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 trade.

Topics

Senate Reform Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, my colleague said he would like to have a panel of experts to determine the process to abolish the Senate. The hon. member knows the Constitution. He is a professor himself. He knows that it requires the unanimity of provinces. Why would one need a panel for that?

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1 p.m.

NDP

Kennedy Stewart Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, I will respond with an extension of the last question. Why do the Liberals not believe in public participation? Why do they not believe in getting advice from citizens and experts?

I think the process I outlined showed that we are committed to a different type of Canada, where Canadians actually have a voice and get fair information about processes so they can make properly informed decisions about what should happen in Canada. Then we would move ahead with the consent of and advice from the Canadian people.

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1 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to add my voice to the debate on Senate reform. As has been made clear in the House, the position of the NDP is to abolish the Senate. I am comfortable with that position, I support it and I advocate for it.

However, at the same time, I am all right talking about other ideas. I love hearing from my constituents about this issue. We have different perspectives on the issue, but, unlike the Conservatives, I am not afraid of different perspectives. I am not afraid of people sharing their ideas with me even if we might not agree at the end of the day on how to solve the problem.

People often talk to me about this, whether at events where they pull me off to the side and say that they have thought about Senate reform and want to talk about it. People write me letters. People stop me on the street. This is something people think about in their day-to-day lives and they try to figure out a solution. They are trying to work through what can be done.

Why are all these constituents preoccupied with Senate reform? Parliamentary procedure is not exactly something that people think about while having dinner. However, they care about this because they see our system is not working. They see that the Senate is not serving the purpose it was intended to serve. Therefore, people do legitimately talk to me about their ideas and I listen to them.

Before I came into the chamber today, I looked through some letters I received about Senate reform. I want to share a couple of them with the House. Again, they are proposing a solution that is not my solution, but it is encouraging to hear from people and know they are so engaged on this issue. I want to share just a couple of letters with you.

One letter is from Andre MacNeil, who is from Halifax. He wrote to me last year on International Women's Day. I will not even paraphrase. He said:

Hello Megan,

while listening to a news item on women's representation in the Senate (or its equivalent) in India (on the radio) this evening, I thought that we, in Canada, should consider something similar.

On the occasion of International Women's Day, I suggest that all Senate appointments be gender balanced, commencing today. From this point forward, every other appointment to the Senate should be a woman. To someone like myself—outside of politics—this seems like a reasonable possibility, since all Senate positions are appointed. As well, it should provide a much broader—and improved—representation for Canadians than the current approach.

Is this concept too “simplistic” ... or is this a viable alternative for public representation?

Thank you for your time and tireless efforts.

Andre and I have a different solution, but the point is he worries about the fact that the Senate is not working the way it should and he is trying to come up with a solution.

Mark Hoffberg wrote to me and summarized a proposal that he had. He said:

My proposal....changes the Senate from a regional representation body to one that represents the actual popular vote in the country, composed of a 100 seat chamber (with room for a rounding bump of a seat if needed). I would also allocate 5 additional seats for what the census would call Aboriginal Canadians (First Nations, Métis, Inuit).

The 5 Aboriginal seats I feel are important because of the nature of representation of Aboriginal people in the country. Making up 5% of the population but operating on wholly different governing systems, there's a lack of a voice in the direction of the country as a whole. The members would not be members of an existing party list but would be determined by other means and certainly not limited to those on or off reserves.

After a Federal Election, the number of Senate seats for each party would be determined based on the popular vote. The parties would then select members to represent them in the Senate. The parties would have a list of potential candidates available within 10 days of the writ of election being dropped....

I know the Senate is a topic of conversation so I wished to add my thoughts on it, thoughts I think would work well for all the parties in the House of Commons.

Have a good day.

He is right that the Senate is a topic of conversation.

These are two examples of Canadians writing to their MP saying that the system is broken and suggesting some ideas on how to fix it. I welcome those kinds of letters and I welcome a discussion on Senate reform.

I have a proposal. Why do we not abolish it? The reason we need to abolish the Senate is because it is “a relic of the 19th century”. Who said that? It was the right hon. Prime Minister.

The 2006 Conservative platform said that the Conservatives and the Prime Minister believed that the current Senate must either be reformed or abolished, that an unelected Senate should not be able to block the will of an elected House in the 21st century.

