House of Commons Hansard #24 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 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Madam Speaker, I want to address the colourful reference the hon. member made to Frankenstein's monster. He said that we would have a variety of different kinds of mandates, and that when members of the House are elected with different kinds of mandates, we would have different kinds of responsibilities, which would lead to a dog's breakfast of Frankenstein's monster.

I could tell that he felt strongly about it because his voice went up an octave when he did it and I heard a wine glass shattering somewhere.

He favours proportional representation, the multi-member proportional system for the House of Commons. Under that system, some members came from a party list and some were elected from individual ridings.

Given that he feels so strongly that different kinds of mandates lead to this kind of Frankenstein's monster, why is he advocating turning this House into a Frankenstein's monster and removing all checks and balances and giving it complete control over the affairs of the country? That seems inherently incompatible with his statements about mixed mandates in the Senate.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I knew when the hon. member got up it would be a thoughtful, intelligent question and probably a little tough. It was all of those things.

I stand by what I said. I am disappointed that it was wine glasses I shattered; I would rather it would be busted beer bottles, but that is just because I am from Hamilton.

I understand the question. I would just say that the Frankenstein, to use that reference, was because of the cherry-picking, all these different ideas and different pieces that do not fit together.

The notion of proportional representation does contain the element that the member says, but let us understand that this is only one model of proportional representation. We have not said anything about a particular model being cast in stone; we just think we ought to start a dialogue with Canadians about what kind of proportional representation model we should adopt to bring into the House.

The second thing is that most of the models are well established. In reality, we are very far behind in terms of democracy. We think of ourselves as a mature modern democracy, and we are in so many ways, but with that Senate over there, we are not.

Proportional representation is about as mainstream as it can get in Europe and many other countries. The fundamental aspect that some people have a direct election and some are on a list is an issue, but it is a systemic issue that is built into a model that has been tested and used in many countries around the world, whereas this hybrid monster really is not anything.

We will have senators over there fighting among themselves over all kinds of issues. As I said, that is a gridlock in and of itself, and that is before we even get to the point of the gridlock that happens here.

My friend from Saint-Laurent—Cartierville raised this point, and I want to give him credit for it: if we do get into the gridlock that the Americans have, the Americans at least have a mechanism, the conference committee, to deal with it in some way. We do not have one. We have no ability to deal with the gridlock that exists between two elected houses.

Not only is this a bad idea, it is not even well thought out.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, my colleague is completely right to raise the issue of the danger of a gridlock and blockages and so on.

At a time when the economy is doing so badly and the United States situation is so awful, how can the government claim that they care so much about the economy, and that it is a priority, when it is planning to create a stalemate here in the Parliament of Canada?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I suspect, based on the question he is asking, that the government thinks it is a fine idea because it controls the Senate right now. If it did not control the House under the current system, it would still control the Senate, so it probably does not give much of a darn.

It works for the Conservatives the way it is now. These plans will work for them. Everything works for them. The problem is that the bill does not work for Canadians.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

September 30th, 2011 / 1:05 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, the Liberal Party does not oppose Senate reform, but it must be done right and in accordance with the Constitution.

There are three reasons the Liberal opposition cannot support the bill.

First, it is the conviction of the Liberal opposition that such an act would be unconstitutional. The fundamental changes it proposes cannot be implemented by Parliament alone. These changes would require the support of at least seven provinces, representing 50% of the Canadian population, notably because appointing senators through a patchwork of voluntary provincial senatorial elections is clearly a fundamental change; limiting the senators' tenure to nine years is a significant change; and giving the Prime Minister the power to name the totality of senators at the end of two mandates of four and a half years would strengthen his power considerably, another significant change.

Second, such an act would be against the interests of two of our provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Here is why: practically speaking, an elected upper chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. The problem is that both western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate, and both provinces have only six senators, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller.

Third, such an act could provoke frequent blockages in Parliament in the absence of a constitutional mechanism to resolve any conflicts that might arise between an elected House of Commons and an elected Senate.

For those three reasons, we propose that the government abandon this bill, or at least refer it to the Supreme Court to verify its constitutionality.

I would like to elaborate on each of these three objections, which have led the Liberal opposition to determine that this bill is not in the interest of Canadians. One issue is that if this bill becomes law, we will have to expect arguments that would pit one elected chamber against the other elected chamber, creating delays and roadblocks in Parliament. Just think of the frequent intercameral paralysis experienced by our neighbours to the south.

In fact, the situation could be even worse here than in the United States, because Canada does not have a constitutional mechanism to bridge the gaps between two elected chambers. Both could claim the same legitimacy and claim to speak for the people.

