House of Commons Hansard #63 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senate.

Topics

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Annick Papillon Québec, QC

I apologize, Madam Speaker. I wanted to say that the Prime Minister is a hypocrite in the way he handles Senate appointments.

Why waste time—

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

Order. I also remind the member that she must not use derogatory words in reference to a member of Parliament or the Prime Minister.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Annick Papillon Québec, QC

Madam Speaker, I simply encourage people to look at this Angus Reid poll. They will come to the same conclusions.

Why waste time going through with a reform that no one wants and no one needs and that will likely be declared unconstitutional?

In 2007, in a speech before the Australian Parliament, the Prime Minister talked about the possibility of simply abolishing the Senate. In this speech, the Prime Minister said that Canadians understood that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change or, like the old upper houses of our provinces, vanish. Before his untimely death, Jack Layton said that the solution was to ask Canadians whether they want a Senate.

I repeat that, before wasting money and time, as we are currently doing for completely useless reforms and bills that make no sense, we could talk to the Canadian people and the provinces to simply ask them what they think.

That is what the NDP is proposing.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. member for her fiery remarks that shed some light on the Conservative government's anti-democratic and unconstitutional practices.

Bill C-7 clearly has flaws. Despite the fact that this bill has been introduced three times by the Conservatives, it still has flaws. That shows there is no democracy in the government's will. In addition, the Senate has voted at least twice against the interests of Canadians. For example, it killed a bill on climate change and another bill allowing Canada to send generic drugs to Africa to fight AIDS. Those bills were passed in the House of Commons, but were defeated by the Senate. Meanwhile, a lot of Canadians were in favour of that bill.

Where is the legitimacy? Where is the democracy? How is keeping the Senate relevant, if it goes against the interests, the values and the democracy that Canadians cherish?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

Annick Papillon Québec, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for her question. When we look at Bill C-7, we certainly wonder where the government is heading. We all agree that things are currently not going well with the Senate; Canadians do not value the Senate as an institution. This Senate reform bill would make the situation even more disastrous. I am stressing this point because it is true. It will make the Senate's situation worse and that institution will be even more inadequate than it already is.

Various reform plans are proposed here and there, but they get us nowhere. They do not allow for a real chamber of sober second thought, an upper house independent from the House of Commons, that would enable us to represent the public and to pass bills. The Senate is really an institution that Canadians cannot identify with, and this bill has added no value to it.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for Quebec for her speech. This Senate reform worries me because it gives the Prime Minister the power to appoint whomever he pleases. Even after these elections, he could still choose whomever he liked. Did the Conservatives not promise not to do what previous governments did before them? And in spite of that, have there not been some particularly partisan appointments to the Senate?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Annick Papillon Québec, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles for her question. Canadians are very concerned about the need for transparency and independence. It is something that seems to be important to everyone, but clearly, it is not important to this government. Indeed, its Bill C-7 will not ensure the independence of senators and will not guarantee that they can do their work of sober second thought. That is precisely the point my colleague was raising. No, the government is not keeping the promises it made, nor is it respecting the wishes of Canadian citizens for real control over their institutions.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

Bruce Hyer Thunder Bay—Superior North, ON

Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak about Bill C-7 today.

The Senate was never originally intended to be a career for the prime minister's cronies. In debate on the bill today, many of my colleagues have brought up great points about the government's Senate reform legislation. They have discussed how the so-called election of senators would still leave Senate appointments up to the Prime Minister as he sees fit. The Prime Minister would be under no obligation to follow voters' wishes or to follow any convention at all.

This is important, because our current Prime Minister has shown no hesitation in ignoring our parliamentary conventions when it suits him politically, and we still have no answer to the question of what is to stop the Prime Minister, or any future prime minister, from ignoring non-binding elections.

Members have also brought up the fact that these optional elections would not go to the root of the matter. They would not make senators any more accountable than they are today. Senators would be appointed to a non-renewable nine-year term and would never have to face the electorate more than once.They would not be accountable for anything they did or did not do while in office.