We can talk about these ideas on how to reform, but it is not serving us. We should abolish the Senate. At the very least, we should do what I have just done in the House, and that is welcome opinions, talk about ideas, hear from people who may even think something different than we think and put it to the test. Let us have a referendum. Why are we afraid of the Canadian people? Why are we afraid of hearing from them and getting a clear message from them, 50% plus one? Why would we not welcome that kind of participatory democracy? It is brilliant. Once we have done that, let them have a say and then follow the will of the people. Never mind party or regional posturing.

On the regional issue, I am from Nova Scotia, and the Senate is a big issue back home. People tell me that the Senate is about regional representation, that if we lose the Senate, then Nova Scotia will lose out and that this is an opportunity for Nova Scotia to have more of a say in parliamentary affairs.

When I first heard that argument, I thought it was a good point, but let us apply that to what happens in the House and the other chamber. When have we ever seen a senator stand up for Nova Scotia? When have we ever seen a senator stand up for Atlantic Canada? How are senators representing my interests as a maritimer and Atlantic Canadian? They are not because they cannot put their party allegiance aside. They are doing what the centre is telling them to do and they are not standing up for Nova Scotia.

Because I am here during the parliamentary calendar, I work and meet with constituents during the summer. Summertime is a great time to be with people in the community, whether it is at festivals or meetings. I met a senator in the airport on my way back to Ottawa and asked him how his summer was. He said that he was not busy and was so glad to go back to Ottawa. He said that he had been bored stiff. I tried to swallow the bile, because we work during the summer. We meet with our constituents and have outreach events. This man told me he was bored all summer. Well, cry me a river. Seriously, what the heck are senators doing?

I want to talk about the climate change accountability act, which was introduced in 2006 by Jack Layton. Parliament dissolved for the 2008 election so it did not get to the Senate. However, my colleague from Thunder Bay—Superior North brought it back and it passed on May 5, 2010, by a vote of 149 to 136. It went to the Senate and the Senate killed it on November 16, 2010. So much for sober second thought. Senators are activists. This is not what they are supposed to do.

I will never forget that day because I was with Jack Layton and I had never seen him that angry. He was so angry at how undemocratic this was. At a press conference, he said that this was one of the most undemocratic acts we had ever seen in the Parliament of Canada. To take power that does not rightfully belong to senators, to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in our country.

As my time has expired, it is appropriate to end on those words from my former leader, Jack Layton.

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1:10 p.m.

Conservative

James Lunney Nanaimo—Alberni, BC

Madam Speaker, the hon. member, being from Nova Scotia, raised the issue about whether senators from Nova Scotia were representing their province. I wonder if she would take issue with the former premier of Nova Scotia, the now retired senator, John Buchanan. Did he not represent Nova Scotia? I wonder if she would take issue with Senator Don Oliver, a well-known lawyer, entrepreneur, educator, a member of the black minority in Nova Scotia, nephew of a Canadian opera singer, politician Bill White and labour union activist Jack White. He is a distinguished Nova Scotian. Is the member suggesting that Senator Don Oliver does not represent the citizens of Nova Scotia?

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1:10 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Madam Speaker, Senator Oliver is an interesting fellow. He is one of the few senators who I actually see trying to engage with the community. I get a newsletter from him. I do not agree with his position on policies, but he is someone who tries to engage with community. He is out there doing what he can as a senator and I admire him for that.

However, that does not change my position on the Senate, especially when I am hard pressed to name the senators from Nova Scotia. I am a member of Parliament for the province of Nova Scotia and I do not know their names because they are non-existent in our province. They are not out meeting with people and talking about issues. I do not know what they do and I am here in this place. It is incredible to me.

There are some exceptions to the rule. I think Senator Jim Cowan and Senator Jane Cordy are working hard, but beyond that, it comes down to the fact that the Senate is not working. It does not matter to me that these are nice people who I happen to like, it does not work.

Senate Reform Act
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February 27th, 2012 / 1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. member for making more nuances now than in her speech in answering her colleague and recognizing the merit of many of our colleagues from the other chamber.

