House of Commons Hansard #84 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was agreement.

Topics

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Élaine Michaud Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, QC

Madam Speaker, that is a hypothetical situation and therefore I do not think I can address it appropriately. The first step is to ask Canadians what they want. Based on the response, we can look at scenarios and establish the steps to be taken. For the time being, I remain in favour of abolishing the Senate.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity today to speak to Bill C-7 before the House.

Just before I start, I note that the most recent question was whether or not it was wise to consult Canadians. Yet the government has not even consulted the provinces when talking about making massive changes to the Senate and its functions.

The rub in this particular legislation is that it all sounds very simple. In fact, if we look at the summary to the legislation it merely says that part 1 of the enactment is to provide that the Prime Minister, in recommending Senate nominees to the Governor General for a province or territory, as if the Prime Minister did not make the nominations and put them into effect, would be required to consider names from a list of nominees submitted by the provincial or territorial government. The list of nominees would be determined by an election held in accordance with provincial or territorial laws.

Therefore, what we have here is what a famous Canadian once called “meddling with the constitution”. That man is considered one of the fathers of Confederation, none other than Sir John A. Macdonald. He talked about certain proposals coming forward prior to Confederation in the Province of Canada, between Upper and Lower Canada. Suggestions were made for some changes based on representation by population. It was really about changing the balance, in this particular case, between Upper and Lower Canada, or Quebec and Ontario. It was being proposed in some other fashion, not directly, but the idea was to change the nature of the Constitution.

Sir John A. quite rightly identified this as meddling with the constitution. That is what is happening here. What is the effect of this legislation? Is it to improve the situation in Canada? Do we have a circumstance that requires adjustment by saying that we will appoint only senators who are elected in a province? Is that what the people are crying out for? Do we want to have a Senate now that has six members from Alberta, six members from B.C., six members from Manitoba, and ten from New Brunswick and four from P.E.I.? Are we going to improve things by saying they would be chosen from those who have been elected? Therefore, in the Senate we would have B.C. with six senators and P.E.I. with four. That is the representation we are going to have in the Senate, and we would start to give them legitimacy by saying they were chosen from people who were elected in the provinces.

That is going to be a muddle if ever there were one. If John A. Macdonald were here today that is what he would call it. He would say this is “meddling with the constitution”. If the bill passes, we do not know what the real effect is going to be, but it will give some legitimacy to senators, or at least the senators will think they have legitimacy. They will say they were elected by the people of Prince Edward Island or British Columbia, or at least that they “won” an election, because they are not allowed to be elected. A senator will say, “I am one of six senators and should therefore be able to flex my constitutional muscle in the Senate”.

That person will be up against someone from Prince Edward Island who will say: “I was elected. I won an election in Prince Edward Island. I am one of four. I have a vote in the Senate and my vote is just as important as yours. We collectively are going to have legitimacy because we were elected”.

What is that going to do to our constitution? It would muddle it at the very least and delegitimize this place, the House of Commons, the elected representatives of the people making the law. We have a Senate down the hall, “the other place” I think we are supposed to refer to it politely. We are not allowed to utter its name because it is the other place. That is the tradition here.

The tradition also is that the other place is supposed to defer to the House of Commons. That is the convention. If we look at the Constitution, it says they have equal powers, but the constitutional convention is that they are not supposed to be exercising those powers.

What have we had in the last couple of years? We have had a government that has been using the Senate as a tool to defeat the majority in the House of Commons. We saw that in the last Parliament. The climate change action bill was passed by the House, and what did the government do? It used its majority in the Senate to kill the bill. The will of the House of Commons, the elected people of Canada, was defeated by appointed people in the other place.

Who are they? They are appointed at the whim of the Prime Minister. Never mind the language about the Prime Minister “recommending” nominees to the Governor General. We know what that means: anyone who is recommended by the Prime Minister to the Governor General is appointed to the Senate. I do not even think they are called appointments. Instead, they are called to the Senate. I do not mean to mock this, but that is the way the system is set up. Senators are clearly appointed by the Prime Minister based on whatever whim he has. This legislation says he would have to consider nominees who have won an election in a province. Some of them are recognizable people, such as defeated Conservative candidates, for example.

The former member for Avalon in my province was defeated in an election and appointed to the Senate. Then he resigned and ran in the last election. He was defeated again and re-appointed to the Senate. In my province that is not regarded very highly. It is not regarded as democratic that someone can become a senator because he is a defeated Conservative candidate who is rewarded for his loyalty by being put in the Senate, where he can serve for as long as the Constitution allows.

