? How would we engage the provinces and territories to make this happen?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, there clearly will be significant challenges to face in terms of the Constitution.

When I was a member of provincial parliament, we looked at the Charlottetown accord, and realized that any time we take on changes to the Constitution, we face real difficulties.

The point is that Canadians have been very clear. This is an antiquated institution that many Canadians are just not willing to pay for any more.

We would consult with Canadians. We would talk to the provinces. We would find a way of doing it and making sure that the concerns of the people across this country were addressed, while respecting their very clear wish that we move into the 21st century and leave this less than sober second thought bunch behind.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Jonathan Tremblay Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, QC

Madam Speaker, my question concerns the attitude of the government toward the fact that one voter out of three voted for the Conservatives. We have to expect that even some of those voters were opposed to this bill.

I would like my colleague to comment on that. What are the Conservatives trying to do by limiting the number of hours of debate on this bill?

Senate Reform Act
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11:45 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Yes, Madam Speaker, it is very clear. In the last election the Conservative Party garnered 38% of the vote and the rest of Canadians, 62%, voted for other parties.

I have profound concerns about the democratic nature of that. New Democrats have long proposed proportional representation. We think that is the way to make every vote count.

Even more to the point of the gerrymandering of our democracy, both here in the House with time allocation motions and in committees with all kinds of less than democratic means, the Conservatives are undermining what Canadians believe they have, a democratic state.

One of my real concerns, and I think this has been voiced, is in appointing Conservative-friendly senators. Even when this Conservative government is gone--and let that be soon; it cannot come quickly enough--even after it is long gone, there will be that Conservative Senate interfering with the democratic processes in this House by simply voting down legislation that matters, like Mr. Layton's climate change bill and the bill that would have delivered drugs for people suffering from AIDS, malaria and measles in Africa.

We should be ashamed that happened. Yet we have this legislation in front of us that shows no shame, and in fact supports an institution that has clearly been derelict in any kind of duty to Canadians.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

11:50 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Madam Speaker, I do not know if I am really that proud to rise today on the debate of Senate reform because we are not getting Senate reform at all. We are getting Senate stay as it is with a few changes behind the cloak and dagger of what is perceived as Senate reform.

Let me get this straight for the people watching. Only the Conservatives can come up with this. We are going to make the provinces pay for elections. By the way, 40% of people do not vote in a federal election now. I cannot imagine the percentage of people who would love to vote in a Senate election.

Let me get this straight. We would get wonderful people, put their names forward for a Senate election and make the provinces pay for it. For example, if Mr. Smith was elected to be the senator from Nova Scotia, the Prime Minister could say, “No. We don't like that Mr. Smith, the elected person from Nova Scotia. We'll pick someone else.”

Folks will have to help me out with this because I really am missing the so-called democratic reform of this one. If one is going to pick someone else, do it in the first place. It is already being done. Why go to the waste of a sham of a so-called election?

The reality is that every single one of the people in the other chamber is a decent person. I think of Senator Dallaire, Senator Mahovlich, Senator Lang, Senator Meighen and Senator Baker. There are all kinds of them. They are really decent, hard-working, honest people. The premise of the chamber, the so-called chamber of sober second thought--mind, that is not completely gone--is that senators are supposed to peer review legislation that comes from the elected House to ensure that it meets the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Canada.

In theory, that actually sounds pretty good. We select learned people from around the country to go into the Senate. These are people with life experience in a variety of fields. We use their expertise to peer review our legislation. Then, because they do not have a constituency, per se, they can report on issues facing the country. For example, the Kirby report on mental health was quite good. However, we have to ask ourselves, do we need a publicly funded Senate to produce a report like that? There are probably a lot of private entities out there that may have been able to produce the same report. Senator Kirby also did the 1982 report on the east coast fisheries, and that did not go very well. There is good and bad in both of those reports.

Having said that, they get to peer review executive legislation from the House of Commons. But do they peer review executive legislation from the House of Commons? No, they do not. A classic example is Bill C-311 in a previous Parliament. I am looking at some of my colleagues who were here. It passed the democratically elected House of Commons, went through the committee stage, went through third reading and passed, not once, but twice. Bill C-311 then went to the Senate, where it was supposed to be reviewed, but Bill C-311, the environmental bill from the NDP, did not even get to first base. It did not even get to the clubhouse. It did not even get to the parking lot. Some senators stood and said no. There were no witnesses, no discussion, nothing and the Conservative senators absolutely killed it.

If constituents of Canada vote, they take democracy seriously. We have to ask ourselves, where was the democracy in that? I can guarantee that if that happened to a Conservative bill and New Democrat senators killed it, the Conservatives would be screaming from the rafters. They would be doing what Randy White did, with the mariachi band, in 1995 or 1996, standing in front of the Senate, doing a Mexican salsa. I remember those days very well, how they ridiculed the Senate because a certain Mr. Thompson spent most of his time in Mexico.