However, in her speech she said something completely unrealistic. She said that one vote would be enough of a difference, as in 50% plus one, to abolish the Senate in a judicial recount. That is completely unrealistic. What would she recommend if, in this referendum, some provinces had a clear majority to keep the Senate, but she had her one vote under judicial recount to abolish it?

The member's recommendation would have no impact anyway because the referendum could not change the Constitution. The unanimity of the provinces would still be needed to abolish the Senate.

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1:10 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Madam Speaker, I did not say one vote, I said a majority, and 50% plus one is a majority. That is more than one vote. Why would we not follow the will of the majority of Canadians?

If the majority of Canadians are saying that it is something they want, then we act. Maybe I cannot stand here and say that then comes a, b and c. Maybe we need to take some time to figure out what that looks like, and we can find the political will to do it. Just because it might be complicated does not mean we should not try and figure out a way to do it.

The hon. member should not let people tell him that it cannot be done.

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1:10 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

The hon. member for Beauport—Limoilou for a very quick question.

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1:10 p.m.

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Halifax for speaking about the unfortunate moment when the bill that had been passed by the House was defeated by the Senate.

Indeed, among the very odd measures we find in this bill is the one whereby Senate election candidates have to be appointed by a registered political party, which seems like an awfully partisan shift to me. I would like to know what the hon. member thinks about that.

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1:15 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his comments.

As always, I am in complete agreement with my colleague and I would like to thank him for the idea.

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1:15 p.m.

NDP

François Lapointe Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Madam Speaker, I am honoured to rise in the House to speak about Bill C-7, which is complete garbage. I hope it is not too unparliamentary of me to say so.

I came prepared to speak about many issues that have been raised by all sorts of people who are much more qualified than I am. I considered the content of the bill. I will start there. Everything that follows the word “Whereas” is complete nonsense: “it is important that Canada’s representative institutions, including the Senate, continue to evolve in accordance with the principles of modern democracy and the expectations of Canadians”.

The word “modern” is used. With this bill, the government is telling Canadians that people may be elected, or they may not be. They will then be recommended and may or may not be chosen. They will remain in limbo for six years and then they may sit for nine years. This extremely convoluted process, which cannot be called a suitable political process, is referred to as “modern” in the first paragraph of the preamble. Simple decency requires that, at the very least, the word “modern” be removed from the first paragraph of the bill. In 2012, the word “modern” cannot be associated with such a piece of garbage.

A little further on, the preamble states, “Whereas the tenure of senators should be consistent with modern democratic principles”. Again the word “modern” is used. I made a note for myself: nine years. Is there a modern democracy that would allow an individual to sit for nine years and to remain in limbo for six years once elected? That is 15 years. In addition, someone could be relieved of their mandate as senator for an indeterminate period of time and then come back. Could such a mechanism be used, for example, to improve the public standing of a person who was appointed by a party in power? That person would be in limbo, but he would also be in the public eye for six years. He could then sit for three years and take a break, perhaps to become a member of the House. While we are at it, why not allow senators to be elected for nine years and then come back after four or eight years for another six-year term? Such a process would allow an individual to be elected as a public official for 15, 20 or 22 years. For goodness' sake, can we take all the instances of the word “modern” out of this piece of garbage?

Another paragraph astonished me: “And whereas Parliament wishes to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate…as a chamber of independent…thought.” Not all Canadians are that gullible.

I have here a letter from Senator Bert Brown dated June 15, 2011. It concludes as follows: “Every Senator in this caucus needs to decide where their loyalty should be and must be. The answer is simple; our loyalty is to the man who brought us here, the man who has wanted Senate reform….” His loyalty is to the person who appointed him. The bill talks about a “chamber of independent thought”. While the government makes claims, the way that chamber operates, in fact, has nothing to do with what is discussed by the elected chamber here.

In another clause, the bill says: “A person remains as a Senate nominee until whichever of the following occurs first: ….” Here we are talking about something I mentioned earlier. A person could be suspended after 15 years. Fifteen years is equivalent to three or four provincial terms. Elections of senators would be associated with provincial elections.

The governments in power in the provinces will change, in a democratic and modern way, every three or four or five years, while someone is going to be in limbo with a position as an elected public representative for two or three or four provincial terms.