That is the body the government wants to give legitimacy to by saying that the persons chosen could potentially or possibly be from among those who have been elected. This is meddling with the Constitution, because senators and others have talked about how we will have differential senators as a result, some appointed until age 75 because they were appointed 20, 10 or 5 years ago, and then those who are appointed from a list of elected candidates. Not all provinces are happy with this. British Columbia does not seem to be happy about this. Quebec is not happy with it. In fact, it is saying it is going to take it to court to challenge the constitutionality of it.

There was a time when the Reform Party talked about a triple-E Senate: equal, effective and elected. That was the model and I think it has been rejected. What are we trying to salvage? Is it the notion that we can reform a body that ought to be abolished, like every other senate in Canada has been abolished? Every other province had the equivalent to the Senate. Most of them were called legislative councils and some were called other things, but the provinces got rid of them and we now have what are called unicameral legislatures across the country.

Democracy has not suffered; democracy has been enhanced. In fact, these senates or legislative councils were initially aimed in part to be a brake on democracy, to the effect that “We cannot let commoners pass laws unless the aristocracy and the establishment have an opportunity to veto them”. That was part of the original idea. There is talk about regional balance, yes, but it was also about this other notion.

It is a fundamentally undemocratic institution and ought to be abolished. Our first step, as was mentioned, would be to ask Canadians to reflect on this issue in a referendum. It would be a first step, and not a constitutional step, by the way. Do not mistake that. It would say that New Democrats wanted to develop a national consensus on abolishing the Senate. That is our policy. This alleged reform is in fact meddling with the Constitution and ought not take place.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, again I agree with my colleague on almost everything he said. However, I am trying to get an answer from him on the following, since his colleague did not answer.

According to the Constitution, abolishing the Senate would require unanimity among all of the provinces. Would that mean that winning a referendum on abolishing the Senate would require a majority in every province of our great country? Yes or no?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, everyone in the country knows that the member is a constitutional scholar. However, I urge him not to get caught up in constitutionality.

When we are talking about holding a referendum, we are talking about political will. We first need a consensus in this country that that other place is undemocratic and ought to be abolished. Once we get that, then we will ask the hon. member to tell us exactly how he thinks it relates to the Constitution. We could have a debate about that. We might even refer it to the Supreme Court of Canada.

However, before we get involved in all of the constitutional issues and open up a can of worms, a Pandora's box, as some people call it, we should ask the question whether the people of Canada want to maintain this relic of the 19th century, as the Prime Minister has called it in the past. Do we want to get rid of this or do we want to keep it? That is the fundamental question.

We know where we stand and we would like to have an opportunity to convince the people of Canada that it should be abolished.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault Sherbrooke, QC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for his excellent speech.

I would like to know whether he agrees with me on something. Is the government not just creating a smokescreen with this bill—as it has with other bills—in claiming to want to reform the Senate? This is not the first time, because the government has been saying it wants to reform the Senate for years now. However, it presents us with false reforms every time. This bill still leaves the Prime Minister with the power to decide who he will appoint to the Senate, creating a situation whereby the elected candidates will not necessarily be appointed. Is it not ridiculous, today, to ask people to run in an election to become senators, knowing that after they win there is still no guarantee that they will become senators?

I wonder whether this bill is just a smokescreen and whether the best solution here, as my colleague has said a number of times, is to ask Canadians what they think of the Senate and what they think we should do before we launch into any reform. I would like to hear what my colleague has to say about that.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

February 27th, 2012 / 12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, I do not know if “smokescreen” is the proper word. It certainly is a subterfuge of some sort because I think it is part of a continued attempt to legitimize the work of the other place. We have seen the government use it in the past.

It is using it now in having introduced Bill S-7 in the Senate, a justice bill aimed at amending the Criminal Code, the Canada Evidence Act and other legislation to provide extraordinary powers to the Federal Court. That is legislation that died because of a sunset clause five years ago, but the government now wants to bring it back, not here but in the Senate. I think the whole idea here is to make the Senate more legitimate and maybe that will extend the government's power beyond when it is defeated.

