House of Commons Hansard #138 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

The microphone seemed to go off for about the last 30 seconds of the minister's question.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

Noon

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, MB

That is a shame because those comments were very profound.

By supporting the abolition of the Senate, the Bloc is supporting a reduction of Quebec's political weight in Parliament because Quebec would lose 24 seats in Parliament. It is very hypocritical for the Bloc to support the motion.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

Noon

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would invite the Conservative Party spokesperson for democratic reform to read the motion carefully. We are not talking about abolishing the Senate, but rather about abolishing the Senate in its existing form. The Senate has been reduced to a propaganda tool, the Prime Minister's robotic arm. In the Senate, they do not even look at the bills that have been democratically passed here in the House and then sent there. It will decide to reject a bill without even examining it. Unelected senators introduce bills that run counter to the political will. The Prime Minister wanted to reform the Senate. The NDP member's proposal constitutes reform. He is calling for the House to appoint a special committee to improve our institutions. I wonder if the senators from Quebec care more about Quebec's interests or the interests of the government currently in power. We could work on finding ways to make the Senate more acceptable and more respectful of what happens here in the House of Commons.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

Noon

Bloc

Michel Guimond Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, QC

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my colleague from Québec on her comments and more generally on how she handles her duties as the Bloc Québécois critic for democratic reform. I would also like to thank my NDP colleague for accepting the Bloc amendment.

I would like to respond to the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, who said that the Bloc could expect a 25% reduction in the number of parliamentarians because there are 25 senators from Quebec. The minister did not seem to notice that the only difference is that, in Quebec, no matter what our party, we are democratically elected by the people we represent. Ours are not political patronage appointments. That is what my colleague was trying to show and to make the minister understand. He does not seem to understand that.

If an election is called—likely this fall—the 308 people elected to this place, no matter what parties they belong to, will deserve to be here and their legitimacy will be conferred by the people, unlike senators who are appointed as a political reward.

Although I am being told that my time is up, I would like to mention some cases: Brian Mulroney appointed his hair stylist and the manager of the Ritz-Carlton; the Liberals appointed Viola Léger, the actress from La Sagouine, and Jean Lapointe, who still makes movies. I could go on for the rest of the day.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

Noon

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, what more can I say? This motion would ensure that the Senate is more respectful of the decisions that are made here in the House of Commons. We no longer want unelected representatives voting on bills that were passed here in the House of Commons. We no longer want that attitude towards representatives who were elected by the public. That is undemocratic. the Conservative Party should be happy to see such a bill because that was what the Prime Minister wanted during the 2006 election campaign as well as the last one. He promised to reform the Senate and to never use senators to overturn the votes held here in the House. Yet he has done the complete opposite. It is clear that the Conservative member responsible for democratic reform is not taking that into account.

A promise was made. Therefore, we are debating it today and the NDP has decided to move forward.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

Before I resume debate, I want to check the microphone of the minister of state. Would that be turned on? Yes, I think it is working now.

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:05 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Nickel Belt.

I want to acknowledge the very good work of the member for Hamilton Centre who has been tireless in bringing forward issues around democratic reform. What we see before the House today is a result of months of work in terms of developing a very reasonable approach to democratic reform.

I know others have been speaking about the Senate but I want to focus on another aspect of this motion, which reads, in part:

...the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation....

I will speak specifically to proportional representation and I will begin by quoting an elder statesperson, the hon. Ed Broadbent. I was lucky enough to sit in the House with him in 2004. During Mr. Broadbent's tenure, he was a tireless advocate for the need for ethics and democratic reform. What we have been seeing over the last couple of weeks around ethics in this place would surely have Mr. Broadbent rising in the House to vigorously protest some of the behaviour of cabinet ministers and Conservative senators.

In a speech given by Mr. Broadbent in October 2005 in Ottawa, he outlined a number of issues around ethics and democratic reform but I will talk specifically about proportional representation. In his speech, he said:

A major source of needed democratic reform is our outmoded, first-past-the-post electoral system. ... Ninety per cent of the world's democracies, including Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have abandoned or significantly modified the pre-democratic British system that still prevails in Ottawa. As the Canadian Law Commission recommended and five provinces seem to agree, fairness means we need a mixed electoral system that combines individual constituency-based MPs with proportional representation. ...only such a system would positively redress the existing imbalance in the House of Commons in gender, ethnic, ideological and regional voting preferences.

The Pepin-Robarts Commission pointed out a quarter of a century ago--

This conversation has been going on so long that I am sure people are tired of it, and yet we do not get the change we need.

Mr. Broadbent went on to say:

--our present system does a great disservice to Canadian unity because regional representation in the House of Commons—in the caucuses and in the cabinet— does not reflect Canadian voters' intentions.