As well, NDP members have touched on the fact that under Bill C-7, anyone who wants to be a senator would have to be chosen by a political party. This leaves little or no room for independent candidates or committed Canadians who do not have political affiliations. These points about the bill are all very valid, and I thank my fellow NDP members for them.

I would like to especially focus on one basic unavoidable fact, which is that any real reform of the upper chamber would require constitutional change. All members in the House should know that. The government knows it, and anyone who has studied the history of Confederation and of our Constitution in high school knows it. The Prime Minister certainly knows it.

Reforming the Senate would require amending the Constitution with the approval of seven out of 10 provinces representing the majority of Canadians. That means Bill C-7 is nothing but a colossal red herring. It may pass in the House and it may even pass in the Senate, but as soon as it is challenged in court by any province--and provinces are already lining up to mount legal challenges--it will be struck down as unconstitutional. Our high school history students could have told us that.

The Prime Minister thinks he can pass this totally symbolic legislation to finally reform our dysfunctional upper chamber, thereby fulfilling a long-term promise to his supporters, and when it is struck down the very next day, he thinks he will be able to throw up his hands, cry crocodile tears and say he tried, and no one will be the wiser.

However, Canadians are not stupid. Bill C-7 is nothing more than a massive waste of time and a waste of taxpayers' money. The only ones who will benefit from this exercise are constitutional lawyers, who will get rich on the taxpayer's dime arguing both sides in court for years. At the end of the day, no real reform will have been done.

Maybe that would suit our Prime Minister just fine, because, as we all know, he now has majority control of the Senate; 39% of the votes cast for the House gave him over 55% of the seats, and he has 100% control in both houses. He has it because he broke his own long-term promise never to appoint an unelected senator. Do members remember that?

Instead, he has appointed more unelected and unelectable party bagmen, Conservative fundraisers and political insiders to the upper chamber than any other prime minister in the history of Canada. He has traded his purported principles for power. Now the other place does his bidding, so would it really be in his best interests to change that situation?

A stranglehold on the Senate, both in numbers and through the use of the whip, is just another way an unprecedented amount of power has been concentrated in the office and the person of one man. The current Prime Minister has fallen a long way from his touted reform ideals.

I would like to add a personal note. Members in this House will know that I, of all people, have special reason to be unhappy with the Senate. After introducing and shepherding the country's only federal climate change legislation, Bill C-311, through all stages in this House in the last Parliament, the Senate was ordered to kill that important legislation before hearing any witnesses, before studying it in committee, before having full debate, or even any debate, on its merits.

This is the first and only time in Canadian history that a bill was summarily killed by the Senate just like that, when political appointees snuffed out important legislation passed by this elected House without even giving it the consideration it was due.

It is hard for me or for anyone to see how killing legislation before it is even studied can be considered sober second thought, as the purpose of the Senate has been alleged to be. If this continues, the red chamber is in danger of becoming the single best advocate for its own abolition.

However, I am under no illusion that it will be a long time before we abolish or reform that dysfunctional chamber. It is with no disrespect to the people who work in that place that I say the upper chamber is dysfunctional. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the very hard-working and knowledgeable senators, senators who are committed to making Canada better; however, they are constrained by our system itself and by our Prime Minister, as are we in this chamber, which could also use some reforms.

That brings me to my final point. Any true reform of our democratic institutions in this country will take much more than just smokescreens and red herrings.

Unfortunately Bill C-7 distracts everyone from real reforms that could be made today, improvements that would not even require constitutional amendments. I am talking about reforming the way this chamber, and potentially that chamber, is elected. A system of electing either of our chambers by proportional representation would finally make every vote count. There would be no more wasted votes, no more pitting one region of the country against another. More women and more minorities would be elected. A fairer and more accurate reflection of the will of Canadians in our elected Parliament would take place. It would be a real democracy, as practised by the vast majority of our world's elected governments.

