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

4:25 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Those members can keep laughing. At least the NDP would have somebody credible in Alberta who could run and get into the Senate. That is the way to go. You can see the way to do it. You guys would at least get an NDP senator by choosing the Alberta way.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

I would like to remind all hon. members to direct their comments to the Chair rather than to their colleagues. I appreciate that this is a passionate debate.

Questions and comments. The hon. member for Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Bloc

Ève-Mary Thaï Thi Lac Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Mr. Speaker, the Conservative Prime Minister promised that no unelected senators would be appointed to the upper chamber until that institution had been reformed. Yet since coming to power, the Conservatives and the Prime Minister have not hesitated to make appointments, so many that the Conservatives now have a majority in the upper chamber. In his defence, the Prime Minister said that the senators he has appointed all agreed with the Senate reforms he wants to make.

What about the senators who were appointed previously and still sit as Conservatives? How does the member interpret the comments of Senator Andrée Champagne? In an open letter published on December 23, 2010, in Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, she stated:

Clearly, there will be times when it will be difficult for me to vote in favour of certain bills that our Prime Minister believes in, including, for instance, any bills to reform the Senate. In my opinion, an elected Senate would not be the panacea for all the ills that some people claim are eroding the credibility of those who sit in the Senate.

Since we now know that some previously appointed Conservative senators, including Senator Champagne, do not agree with the Conservatives' proposed reforms, is it not time to support a motion like this NDP motion and abolish the Senate?

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Calgary East, AB

Mr. Speaker, as I have stated, both of those parties do not have a hope in hell of putting senators out there so they are looking to abolishing the Senate.

However, the Prime Minister said that all the senators he has appointed have signed that they will be there for eight years. It is a first step. That is the way it will go.

We need to have the Senate changed under these two bills, which would make it elected with a term limit so that Canadians can make a choice on who will be sitting in the Senate. Does the hon. member not think that is the right way to go, instead of doing something that is practically impossible and has no value? Each of those parties will never be part of it anyway.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

It is my duty pursuant to Standing Order 38 to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Laval—Les Îles, Government Priorities; the hon. member for Bramalea—Gore—Malton, Citizenship and Immigration; the hon. member for Don Valley East, Small Business.

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Edmonton—Strathcona.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Acadie—Bathurst.

Canadians are telling us that the time has come to change the way we select our government representatives, including those currently appointed and elected. They believe that the current system is patently undemocratic and unfair.

A number of proposals have been made in the past to resolve concerns with the appointed Senate and the electoral process for the House of Commons. As the representative for Vancouver Kingsway pointed out today, the Reform Party once called for referenda on electoral reform and other policy matters of concern to Canadians.

In 2004, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying:

Despite the fine work of many individual senators, the upper house remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the Prime Minister.

A truer point has never been made.

That same year, the NDP sought all-party support for a process to consult Canadians on a reformed electoral process. Sadly the initiative was rejected by the other parties. In 2005, the NDP accountability package crafted by Ed Broadbent included reforming the electoral process to include proportional representation.

Remarkably, the Prime Minister again said in this place on September 7, 2006:

As everyone in this room knows, it has become a right of passage for aspiring leaders and prime ministers to promise Senate reform—on their way to the top....

But once they are elected, Senate reform quickly falls to the bottom of the Government's agenda. Nothing ever gets done.

Again, truer words were never said.

Well, today the New Democrats have tabled in this House a path forward. In tabling this motion, the representative for Hamilton Centre has presented to the members of this House a real opportunity to take concrete action to engage all parties and the public in reforming our democratic process to genuinely reflect the will of Canadians.

Let us consider the current Canadian federal election process. In the 2008 election, the NDP garnered 1.1 million votes more than the Bloc, but elected 37 MPs compared with 49 for the Bloc.

In the prairie provinces, Conservatives took seven times as many seats as the NDP and Liberals combined, while garnering only roughly twice the votes of the other two.