Mr. Broadbent went on to say that for fairness and the good of Canada, “Let's get on with electoral reform”.

I hear consistently from the people in my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan and in other parts of British Columbia from other Canadians that it is time for us to have a system of proportional representation.

I know a recent experience with a referendum in British Columbia failed but many of us who were involved in that referendum know that it was not that British Columbians did not support some system of proportional representation. It was more about how that particular process was set up.

The Law Commission did some excellent work and released a report in 2004. I will read some of the report because it says far better than I ever could why we need to look at our electoral system. The executive summary of the report reads:

For the past decade or so, Canada has been in the grip of a democratic malaise evidenced by decreasing levels of political trust, declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism toward politicians and traditional forms of political participation, and growing disengagement of young people from politics. However, as the Commission heard throughout its consultation process, many citizens want to be involved, want to have a real voice in decision making, and would like to see more responsive, accountable, and effective political institutions.

I think that is a very important point. It is not that Canadians do not want to be engaged in their political process. It is that they want their engagement to be meaningful and to actually count for something.

Later on in the report, the Law Commission states:

Canada currently uses a plurality–majority system, which ensures that the winning candidate in a riding obtains at least a plurality of the votes cast. It is called a first-past-the-post system because, in some respects, it resembles horse races where the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first.

For many Canadians, this system is inherently unfair—more likely to frustrate or distort the wishes of the voters than to translate them fairly into representation and influence in the legislature.

It has been criticized as:

being overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote, rewarding it with a legislative majority disproportionate to its share of the vote;

allowing the governing party, with its artificially swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda;

promoting parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada’s regional divisions;

leaving large areas of the country without adequate representatives in the governing party caucus;

disregarding a large number of votes in that voters who do not vote for the winning candidate have no connection to the elected representative, nor to the eventual make-up of the House of Commons;

contributing to the under-representation of women, minority groups, and Aboriginal peoples;

preventing a diversity of ideas from entering the House of Commons; and

favouring an adversarial style of politics.

I want to touch briefly on the under-representation of women, minority and aboriginal peoples. Right now approximately 62 members of the House are women. Over the last couple of decades, roughly 20% of the House of Commons have been women and that number has not grown.

Women certainly understand that in order to have a balanced voice in the House of Commons, we need that kind of representation. In many systems of proportional representation, women's representation increases. That is a very good reason in itself to support a system of proportional representation.

In the Law Commission's conclusion in its executive summary, it stated:

Canada inherited its first-past-the-post electoral system from Great Britain over 200 years ago, at a time when significant sections of the Canadian population, including women, Aboriginal people, and nonproperty owners, were disenfranchised.

That is a very important point. We know that women only got the vote in the early 1900s and aboriginal peoples did not get the vote until the 1960s. We still have a system that reflects that disenfranchisement.

The Law Commission went on to state:

Canada’s political, cultural, and economic reality has vastly changed; the current electoral system no longer responds to 21st century Canadian democratic values. Many Canadians desire an electoral system that better reflects the society in which they live—one that includes a broader diversity of ideas and is more representative of Canadian society. For these reasons, the Commission recommends adding an element of proportionality to our electoral system.

Furthermore, because of its many potential benefits, electoral reform should be a priority item on the political agenda.

Again, I applaud the member for Hamilton Centre for ensuring that proportional representation was part of the conversation today. It certainly has been part of the New Democratic agenda ever since I have been involved with the NDP. It is a priority in terms of ensuring that the voices of Canadians are more adequately heard in the House of Commons.

Fair Vote Canada has put out an excellent report called “Dubious Democracy”. I will not have time to go through the entire report, but it did a very good job. One section is titled “Unrepresented Citizens: Millions of Votes Do Not Count”. Let us talk about what these numbers translate into. When talking about the winner-take-all system, it stated:

The other voters in that riding or district lose their right to representation. The latter group of voters cast “wasted” votes--they gained no more representation than those who didn’t even cast votes.

It did an analysis on elections from 1980 to 2000 and stated:

The average for wasted votes cast in federal elections during the same period was 49.1%, or more than 6.2 million votes. By comparison, in the 1999 election in New Zealand with a mixed proportional voting system, only 7% of the voters cast wasted votes.

When 6.2 million people feel they do not have a voice in their duly-elected representative body, there is a very serious problem. No wonder it has contributed to the ongoing discontent and lack of participation in voting.

In the last federal election in 2008, there was the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history. In these extremely complex times in which we live, we need to work very hard to encourage voter participation and engagement in the political process. We need the diversity of opinions and for women to be at the table.

I encourage all members of the House to support the NDP motion. Let us get on with establishing electoral reform in our country.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Minister of State (Democratic Reform)

Madam Speaker, this is a very important discussion on the amendment that the Bloc has brought forward.