If we look at the history of the Senate, we see the extent to which this completely bizarre construction that this government is on the verge of creating is based on something that has been bizarre since the outset: the founding instrument enacted in 1867. One of the first comments made by Sir John A. Macdonald was that that chamber could act to curb democratic excesses. That is the foundational instrument. A chamber was created to avoid democratic excesses. The other chamber does not seem to be questioning whether its approach is healthy and democratic. The goal of the foundational instrument was to prevent democratic excesses.

There is a clause in the Constitution, section 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867, under which the Prime Minister may, with the consent of Her Majesty, cause four or eight additional senators to be appointed. Those senators must represent equally the four regional divisions. That clause has been invoked twice in history, but it has been used only once, in 1990. Brian Mulroney invoked it to make sure a bill creating the goods and services tax was passed.

Historically, something is put in place to prevent what was called democratic excesses, and then that instrument is used to make sure that every once in a while, a bill is passed with greater speed. Or, as was done recently, and as my colleague from Halifax pointed out, bills that have been passed by members of a chamber elected in the modern way are then defeated. Nothing in this mechanism will change one iota after this bill is enacted. We will be in the same position: the parties in power will use this chamber to their advantage morning, noon and night, 365 days a year.

As a final point from the past, I would remind the House that in November 2007, Jack Layton proposed holding a referendum. I would point out that, at the time, he was supported by someone who remains very politically active today, that is, the current Prime Minister of Canada. This marks another of the remarkable transformations of this Prime Minister, who, as we know, is an ardent defender of the centre-right-right-right, but who, about a decade ago, had at least a hint of a democrat in him. As the Brits like to say, let us agree to disagree and have a healthy democracy, even with someone who is on the centre-right-right-right, as long as he maintains his democratic reflexes. Instead, we are witnessing a complete shift. Barely five or seven years ago, he was prepared to support the NDP leader on abolishing the Senate. What we have before us now is garbage. I repeat, this garbage bill will allow the government to continue using the Senate as governments have done for the past 20 years. Bill C-7 only adds inconsistency to the absurdity.

The Prime Minister is under no obligation to appoint someone who has been elected. Another part of the bill surprised me. The word “election” does not appear anywhere in the title of the bill. Instead, it refers to “selection”. So, given that this system allows for the election of a certain portion of people in one chamber who could then later be selected, how is this really a democratic process? That was a rhetorical question; the very definition of the exercise clearly indicates that this is not democratic.

As for costs, an analysis conducted by the NDP in 2009 found that in the previous fiscal year, so 2007-08, senators had spent $19.5 million on travel, an increase—

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1:25 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

I must interrupt the hon. member. Perhaps he can continue during questions and comments.

The hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville for questions and comments.

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1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Dion Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the member for his speech.

I would like him to comment on his colleague's remarks about judicial recounts. She said that one vote would be enough of a difference, as in 50% plus one, to abolish the Senate in a referendum, when in fact the unanimity of the provinces would be needed.

What does the member think his party should do if a majority of Canadians vote to abolish the Senate, but a majority of Quebeckers vote to keep it? That is certainly possible given that the Government of Quebec opposes his party's position and is not in favour of abolishing the Senate.

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1:25 p.m.

NDP

François Lapointe Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Madam Speaker, my colleague is well known in his province for his opposition to a very simple democratic principle: 50% plus one. That is why I am not surprised at his take on this issue. In democracies around the world, 50% plus one means nothing less than a clear mandate for change. I do not see why 50% plus one would suddenly be meaningless.

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1:25 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault Sherbrooke, QC

Madam Speaker, I enjoyed listening to the speech by my colleague from Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup.

He spoke of the rhetoric in the preamble to the bill that the Conservatives are using to try and mislead people. The term “independent” is used, for example. I had not noticed it when I read the bill. I find it quite ridiculous that this term is used in a bill that refers to the Senate. In fact, it is quite clear that both the Conservatives and the Liberals have appointed party cronies to work in the other chamber and that they are accountable to the Prime Minister. That much is clear and nobody here questions it. Even they would have to agree that senators are accountable to the Prime Minister. Abolishing the Senate, an archaic institution in our 21st-century political system, could obviously change this.

I would like to know whether the member believes the bill would make the partisanship problem in the other chamber worse and that an election—which would inevitably involve political parties—would only aggravate the partisanship in the other house and actually make things worse?