While 940,000 voters supported the Green Party, that party earned no seat, and fewer Conservative votes in Alberta delivered 27 Conservatives MPs.

The majority of democratic nations use a proportional system to elect their governments. Party-list PR is the most widely used voting system. It is used in Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Finland, Austria, Norway and Denmark. All of them are stable and effective democracies. That is hardly radical.

The mixed member proportional system is one that is frequently suggested for Canada. It combines the list system with first past the post. It is used in Germany, New Zealand and in regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Again, it is hardly radical.

It should also be kept in mind that proportional voting systems are not a new concept for Canada. From 1926 to 1959, the then-ruling party of Alberta, the United Farmers of Alberta, implemented a system of proportional representation, the single transferable vote system, to elect MLAs in the cities of Edmonton, Calgary and Medicine Hat. The remainder were elected by a system of a majority voting called alternative vote.

In 1959, the Social Credit Government abolished the mixed system of proportional and majority voting and returned the province to single-member districts with plurality voting, commonly known as first past the post. The government was widely criticized by the Alberta public for taking this step without public consultation, and the step was considered to have been taken for reasons of self-interest.

The single transferable vote, the system that was used in Alberta, is currently used in Ireland, Malta and for the Australian senate, and was used in many western Canadian municipalities in the early 20th century.

It is frankly wrong to suggest that Canadian voters are less interested than the citizens of other nations in pursuing improved ways of ensuring democratic representation, or that they are less able to adapt to different voting systems than the citizens of, for example, New Zealand, Spain, Germany or Belgium.

Our first past the post system has already lost its alleged advantage of electing majority governments. Is it not time that we stopped dithering and instituted improved systems to ensure that everyone's vote counted?

Surely we all agree that we need to remedy the declining voter turnout, as my colleague from Ottawa stated. We have a serious problem in this country where youth are simply not showing up to vote. They are not participating in the democratic process.

How many more times must we hear the complaint from Canadians that their vote does not count? How can we sit back and let the cynicism grow and voter turnout continue to decline?

Increasing interest in electoral reform is being expressed by Canadians. It is an issue that is constantly raised by my constituents and across Alberta. Many have become active in Fair Vote Canada. The longtime member of Fair Vote Canada's Edmonton group, Professor Jennie Dailey-O'Cain, advises that proportional representation would put a stop to the exaggeration of regional and rural-urban differences, bring more diversity and stability to Parliament, force different parties to learn to work together long term and make every vote count. Is that not what we all want?

New chapters of Fair Vote Canada continue to be started. Canadians are looking for opportunities to discuss change. Just this week a new chapter of Fair Vote Canada held its inaugural meeting in Lethbridge, Alberta.

There are many myths about proportional representation. They mostly revolve around the lack of stability of governments and their ability to effectively manage the economy.

In fact, what are often called consensus democracies are not less but possibly more stable and more effective economic managers. They are also better managers of the environment and more energy efficient than the majoritarian, winner-takes-all democracies.

If we were to take the plunge and adopt a voting system that more accurately reflected the voting choices of Canadians, we might actually find that a more representative democracy delivers good government. Was that not, after all, the goal of our Confederation fathers? I am proud to be a descendant of one. I believe strongly that my ancestor would support and encourage our continued efforts to pursue better means of delivering responsible government, a government of and elected by and truly representative of the will of the Canadian people. I believe that our proposed legislative reforms and dialogue with Canadians can deliver this long-awaited opportunity for electoral reform.

In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada issued a report entitled, “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada”. It said:

The first-past-the-post system is overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote in a general election, rewarding it with a legislative majority that is disproportionate to its share of the vote....

It allows the governing party, with its artificially swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda almost completely for a period of four or five years, thereby contributing to the weakening of Parliament....

It promotes parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada’s regional divisions, and conversely penalizes parties with diffuse national support....