The member is from British Columbia. I have heard from many British Columbians who feel they are under-represented in the House of Commons, that their vote, compared to votes in my province of Manitoba, is worth less because B.C. has more citizens per riding than Manitoba.

With Bill C-12, the government is trying to ensure, as much as practical, that votes are equal across the country, that every vote has the same impact from the election of an MP perspective. What the member is suggesting is far off that and moves away from the principle of representation by population.

By supporting the Bloc motion, the member is weakening the voice of British Columbia in the Parliament of Canada. How could the member expect to be re-elected because the people of B.C.—

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

Order, please. I have to allow the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan time to respond.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, the Minister of State's question reflects the fact that the Conservatives simply do not understand democratic reform. If they were serious about democratic reform, they would support the motion put forward by the member for Hamilton Centre.

If the minister wants to talk about real representation, then let us talk about proportional representation. I would then have some confidence that there would be more women in the House to have their voices heard, that there would be enough visible minorities, that there would be enough aboriginal peoples. Proportional representation would give people in Nanaimo—Cowichan, in British Columbia and throughout Canada a real voice in the House of Commons and every vote would count.

If the Conservatives are serious about democratic reform, then let us support this motion and get on with the system of proportional representation.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

March 3rd, 2011 / 12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Alan Tonks York South—Weston, ON

Madam Speaker, the question I want to ask the member is based on the premise that the Senate was established within a bicameral system going back to 1867. It was established to provide regional and provincial balance. I am not sure whether the position being taken is that first past the post representation would provide regional representation and a balance of regional interests compared to a reformed Senate.

Is it the member's position that proportional representation would be a regional counterbalance and thus a reformed Senate to reflect the changing realities would be unnecessary?

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, our position is the Senate is so fundamentally broken that it is difficult to see how reform would accomplish the kinds of representation that elected proportional representation would do. We have an appointed Senate. We have seen some egregious appointments over the last few years.

My understanding is that to be appointed to the Senate currently an individual needs to own property. There are a whole whack of people in the country who have no hope of being appointed to the Senate because they do not own property. An individual has to be at least 30 years old. Although the New Democrats would like to see the Senate abolished, members of our caucus were elected by the people in their communities, but they cannot be appointed to the Senate.

If we want to talk about true representation, then we have to get rid of the Senate, go with proportional representation and then talk about how parties can work within that system to ensure there is gender balance, to ensure aboriginal peoples are represented and to ensure there is regional representation. There are ways to achieve that with proportional representation.

I again urge members of the House to support the motion.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Claude Gravelle Nickel Belt, ON

Madam Speaker, first of all, I would like to clarify what I said earlier, because in the heat of the moment I may have gotten carried away.

I think that everyone in the House would agree that Chantal Hébert is one of the best writers in the country and that we all read her column attentively. My comments were obviously not a personal attack. Rather, I was commenting on a specific column with which I disagreed.

No personal slight was intended of course. Even when we disagree, we are all professionals doing our job the best we can.

I am pleased to rise and participate in today's opposition day motion, tabled by my colleague from Hamilton Centre. I commend him on his excellent motion. The timing of this motion and today's debate could not come at a more critical period.

This historic place, our Parliament and its elected members are held in low regard by Canadians, thanks largely to the track record of the Conservative government and the previous Liberal government. Whether it was the sponsorship scandal that alienated so many voters or the hyper participation of the government, many Canadians now view this chamber with distrust.

However, it does not have to be that way. Like many of my constituents I am angry. My constituents are angry and disappointed because the government would rather prorogue Parliament when it cannot get its way, protect ministers who mislead the House, the minister of “not”, violate election laws because it thinks it is above the law, appoint dozens of senators at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, undermining democracy itself, spend billions on corporate tax cuts for its friends or even sole-source 65 fighter jets at a cost of billions more, than help Canadians with their home heating bills or access to long-term care facilities or help them protect their pensions.

I am angry because I know we can achieve these goals and deliver a helping hand to those who help build our country. However, we do not because the Conservative government is so consumed with winning a majority that every promise it breaks, decision it makes, or every bill it brings forward is based solely on a political calculation on whether it will add one or two percentage points to its popularity so it can inch ever closer to a perceived majority. The Conservative government has sunk to such new lows in its approach to governing that it often makes a mockery of this great institution.

Let me read a quote going back to election night 2006. It states:

During this campaign, we talked a lot about values. One of the oldest and enduring Canadian values is democracy...This is a freedom for which our ancestors perished and our veterans fought--for which those in our Armed Forces today still sacrifice, for which too many in our world still yearn. It is a freedom which we must always--always--cherish as Canadians.