What is the government thinking? What does the minister have in mind? Does he really want to bring the same paralysis we see in the United States or in Mexico here to Canada? Do we not have enough challenges here in Canada without thoughtlessly burdening our decision-making process?

This seems like a very bad idea, especially when we consider that Canada is a decentralized federation with 11 governments—14 including the territories—that have important powers and responsibilities. In such a decentralized federation, it is important that federal institutions, common to all citizens, work well and quickly, before drafting legislation or making decisions that may or may not be popular, but that at least are not constrained by the ritual opposition of two elected chambers, an opposition that would be exacerbated by the absence of a constitutional dispute resolution mechanism.

It is important to realize that the government's muddled plan would have senators appointed through a patchwork system of optional provincial elections. Funding for these federal elections would come from the provinces, and even though they would be federal elections, the federal parties would be excluded from the electoral process. The provincial parties would control these federal elections. What a mess.

It is not surprising that a number of provincial governments have said they are not planning to put up funds for these federal elections. This bill is the antithesis of common sense and it is unconstitutional to boot. If this bill passes, the resulting legislation would be declared unconstitutional because the fundamental changes it would cause could not be implemented by Parliament alone. These changes could only be made with the support of at least seven provinces representing 50% of the Canadian population. This unilateral initiative is another manifestation of the Prime Minister's style of government: controlling and centralizing. This attitude shows disrespect for the provinces and a lack of understanding of what Canadian federalism is.

Indeed, many of the provinces have said that they believe this proposal is not something that can be done unilaterally. They believe they should be involved, and they want to be involved in these proposed Senate reforms. In other words, it is not just we who are saying the federal government cannot do this alone: the provinces say that, and they want a voice.

Wrong for the whole of Canada, this bill is especially ill-conceived for the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. We are far from being alone in saying that. Both British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and former Alberta Premier Don Getty rightly point out that this version of Senate reform would be bad for their respective provinces. As the Edmonton Journal wrote, “second thoughts” must be given to this plan.

Let us look at the numbers. Alberta has 9.1% of the total number of members of Parliament, but only 5.7% of the senators. The gap is even larger for British Columbia, with 11.7% of the members in the House of Commons and only 5.7% of the members of the Senate. Let us compare these provinces with New Brunswick, which counts 10 senators for a population 4.8 times smaller than Alberta's and 6.1 times smaller than British Columbia's.

This unbalanced distribution of Senate seats, an historical artifact, is a problem for the two western provinces and an anomaly for our federation. The government's reform would make the situation much worse.

In the existing unelected Senate, this problem is mitigated by the fact that our senators play the constitutional role with moderation, letting the elected House of Commons have the final word most of the time. However, in an elected Senate, with members able to invoke as much democratic legitimacy as their House counterparts--if not more, since they would represent provinces rather than ridings--the under-representation of British Columbia and Alberta would take on its full scope and significance.

Of course, elected senators from the other provinces would not be hostile to the interests of Alberta and British Columbia, their duty being to address the interests of the whole country, but these senators would be more familiar with, and closer to, the interests of the voters of the province where they were elected.

Premier Charest has already announced that his government will challenge the constitutionality of this unilateral Senate reform in the courts. Premiers Stelmach and Clark will serve the interests of their provinces well if they join their Quebec colleague in this court action.

Do Canadians need and want the waste of time, effort, money and goodwill that the government's initiative would cause? I think not. It is time for the Prime Minister, a Calgarian, and the Minister of Democratic Reform, an Edmontonian, to give this issue a second sober thought and abandon this ill-advised and ill-conceived Senate reform plan, an ill-advised and problem-fraught plan for Alberta, British Columbia and the whole of Canada in English et en français.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Madam Speaker, my hon. colleague has indicated that regional unfairness is an issue. I am notorious in my own party as a supporter of greater equality between members in selecting our leaders, so I have natural sympathy with that.

However, I wonder if he really supports what he is saying. He is quite right that there are 10 senators each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick--actually, there are 12 each. There are four senators for Prince Edward Island, which results from the fact that because of another provision of our Constitution, Prince Edward Island has a minimum number of MPs, causing the average riding in P.E.I. to be about one-third the size of a riding in Ontario, and so on.

Is he in favour of eliminating all these things? Would he be willing to start, for example, by doing something that I personally do not support, which is cutting the number of senators for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia down to six, or perhaps fewer, in order to have some kind of population balance with British Columbia and Alberta?