Maybe that is part of the scheme. I am not a conspiracy theorist but I do see elements of that in this current legislation, with its nine-year terms and more and more appointments to be made by the Prime Minister, who received less than 40% in the last election and who is seeing if he can extend his power by making the Senate more powerful. That is very dangerous.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Madam Speaker, if provinces like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, provinces with small population bases, want to retain a Senate in the form of a referendum but because the overall numbers across Canada show that 51% want it to be abolished, what would the NDP's position be then? Would it deny the opportunity of a Senate for the smaller provinces that might want stronger regional representation?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Madam Speaker, we are looking at a particular institution that has failed, frankly. It is a relic of the 19th century. It does not provide for democratic representation. We are talking about a referendum that would test the will of the people.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Kennedy Stewart Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, I am happy to rise today to speak about Bill C-7, the Senate reform act. I have two major concerns about this bill. One concerns the process by which the bill was derived, and the second is the substance of the bill. Once I have gone through those two points, I will also bring up a proposition of how we can move forward on this topic.

In terms of process, I find the way in which this bill was developed is cynical. I think it was really developed in the backroom by the Conservatives with very little consultation with the public, the academic communities or the provinces. In fact, I do not think there was a single robocall made through this whole process. Perhaps the Conservatives might want to change not only their position on how they develop bills or their approach to developing bills, but also how they consult the public in general.

The Senate is an outdated but important institution. It requires serious debate and public input. I think we learned from the Meech Lake accord that Canadians are no longer willing to develop important positions on the Constitution, institutions of Parliament or democracy by having a bunch of guys in the backroom make a decision and then kind of foist it on the public.

We need to involve the public and all the expertise that we have across the country in order to come forward with a position that all Canadians can accept.

The Senate is a key institution of government. Its origins date back to the 11th century in England. Yet, despite the long-standing presence of this institution, both in other countries and in Canada, no public input has been sought on these changes. There is little consultation with the provinces. There is little academic input. This is unfortunate. For example, Tom Flanagan, a chief advisor to the Conservatives, said this legislation “scares me”. He opposes this legislation because he thinks it would further entrench all that is wrong with the Senate.

As I mentioned, this cynical approach to democratic reform really died with Meech Lake. Members of this House will remember that the Charlottetown accord, although it did not go forward, set a new way for major reforms in this country. This way is to bring the public in and to make sure that they are consulted. If the public does not want the change, then it is not made.

I am going to return to the idea of process at the end of my speech, but I am going to move on with substance. I have to say I agree with Professor Flanagan that this legislation is scary, not only in the way it was developed but also the substance of it. At best, this bill is frivolous and at worst it is damaging to Canadian democracy.

For example, the Prime Minister would only be required to consider these elections. A province could go through all the trouble of electing and selecting a new senator, to bring his or her name forward to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister could reject it.

We are already in a democratic crisis here in Canada. We have voter turnouts at the lowest levels in history. Citizens do not participate between elections. I am sure we will get into that debate later today with a perhaps purposeful, fraudulent attempt on the other side to suppress public input which was brought to light over the weekend.

Again, this could only deepen the cynicism about our democratic institutions. The effect of this bill could also be no effect at all. Provinces have already indicated that they are going to take this to court if this goes ahead.

I would like to draw attention to clauses 38 to 50, which link Senate reform not only to the provinces conducting these elections for senators but municipalities. This part of the bill says that if the provinces do not want to conduct these elections, they could devolve them to municipal institutions. I think this would be very dangerous.

Three colleagues and I have just finished a book on the topic of local government institutions across Canada. I have to report that I think clauses 38 to 50 would be a very dangerous precedent to set. As we report in our book, municipal election processes in many provinces are in really dire shape.

The provincial government in British Columbia found it could not conduct referendums during municipal elections because the administration of these municipal elections is unreliable. There is improper record keeping and there are irregularities. There is not sufficient oversight to guarantee that these elections are fit for anything other than local issues.

Worse still is the influence of foreign money in municipal elections. This has come to light in the province of British Columbia. It would be important to consider if we were to move ahead with Senate elections conducted on the back of these municipal elections.

For example, the head of CSIS reported last year that foreign funds were coming to the municipal elections in British Columbia and they were having a negative influence on municipal politicians. Premier Gordon Campbell was so concerned about the charges made by the head of CSIS that he convened a task force on this very topic. I am pleased to say that Premier Campbell invited me to testify at the task force. I was able to report on an investigation that I had conducted about the amount of foreign money coming into B.C. local elections. This would be especially worrying if Senate elections were to be conducted during these same municipal elections.

One councillor in the city of Vancouver received a lump sum donation of $75,000 from a Taiwanese businessperson. This money was routed through various companies in Canada in order to land in his municipal election fund. This is one example of a large amount of money that came to one single councillor that could have the effect of influencing decisions made by councillors. If Senate elections were connected to municipal elections that in turn could influence who sits in our Senate. That is very worrying.