This system disregards a large number of votes: unless a voter supports the winning candidate in a given riding, there is no connection between the voter’s choice and the eventual makeup of the House of Commons....

It contributes to the under-representation of women, minority groups, and Aboriginal peoples....

It prevents diversity within the House of Commons. As a result of regional concentration, disproportionate votes to seats, and an under-representation of women and minority candidates, legislatures within this system lack a diversity of voices in political decision-making processes.

The Law Commission of Canada recommended adding an element of proportionality to Canada's electoral system, more specifically that Canada should adopt a mixed member proportional electoral system.

Canadians have been calling for reform. They desire a more democratic system.

Last year the government used the unelected Senate to kill Bill C-311. An NDP bill, the climate change accountability act, was passed by the majority of the duly elected representatives of the Canadian electorate. What is the government afraid of?

I call on government members and all members of this place to support this motion to allow the voice of Canadians to be heard.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, my colleague brought up some very sage points about proportional representation. I would like to give a quick little monologue on my own behalf.

I am not so sure, for the reason she stated, that proportional representation actually works in all situations. Here is why: it is a double-edged sword. She mentioned that the fault of our current system is that we divide ourselves along regional lines. To a great extent, I appreciate that, but on the flip side of that, I have spoken several times in the House on behalf of people who, I feel, need services in Terra Nova National Park. It is one park of many and yet, the concerns of the people involved were raised in the House because of me, as I represent that one area.

In essence, what I worry about is that if we had strict proportional representation, the people who slip through the cracks of national government policy will not be heard. I fear it dramatically. However, the mixed member proportional representation that the member talks about has some merit.

Would she like to illustrate that and could she alleviate the concern that people who have local issues will not be ignored?

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

I would like to thank the hon. member for his question. I often enjoy hearing his questions.

I am not going to get into debate here, nor will I pretend to present what the actual proportional representation system will be. However, the member's questions and issues are very valid. They are precisely why our party is calling for the parties to get together and set in place a dialogue among Canadians so that we can bring in information about the pros and cons of the various systems and can learn from other nations on what has and has not worked in their countries.

From my standpoint, I want to make sure that we have a system that represents both the broader national interests and the interests of my own local community.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

James Bezan Selkirk—Interlake, MB

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for her presentation.

Even though I do not agree with the motion today, I am glad that we are having this debate, because fixing democracy and making sure that we are modernizing democracy are important. This gives us an opportunity to have that discussion.

The discussion on proportional representation is something that I have a lot of apprehension about. As our friend from Newfoundland just asked, how do we deal with the issue of people elected off a party list who have no ties at all to the local community?

We are elected as members from electoral districts and ridings across this country. We have a constituency that we are responsible for, including helping our constituents deal with the different issues and problems they may have with the Government of Canada, whether farm programs, fisheries, employment insurance, the Canada pension plan, or income taxes. They come to us and we can help them solve some of their problems. That is what direct representation is about, as well as bringing their ideas forward to Parliament.

If we want to move to proportional representation, we should look at some of the proportional representation systems around the world. When I talk to my colleagues in the Ukraine, they do not know whom they represent, and the people in the countryside do not know whom they should be talking to, because they do not have anyone to talk to, as most of the people come off the list from the major urban centres and not from the rural side at all.

I would like the member to comment on how to address that issue.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan Edmonton—Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the question from the hon. member. I have been pleased to work with him on committee.

Those are very good questions, exactly that kind that I hope would come forward if we can get agreement in the House to actually sponsor this dialogue. We are the ones who have the power. The Government of Canada has the power of the purse to decide to finance this dialogue. I have been frustrated trying to get this government to hold an open dialogue on a clean energy strategy for Canada. I finally just gave up and hosted my own in Alberta.

I think the member is raising valid issues. I do not have the answers to them, but I certainly would like the opportunity to hear the information and have my constituents hear it too.