However, that is something many politicians here, including government members, are desperate to avoid doing anything about, so they and the Prime Minister will do anything, including distractions like Bill C-7, to turn attention away from much more effective reforms that could be accomplished much more easily. It makes me think that the government is not really interested in changing things in our Senate at all.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Madam Speaker, the Liberal Party certainly shares some of the concerns with respect to the constitutionality of this legislation. I found it very interesting that the member laid it out as a bit of ruse in saying that the Conservatives probably expect this legislation will never see the light of day once it is put through the constitutional scrutiny that it must undergo.

It strikes me that there is a troubling pattern in terms of passing legislation through this House that is likely to be found unconstitutional. We have seen recent examples in Bill C-4 and Bill C-10 .

For the benefit of those in the House and those watching, I would invite the member to expand a bit on the constitutional arguments that would likely be upheld once the bill is subject to the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Bruce Hyer Thunder Bay—Superior North, ON

Madam Speaker, even though I am a former judge, I am not a former lawyer and I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer. I will leave it to the constitutional lawyers to worry about the fine points of how we are going to run Canada, fix Canada, and work within our constitutional framework now or in the future.

However, I am deeply disturbed, as are many journalists, many lawyers, many judges and many political watchers across Canada. Many of the citizens in my riding of Thunder Bay—Superior North are concerned about the anti-democratic nature of our current Prime Minister and his desire to control not only the opposition but also the hearts and minds of the 61% of the voters who did not vote for him and even the majority of the members on his side of the House.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Justin Trudeau Papineau, QC

Madam Speaker, the NDP has long maintained the importance of abolishing the Senate, quite simply. I would be interested to know what my honourable colleague has to say about it now. Since half of the NDP caucus comes from Quebec and since the Quebec National Assembly has repeatedly defended the Senate and its capacity to respond to and represent Quebec, is the NDP's desire to abolish an institution Quebeckers recognize as defending their interests in Canada as fervent as ever?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Bruce Hyer Thunder Bay—Superior North, ON

Madam Speaker, I am not going to speak for our party on this issue, I will only speak for myself. On most days I tend to agree that the Senate is useless, unaccountable, unelected, so let us scrap it. However, once in a while I get a wild idea. As I have already said here today and alluded to, maybe the Senate is the place where we could start, if we are going to elect it, to elect it proportionately. That way, at least in one of our Houses, when the purple party gets 20% of the votes, it will get 20% of the seats.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Jean Rousseau Compton—Stanstead, QC

Madam Speaker, why does the hon. member really think that this is not the time to stir up discord between the provinces and the federal government, but a time when we should really be dealing with other issues?

Why would it be more important to focus the government's actions on the economy and job creation rather than to once again sow discord between the provinces and the federal government on this hoary old topic?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Bruce Hyer Thunder Bay—Superior North, ON

Madam Speaker, as I said in my comments earlier, this is a deliberate red herring. It is one more attempt by the Prime Minister to do what he has gotten away with quite a bit, although both the media and the public are starting to figure out that this is a prime minister that specializes in distractions and divisiveness. This happens not only on jobs and the economy but the environment, pensions, and the list of matters of substance goes on and on. When I came here to Parliament, I wanted to work on those issues of importance, not work on smokescreens and the kind of thing we are faced with here today.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Jasbir Sandhu Surrey North, BC

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-7, An Act respecting the selection of senators and amending the Constitution Act, 1867 in respect of Senate term limits.

If only we could be so fortunate as to have the government amend the bill so that the Senate would be abolished, then this could be our last time to rise and speak about Senate reform. My NDP colleagues and I believe that the Senate needs to be abolished. Any attempt to reform the Senate would simply be window dressing to this very seriously undemocratic institution. As things currently stand, Bill C-7 introduces ineffective measures that will do nothing to fix the Senate.

What is currently wrong with the Senate? We often describe the Senate as a romantic place of sober second thought. However, we know the Senate is no such a place. Last year, rather than respecting the will of this House, as my colleagues have pointed out, the Senate killed Bill C-311, the climate change accountability act. The bill was passed in the House of Commons and voted for by elected members of this House. The Senate killed it and the government called a snap election.

In the words of our former leader, the hon. Jack Layton:

This was one of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada. To take power that doesn't rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country.