We reported to the provincial task force that donations from U.S. sources are common. Thousands of dollars are coming into B.C. municipal elections. This could have an influence on senatorial elections if this legislation were passed.

As additional information, there is currently no spending limit in B.C. municipal elections. In the last Vancouver municipal election over $5 million was spent by candidates of different political parties. Some of this money has already been traced to foreign sources. The task force has investigated this and continues to investigate. Both the former premier and the current premier have expressed deep concerns and are moving forward with legislation to change this. This is an investigation only in one province. Before we move ahead with anything like clauses 38 to 50 we definitely have to make sure that this is not the case in other municipal elections across Canada.

It is our position that the Senate should be abolished. However, we do not think we should rush forward with this without talking to Canadians. We should learn from the mistakes of the other side. We should engage Canadians in the discussion of what is an important democratic institution in this country.

We have a four step proposal. Most of it has already been covered in my colleagues' speeches to the House, but it is good to remind the House of our proposal.

First, we are proposing to convene a number of experts who could give us a non-partisan overview of what is possible in terms of Senate reform, that is, the constitutionality in relation to the overall Constitution and how it affects the provinces. We have brilliant academic minds in this country who could come together and bring us this information.

Second, we would need to publicize this information through a mechanism to spur debate on this issue.

Third, we would have to move to a referendum on this topic. I was an academic advisor to the B.C. citizens' assembly. With a few tweaks we could have something like a citizens' assembly that could help set the question to be asked of Canadians at large and perhaps answer some of my colleague's questions about what threshold would be appropriate. I would think 50% plus one would be fine. Again, this is a personal opinion.

Fourth, a referendum is binding. After this referendum, we would abide by the will of the people and move ahead with whatever is acceptable.

If the majority government moves ahead with the bill against our advice, I suggest that the government consult with the Province of British Columbia on foreign funding in municipal elections and take a very good look at clauses 38 to 50.

I am happy to provide the government with the briefing I gave to the Campbell task force. I am also working on a private member's motion on this matter, which I will raise at a later time.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Madam Speaker, I appreciate that the hon. member was very straightforward. He gave a proposal in which, to be very clear, he said that the NDP would abolish the Senate based on a referendum, if 50% plus one of the voters across Canada said yes to abolishing the Senate.

The question I have for the hon. member is this. There are provinces like Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland which have smaller populations. Some of those provinces want to see better regional representation in Ottawa and look to the Senate as a possible solution to that issue.

If you were to get a majority of people in the province of Manitoba who said they would like to see that regionally based Senate, would you then abandon the position in terms of the 50% plus one in order to abolish the Senate?

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

I am sure the hon. member is not speaking about my position. I would encourage all members to direct their questions through the Speaker.

The hon. member for Burnaby—Douglas.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Kennedy Stewart Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, I welcome the question from the hon. member, although he is putting words in my mouth. The proposal I clearly outlined is to get expert advice on what would be not only constitutionally acceptable but also on the process.

The second thing would be to take this information to Canadians, to consult with them, to see what they would find acceptable. I propose getting advice from the public, perhaps through a citizens' assembly, about not only what question would be acceptable but what thresholds would be acceptable as well. Then have a referendum and abide by the will of that referendum.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Glenn Thibeault Sudbury, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his great speech and the work he has done in British Columbia on certain files.

I find interesting that Liberal members keep asking: what is the status? What is the number? What is it going to be? What is the majority? They do not even want to take this question to the Canadian people. I think that is what we really need to do. We need to ask Canadians this question: do we really need the other place? It boggles the mind as to why they continue talking about this one subject when they do not even want to talk to the Canadian people. Maybe that is why they are sitting way down at that end now.

I would like to hear comments from the hon. member on that.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Kennedy Stewart Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, for me, the Liberal position is very consistent: it is to defend the status quo because that is what has benefited that party. It is also a cynical approach to politics.

I think that all parties in this House have to learn from past mistakes. All parties have to make sure that the public is included in a much deeper way, not only in the reform of democratic institutions but also in actual participation in our current democratic processes.

We do not have enough of that. In fact, if anything, the government and the Liberal Party have worked to exclude Canadians from these processes. However, members on this side of the House are going to make sure we bring forward proposals to include citizens, to increase voter turnout and public participation in between elections. We will continue to do so.

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

The hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville for one last, very quick question.