The very issues the member is raising are why we are concerned about the Senate. Whom do senators represent?

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

March 3rd, 2011 / 4:40 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the opposition motion moved in the House of Commons by the NDP and to discuss the proposal to hold a referendum on abolishing the Senate. The question would be clear and precise: do Canadians want a Senate?

Earlier, my Conservative colleague said it was not feasible because we would have to reopen the Constitution. The Constitution was established some time ago. In a democracy, people evolve and change over the years. The Constitution was written in 1982, but people have changed since then, which is only natural. Parliament exists because democracy evolves. Every day, we debate certain bills and change Canadian laws because we are evolving and we need new laws adapted to the new changes in our country. The same is true for the Constitution.

Tomorrow morning, there could be a referendum in Canada and the majority of Canadians might vote in favour of abolishing the Senate. Earlier my Conservative colleague was saying that the provinces should agree. In my opinion, that would put a great deal of pressure on the provinces and the provincial governments.

Will we continue to hang on to an unelected Senate even if the citizens no longer want it? Canadians no longer want senators to be appointed by political parties and by the Prime Minister to please his political party. For example, when the current Prime Minister of Canada was in opposition, and even when he had formed the government but felt that the opposition had a majority in the Senate, he said that the Senate should never meddle in bills introduced by the government or the House of Commons.

This same Prime Minister has a majority in the upper chamber, in the Senate, and senators follow his instructions to the letter when elected members pass bills in the House of Commons.

In a minority government, although a majority of members of Parliament have voted for the bills, the Conservative senators in the other place turn around and listen to what the Prime Minister tells them.

Earlier, one of our Conservative colleagues said that Alberta senators are independent because the nominees are elected. Another hon. member asked earlier why they have a whip and a house leader if they are independent. What is the whip's job? I am certain that everyone knows the answer: to make them toe the party line.

There are two parties in the Senate—the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party—and two whips. There are party lines. When the Liberals had a majority in the Senate, the Prime Minister was distraught because he said he had formed the government and Parliament had passed bills, but that they were blocked in the Senate. Today, he is doing the same thing. Even worse, the Conservatives are abusing their power by appointing friends. The Prime Minister was against this way of appointing senators. He was against it.

This Prime Minister appointed Doug Finley, the Conservative national campaign manager; Irving Gerstein, the top Conservative fundraiser and chair of Conservative Fund Canada; Judith Seidman, the Quebec co-chair of the Prime Minister's leadership campaign; and Don Plett, president of the Conservative Party of Canada.

These are political appointments of the most extreme sort. Is that democracy? We send our young people to fight abroad so that other countries will have access to democracy and enjoy the right to vote, and so that laws will be passed by elected officials who are accountable to the people.

We are doing worse than that here in Canada. We do not have that kind of democracy. We pass bills in the House of Commons. Our rights are being violated. I was elected by the people of Acadie—Bathurst. I represent the majority of people in that riding and my rights are being violated. In fact, as soon as a bill leaves the House of Commons for the Senate, the Prime Minister issues an order that prevents the bill from being passed. Is that democracy?

Are we waiting for people to take to the streets to reclaim their democracy the way they are doing in Egypt and Libya? Canadians have elected MPs and those are the people that should be making the laws in Canada. But that is not what is happening. A group of friends was appointed to the Senate. Provincial premiers who lost their elections are appointed to the Senate as compensation. With all due respect, we saw this happen in New Brunswick. When Premier Hatfield lost the election in New Brunswick, he was appointed to the Senate. Political rewards are given to people who lose elections. People are thrown out of office by a democratic vote and the government turns around and sends them to the Senate until they are 75 years old. It is shameful.

Not very long ago, here in the House of Commons, we passed Bill C-311 on the environment. The Senate did not even review it. The Conservatives did not even debate the bill. They voted it down. Oh, but it is all right: it was an NDP bill. It was a fine thing to do. It did not make any sense.