This spring the Senate killed another bill which was very important. Bill C-393 would have made it easier for people in developing countries to obtain more affordable life-saving medicines. It was a bill that would have saved lives. It was voted for by members of this House and killed by an unelected Senate.

To suggest amendments and return a bill to the House is one thing, but to kill a bill in this way, using sneaky tactics, is just plain wrong. It is disrespectful to the decision-making power of this democratically elected House.

Right now the Senate is basically full of political appointments, friends and failed candidates. That is what the Senate is right now. For instance, our Prime Minister appointed to the Senate three failed Conservative candidates from the last federal election. All three failed to win a seat in the election. Canadians decided on May 2 that they did not want to have these people representing them. Yet, here they are; they are in the Senate.

There are a number of things in the bill that do not fix anything at all. For example, the Conservatives make excuses for their appointments saying that they will use them to reform the Senate. This is clearly laughable.

Every day in this House the Conservatives trample on democracy. They ram bills through the House and committees without debate or examination, sometimes without even costing these bills. Then the Conservatives want members to believe that they actually want a more democratic Senate. They do not.

The reforms the Conservatives are proposing in this bill are completely inadequate.

First, under the proposed legislation, the Senate would become a two-tiered system with some elected senators and some unelected senators.

Second, the limit of one nine-year term means that senators, even elected ones, would not be held accountable for their actions in a subsequent democratic race.

Third, because the actual appointment process would not change at all, despite talk of increased democratic accountability, the bill does not actually introduce any check on the Prime Minister in the appointment process. Basically, it could be business as usual.

Fourth, because the bill would do nothing to address the distribution of seats in the Senate, the increase in power of an elected Senate would mean an unbalanced increase in the power in Quebec and Ontario. I come from British Columbia and that is not fair.

Fifth, perhaps the most important intended role of the Senate is its ability to represent women and minority interests. By making it an elected Senate and forcing any candidate that runs to do so under a party banner would only tighten the partisan stranglehold on the legislative process. Parties will drown out minority representation, like we have seen in Australia. There are examples in Australia where this has happened.

Sixth, the introduction of increased democratic legitimacy would give the Senate even more leeway to assert its own decision-making power, which could result in gridlock. We have seen that in the United States. This is counter to the productivity Canadians expect from their government.

There are solutions, and New Democrats and others have proposed them. The best solution to this democratic black hole, that is the Senate, is to basically abolish it. The Conservatives have been wishy-washy in the past and unable to decide what they want when it comes to the Senate. For instance, previous Conservative bills have called for a federally regulated electoral process while another bill called for eight year term limits. We can see clearly that what the Conservatives want is the appearance of reforming the Senate when, in reality, they stack it with their cronies and use it to kill legislation passed by democratically elected members of the House.

Unlike the Conservatives, New Democrats have unwaveringly supported the abolition of the Senate since the 1930s, and many Canadians agree that we need to abolish it and move on from this undemocratically elected institution. At the provincial level, both Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty in Ontario and NDP provincial Premier Darrell Dexter have called for the abolition of the Senate. In my province, Premier Christy Clark has said that the Senate no longer plays a role in Confederation.

We have seen from history that all provincial legislatures have abolished their provincial senates. The last one was done in 1968. Even the Prime Minister himself once said that the unelected Senate is a relic of the 19th century.

Unlike the Conservatives who have not consulted the provinces, New Democrats believe it is the responsibility of the government to consult all Canadians. To that end, New Democrats believe that the issue of Senate reform cannot be solved by this piecemeal bill. The issue of Senate reform needs to be put in a referendum, so Canadians themselves can decide how they want to deal with it.

The majority of Canadians support New Democrats in this proposal as well. There have been a number of polls done and I will mention one that was done in July 2001 by Angus Reid, which said that 71% of Canadians supported having a referendum on this issue.

In closing, I would therefore urge my Conservative colleagues to heed their small c conservative roots. We know how the House of Commons works, but we have no idea what would happen with an elected Senate. It would no doubt completely change the Canadian political system, but to what end we cannot be sure. The best solution to Senate reform is abolition.