Who said this? None other than the Prime Minister.

Since delivering this speech, he has broken his promise to bring about real democratic reform. He has broken his promise on Senate reform, appointing 36 Conservative cronies and bag men. He has given Canada a black eye on the world stage, costing us a seat on the UN Security Council, a first for Canada. He has wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money on advertising designed to benefit the Conservative Party. Two of the Senate cronies are now charged with wilfully exceeding spending limits in the 2000 federal election, the very election in which the Prime Minister promised to clean up corruption in our country's capital.

Is it any wonder that New Democrats stand here today urging parliamentarians to do what the Conservative government has lacked the courage and leadership to do? We know what real Canadian leadership looks like. We only have to witness the tireless dedication of our leader, the member of Parliament for Toronto—Danforth. His dedication to this chamber and our political process, his commitment to giving all Canadians a voice in Parliament, is a shining example for all of us. Our caucus knows that the best way to get Canadians excited again about the political process in our great country is to change our system to better reflect their vote.

This motion today could begin to reverse the drop in confidence in and respect for our political institutions that Canadians have. Our motion calls for the appointment of a special committee for democratic improvement whose mandate would be to engage with Canadians and make recommendations to the House on how best to achieve a House of Commons that would more accurately reflect the votes of Canadians by combining direct elections by electoral district and proportional representation.

There is no better way for Canadians to feel that their vote counts than by ensuring that the House of Commons actually reflects the will of the people. That is what part of this motion achieves. That is why we need to support the motion. We need to send a clear message to Canadians that their voice and concerns matter, and that we intend to take action to address their concerns.

There is no higher calling than serving the great people of this great country. There is no greater honour for me to be standing here today in this hallowed chamber to speak on behalf of the people of Nickel Belt. We owe this to Canadians. We actually owe them a lot more, but this motion is a good start.

The second part of the motion addresses the upper chamber, the home of political relics and bagmen and cronies, of undemocratic, unelected, unnecessary, unaccountable and unrepresentative members. I would go so far as to say that the Conservative government is taking a page from its corporate buddies. The Conservatives are engaging in a form of hostile takeover of the Senate as a democratic institution. They are even using the Senate to circumvent this democratic chamber of elected representatives.

Together, senators collect millions in salaries and they travel on taxpayers' dollars to attend their parties' fundraisers. Some are even ungrateful for their perks and privileges. Let me provide just one example. Last December, the Prime Minister appointed a Conservative senator who referred to his senator's salary as a “catastrophic” pay cut. It seems this senator will have to get by on only $132,300 a year, plus the pittance of $187,000 on average for staff and travel and office expenses. However, this senator is willing to make the sacrifice. After all, the Senate only sits for 90 days a year for the paltry wage of $1,470 per day. Seeing that the Senate only begins sitting at 1:30 p.m. each day of its three day work week, one can only wonder when this senator will ever find the time to campaign for his upcoming election. I almost forgot: there is no election for senators.

I wonder if the senator would ever risk asking Canadians, who earn an average of $172 a day, how they would feel about the senator's great sacrifice of earning only $1,470 a day.

The Prime Minister has appointed 37 of them, including 18 new senators, the largest number ever, in a single day. Not even Brian Mulroney appointed that many in one day when he was forcing the free trade deal on us. We will do our best to ensure that the Prime Minister does not get to make these appointments any more. What a legacy.

In conclusion, we know that many Canadians feel that something is broken. Our plan, outlined in today's motion, will make elections more democratic and Parliament more representative. That is the key to making Canadians feel their vote counts. We are asking all parties to work with us on a pragmatic, step-by-step plan to improve Canadian democracy. It is just a start. We need to redouble our efforts to regain the trust of Canadians. We have our work cut out for us.

In the 1867 election, voter turnout was 73.1%. Over 100 years later, in 1968, voter turnout was even better at 75.7%. Yet in 2008, voter turnout dropped to 58.8%. Let there be no doubt that we have a serious problem in Canada. We cannot afford to continue down this road.

I see that you are giving me the one minute sign, Madam Speaker--

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

Order, please.

I regret that the hon. member's time has elapsed. We will move to questions and comments and perhaps he can add some comments at that point.

The Minister of State for Democratic Reform.

Opposition Motion--Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Minister of State (Democratic Reform)

Madam Speaker, I want to ask about the main motion. I wonder if the member fully understands that by calling for the abolition of the Senate, what the NDP is actually advocating are wholesale constitutional negotiations that would bring us back to the memories of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord.

Quite frankly, the priorities of Canadians deal with the economy and priority social programs. Why does the NDP want to raise this issue, especially as the motion says this should be done by the next election? The NDP may be causing an election in the next two weeks. Is that realistic?