“Only candidates elected by the people will be named to the upper house”, said the Prime Minister in 2004. “The upper house remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the prime minister”, complained the current Prime Minister in 2004. “A Conservative government will not appoint to the Senate anyone who does not have a mandate from the people”, again from the Conservative Party.
Those are some of the claims that the Prime Minister has made, along with many other statements about the Senate that, unfortunately, have undermined the credibility of the Senate in the minds of the public.
What has the Prime Minister actually done, given those very clear assertions over many years that he would not be appointing senators and that there would not be partisan appointments? The Prime Minister appointed more senators in a single year than any prime minister in history. He appointed 27 senators. He is the Senate patronage king, and these have been some of the most blatant, partisan appointments in history.
We have seen well-connected party partisans throughout the Senate appointments, including fundraising chairs, national fundraising chairs, top strategists, Conservative staffers, Conservative communications advisers, failed candidates, Conservative-leaning journalists and so on. Essentially, we have an entire national election team for the Conservatives now on the Senate payroll. That is not even speaking to some of the questionable histories of senators, such as the one who is facing a sexual harassment complaint before a Human Rights Tribunal and who was president of an organization under investigation for financial impropriety.
How does this speak to the credibility of the Prime Minister's claims about improving democracy through his changes to the Senate? Not well, I would contend.
The objective claimed is to modernize democracy, which is a laudable objective.
I would like to talk a bit about some of the context that the government has on its record in terms of democracy. If we are to take improving democracy at face value, we would expect to see that as having been an objective with the government and the Prime Minister. I would contend that the facts do not suggest that is the case.
What about the fundamental underpinnings of democracy, such as openness, accountability and integrity? How has the Prime Minister fared?
In terms of openness, is the Prime Minister willing to hear from Canadians? I think a number of organizations would contest that willingness. In fact, organizations that disagree with the government are finding themselves punished. A member of one organization in civil society told me yesterday that there was a chill right across civil society because many organizations, such as the Canadian Council on Learning, KAIROS and Rights & Democracy, are seeing their funding cut for ideological reasons or because they are speaking up, which is what their organizations are designed to do.
In terms of openness, we have an Information Commissioner calling the government the most secretive in history. I have an example of that in a freedom of information request that I put forward around the disaster in a Canadian pavilion at the Olympics. I received two blanked out pages. Maybe that information was a state secret or a military secret but I do not think so.
In terms of openness, the government is preventing debate on critical issues by slipping key public policy changes into budget implementation bills, so that it does not have to debate on their merit. These are key issues, such as pay equity, the Canada Environmental Assessment Act and the protection of our environment. One must conclude that openness, that fundamental tenet of democracy, is not something that the government has promoted. In fact, it has seriously undermined it.
The same argument, unfortunately, needs to be made for accountability. The ruling by the Speaker the other day was an example. There are numerous other examples of accountability breaches by the Conservative government.
One of the key democratic mechanisms that we have as parliamentarians is the oversight officers of Parliament. The list of those oversight officers, or independent officers, whose job it is to ensure the integrity of government, who have been fired, sidelined, “resigned” early in their term or not reappointed, is very long. It includes the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen; the environment commissioner, the president of the Law Commission of Canada, the head of the Canada Emission Reduction Incentives Agency, the Military Police Complaints Commissioner, the RCMP Public Complaints Commissioner; and the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.
The Liberal Party of Canada hosted a round table on that very issue during prorogation here in Ottawa. We heard from a range of constitutional experts and others as to the weakening of the fabric of democracy that takes place when the oversight officers are not able to speak their minds and are not able to speak the truth without fear of retribution. How does that illustrate the government's commitment to democracy? It actually illustrates the opposite.
I would remind all members of the words of Aristotle:
If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
That is not what we have been seeing under the Conservative government. unfortunately.
This is relevant to Bill C-10 because there is a claim here that the government is trying to strengthen democracy.
The process by which Bill C-10 has come about is one that raises great questions. I will just provide a quick summary of the timeline.
Bill C-10 has several predecessors. In May 2006, Bill C-4 was introduced. It was recommended by the Senate to go to the Supreme Court of Canada on the constitutionality issues. The bill died when Parliament was prorogued in September 2007. This was followed by Bill C-19, which was tabled but never brought back for debate. It died in 2008 when an election was called just after the government passed a fixed election date law.
In May 2009, Bill S-7 came back to the House with the same eight year term limits. It was debated for three days only and then it died when the Prime Minister prorogued the House in January 2010 to avoid accountability with respect to questions on the Afghan detainee issue.
The bill has come back a fourth time as Bill C-10, with some minor modifications. One must question whether this is actually a serious attempt to improve democracy or whether it is posturing by the government. Whatever it might be, one must conclude that this process does not create confidence in the government's intentions with respect to this bill.
Let us look at the content of the bill itself. The Minister of State for Democratic Reform spoke to this issue briefly. A key legal issue to this is whether it is constitutional. The minister of state claims that there is a consensus that it is. The reading that I have done shows that the very serious question of constitutionality has not been resolved and unilateral action by Parliament to amend the Senate in this type of case should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The legal issue is around the upper house reference case of 1980 in which the Supreme Court of Canada decided that amendments affecting the essential characteristics or fundamental features of the Senate must have provincial involvement. Despite the amending procedures in the Constitution Act of 1982, this judgment continues to have relevance, according to many constitutional authorities.
Then the question is, does this bill affect the essential characteristics or fundamental features of the Senate. Of the two principles, one is experienced oversight, that is, both of legislation and complex societal issues, and two, independence. Let us consider how this bill might affect these essential characteristics.
I ask members to think back to eight years ago in their own lives and ask themselves whether they have mastered something to the point where they would be capable of sober, credible oversight for all Canadians on the issue. Eight years may seem like a long time, but it does not enable a person to provide the kind of input that our senators, whom I am very proud of, are able to provide. Aboriginal elders, for example, are the wisdom of their communities. Are they cut off after eight years as no longer being relevant? No.
Independence is clearly impacted by an eight-year term because in two terms a prime minister can turn over the entire membership of the Senate, which would clearly impact its independence. We could have a Senate consisting of one party or another. As Benjamin Franklin said, democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. That seems to be what Mr. Harper is aiming for in the Senate with this bill.