If he is not, or if he is not willing to suggest an amendment that would lead to the opposite conclusion, then I suggest he is just coming up with these objections as a way of trying to prevent any progress from being made and is repeating the old Liberal line that until we have perfect reform, which is unachievable, we should have no reform at all and stick to an appointed Senate, which in due course would be appointed by Liberal governments based on Liberal partisans as it was in the past.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, it is true that in Canada there is no agreement about the number of senators each province should have and it is a problem for two provinces that are very underrepresented. But why make this problem worse and significantly worse by the reform my colleague and his party are proposing today?

Between 1945 and today the Senate rejected only seven bills from the House. So the Senate has been quite prudent and reserved about its own role. Imagine if they were elected? Do members think there would only be seven bills during half a century that would be stuck by an elected Senate? No, it would be daily life, it would do it all the time. Only six Albertans would be there to make their mind known. It would be terribly unfair. I care about each province in my country and it is why I am clearly against the bill.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson Hamilton Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague for an excellent speech and an excellent analysis. I particularly enjoyed the analysis because it comes from a respected academic perspective which is about the antithesis of everything that I bring to it with a grade nine education, but I do have an experiential viewpoint from 26 years of being elected at all three orders of government. That is why my question is about accountability.

From my limited academic point of view, it looks to me like there is no room for accountability. I asked the minister as my first question, where is the accountability given the importance of that in a democracy and the minister either could not, or would not articulate an answer.

I would ask my colleague, have I missed something? Is there an element of accountability that I am not seeing, or is it clearly missing from this reform bill?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, this gives me an opportunity to say that I understand the appetite for having members of Parliament and senators elected in a democracy. I understand that and it is popular in Canada. The second step is how can we do it in a way that will help the country and every region of the country. The way the minister wants to do this will be awful. It would create stalemates. It will paralyze us. It will not create better policy-making, to the contrary, and it will accentuate this proportion of unfairness for some regions of our country, especially Alberta and British Columbia.

By definition, I am not saying it is wrong to have elected senators. I am saying it is wrong to do it this way for everyone.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Vancouver Quadra, BC

Madam Speaker, I enjoyed my colleague's knowledgeable speech on this. I am from one of the most affected provinces, British Columbia, so I would like to pose to my colleague this question. Could he give us a greater idea and more details about the kind of inequities that would be placed on the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta by this Conservative government proposal?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, on every bill in the Senate, British Columbia and Alberta would be very underrepresented and in any democracy that I know of, to be underrepresented is bad news. Today it is a problem, but it is manageable because the Senate at the end of the day almost always gives the last word to the House.

British Columbia and Alberta are much better represented and we will work on some things that will make their representation even better in the House in the coming weeks, but not in the Senate. In the Senate it cannot be changed and the minister did not answer my question. He said that the distribution of senators by province cannot be changed other than by the Constitution. I agree with him. So that means that forever British Columbia and Alberta will be terribly underrepresented in one of the two elected chambers of this country. Is that really what he wants for his province?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Madam Speaker, it is curious that the minister is not taking the opportunity to ask my colleague some questions with respect to what I would regard as a very thoughtful speech and a detailed deconstruction of what is clearly a flawed bill.

We have seen some pretty awful situations in the United States recently with constitutional and political gridlock between two houses which are elected. As others have said, there is a conference mechanism wherein people of goodwill can in effect work out their differences.

It seems to me that one of the core points the hon. member raises in his speech is the institutionalization of gridlock between the two houses. As I think about what he has elucidated, I think he is right. I am curious as to how the hon. member sees that happening over time as each develops its own culture.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, it is a big concern for me. Canada is a complex country to govern, and friends in the Conservative Party are realizing that more and more. It is a huge country, very decentralized. There is little that Ottawa can do alone without at least consulting the provinces. Also the aboriginal people have to have their say.

Why add an even more complex situation when the common institution of the country, the Parliament of Canada will, most of the time, like in the United States, be blocked by partisan differences between the two elected houses, the two elected chambers?

I think it is ill-advised to do so. We should at least have a long debate. I would urge the minister to ensure to have hearings. Many experts will come and explain to the minister how dangerous this bill is for Canada.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey
Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Madam Speaker, 70% of Canadians have said that they want some form of reform. I would just like to ask, does the member opposite really want a constitutional quagmire? That is what he is proposing.

Canadians want action. They elected a strong, stable, Conservative government to create reform. We are moving forward with that. Why does the member opposite want to put us in a constitutional quagmire?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, in fact, it is the bill that will create the quagmire. The hon. member must understand that.

Alberta and British Columbia will see that on every bill they will be so unfairly represented that they will request a constitutional change to be sure that they will have their fair share. It will be completely understandable.

As the member well knows, there will not be one politician in Quebec or Ontario who will be willing to change that. So we will have the quagmire that the member is speaking about, and it is what I do not want. I am sure she does not want it either. So the member should say no to this bill.