That was the beginning of the end of democracy. The bill was not even debated.

Senators come to us and tell us we have to keep them there even though they have not been elected. They say that they are completely independent since the Prime Minister cannot remove them from their jobs until they are 75. They call themselves protectors of the regions and minorities and say they will ensure that politics do not interfere with what is good for the country. They will protect minorities and all that. But now they are going after minorities.

Like it or not, my Bill C-232 concerning judges in the Supreme Court was debated by the members in the House of Commons, and it was passed by a majority. That is democracy. However, the unelected senators have been sitting on their butts since April 2010 and refuse to even address the bill. The Senate has always fought to say that it would protect minorities and the regions, that it could study bills and if there were any errors, it could send the bills back with new ideas that it had added. It is improper for the Senate to reject bills from the House, especially if there is a minority government in power.

We did not see this problem in the past because we have had majority governments and the Senate typically had the same majority as the House, under the same government. So there were never issues between Senate decisions and those of the House. But now that there is a minority government, now that the majority of members are against the government, we are seeing all the little things that can go wrong. Now we see the dirty politics. That is what I call it.

If the Conservatives really believed in democracy, if they really believed in what they were saying, they would consult Canadians and ask them.

A survey was done in my riding. There were three questions: do you want to abolish the Senate; do you want the Senate to remain as-is; or do you want to modify it? Few people responded. Out of 89 people, 75 said that they wanted to abolish and get rid of the Senate, and 7 said that they wanted to modify it. No one wanted to leave it the way it is. I would be very happy to see a referendum and let Canadians say what they want to do about the Senate. I have no doubt that it would give us a starting point to work towards changing the Constitution, doing good things for democracy in our country and honouring our country so that we can be proud of what it represents in the world.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

James Bezan Selkirk—Interlake, MB

Mr. Speaker, the NDP want to have proportional representation. We want to have Senate reform and an elected Senate. Probably the best place to actually try out proportional representation is electing candidates to the Senate. Maybe, in consultation with the provinces, we could get to a point where we could try electing senators. We could do it on a province-wide basis and, based upon the proportional representation of the senators who are on a qualified list, we would be able to bring those names forward for the Senate.

That is a reasonable approach to satisfy the needs the NDP is talking about, as well as addressing the needs of many other members of the House, in both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, who have talked about Senate reform. We could combine the two and actually provide a real, true result that would satisfy what Canadians are looking for in the Senate. That might be the way to do it.

I still fear that if we go strictly off a party list, the problems we have experienced or complained about that exist today in the Senate, such as patronage, would exist then in the House of Commons because everyone would be coming off a list that is qualified by the party and not necessarily by the electors at the grassroots level. I would ask the hon. member to address that.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I have visited many countries that have proportional representation,. They have mixed proportional representation. On the other hand, how could the hon. member accept that the NDP gets 2.1 million votes and only 36 members of Parliament? The Bloc gets 1.6 million votes and they get over 50 members of Parliament. Something is wrong somewhere.

When people vote they ask if their vote counts or not. Many people do not want to vote today because they feel that their vote is lost. If we go to a riding and say in advance that a certain member will probably get in anyway, their vote does not go anywhere.

We have to try proportional representation, and getting rid of the Senate will not cost Canadians any more because we will have more elected members in the House of Commons and they will have to answer to the people. I feel that is the way to go.

Opposition Motion—Representation in Parliament
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have some mixed views on the Senate, but on the proportional representation, I want to share with the member my concern. There are many types of proportional representation, but if we are talking about the system where there is a list provided by the parties so that if they are entitled to additional seats, they would take it off the list, the problem with that is that those members of Parliament who are added do not have a constituency. That means their jobs would be basically Ottawa work but no constituency work. It is a totally different job. Because they have been put on the list, chances are they are people who could not probably get elected on their own merit in the first place.

These are some of the concerns and I wonder if the member would care to comment on some of the problems.