Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to rise today and speak to Bill C-22. I will say at the outset that this is a very flawed bill. This appears to be the week that the Conservative government has decided to deal with democratic reform.
I think it needs to be put very clearly that the government is putting a little bit of paint on a leaky old boat and trying to pass it off as the new Bluenose. The reality is that this House does need steps toward democratic reform. I think we will hear from the debate that there is a lack of consensus. There are the questions of the provinces where we are certainly dealing with a Gordian knot any time we decide to change the Constitution Act and open up the change of how we deal with democracy.
If we are going to take this step, then let us not tinker, but let us do it right. Clearly, the New Democratic Party has been pushing for a clear move toward democratic reform. In the last session that included cleaning up the corrupt way that government has been run and cleaning up election finances.
We now see that the recidivism rate by our friends in the Liberal Party, when dealing with election financing is still appalling. We will certainly need to keep leading them by the hand. Certainly, we have to clean up election financing so that the corruption and abuse of this House cannot continue. That was one key element of the act. Clearly, after tonight's fundraiser with the goaltenders and the golf players, there is some more remedial work to be done with the Liberals.
The second element of democratic reform is much more long term. It is the need to actually move toward a system of fair and open proportional representation, so that people in Canada actually feel their votes are being counted.
We know that all across Canada, with the first past the post system, many people live in an area where one party will win by a very large majority. In other areas there are people who want to vote for other parties, small parties, fringe parties, it does not matter. People often wonder why they should vote and what is the point of voting. A system of proportional representation is something we need to start addressing if we are going to move toward a 21st century democracy.
The third element of democratic reform is the need to abolish the Senate. The Conservative members have brought forward suggestions about electing senators. At the end of the day, once we try and work our way through all the various conflicting constitutional problems of getting simple reform, and when we deal with the fact that this upper chamber is defiant and in our face about its refusal to reform themselves to any degree, we know that any attempts to move toward an elected Senate will drag on for years.
Of course our colleagues across the way in the Liberal Party will certainly help the senators in dragging their feet. We know that the Senate has been a dumping ground for political patronage, cronies and hacks of the leading parties.
This has nothing to do with the fact that there are certainly some good senators and that some senators can, on a given day, do some very good work. It is not the basis of a system of government in the 21st century that we have someone who is chosen for life without any review or any real sanction to actually have to deliver.
One of the political fibs that was being floated today on why we have the Senate was brought forward by Liberal members. The Liberals said that senators were there to represent the regions. They said that senators had an important role representing regional concerns.
This is what the Vancouver Sun said on November 9, 2007, “The Senate is a symbol of political failure in Canada. It should be abolished”.
Certainly, I guess people in B.C. were not thinking very highly about senators representing the region. I will add to that what Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia said, “The critical thing for us in British Columbia is that there is proper representation and the Senate is not even close to being properly representative of the west”. And he thinks it should be abolished.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has been quoted many times today by the Liberal members. He is also on record on March 3, 2006, when he said, “My preference would be that we abolish the Senate.
We have former Conservative Senator Solange Chaput-Rolland who said, “The public does not trust the Senate. If you put a mic under people's nose, 85% would tell you to abolish the Senate”.
If we are going to have representation by region or representation of the rights of minorities, then let us go back to the original founding principle of the Senate. John A. Macdonald said very clearly that the reason we are having a Senate is to protect the rights of minorities.
However, he was not talking about the kind of minority rights that we see protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. John A. Macdonald said there will always be more poor people than rich people, so we need a Senate; meaning that we need a Senate to follow on the old British system of peerage and one dealing with squires to ensure that the better class of people keep watch over us commoners who are elected by the common people. He said that there should be a chamber based on who one knows and a chamber that is exempt from any kind of scrutiny by the common people. That is why the original Senate was put in.
But, of course, if we took the Liberal argument at face value, that senators are actually there representing the regions, it would be predicated on a principle that they actually show up. For example, we know that they have a sitting schedule of a couple of days. They can miss 21 days without penalty.
Let us see. We had a senator who missed 71% of the sittings. B.C. Conservative Senator Pat Carney missed 65% of the sittings. Alberta Progressive Conservative Senator Elaine McCoy missed 57% of the sittings. Ontario Liberal Senator Vivienne Poy missed 53% of the sittings. How can they do this without any real penalty?
I would point out, when we in the House of Commons are trying to get the nation's business done, we have to rely on the Senate to actually get around to it.
At the end of the spring session in 2005, when the issue of the same sex marriage bill was being dealt with, which took so much time in this House and so much emotional energy, and finally got to the Senate, Senator Joyal was concerned that the debate on this bill would interrupt a free lunch that senators receive at the expense of the taxpayers. This is what he said and it is on the record:
Honourable senators, I am in a conundrum because I have spoken for more than 45 minutes. I know that food is being served in the library; I do not want to keep anyone here. There are other senators who might want to speak. Maybe I should limit the questioning; otherwise, it might go on for a long time. I trust the honourable senator will not be offended by that.
They were putting on the record that they would rather go for the free lunch at taxpayers' expense than do the business of the Canadian public.
I am not even going to get into the fact that they were just recently down at a casino in New Mexico while most average Canadians were having to hustle off to work in minus 50° temperatures, but of course our good senators found a place to have pina coladas and a little bit of suntan lotion on their backs while they were doing some very important business of the nation.
No doubt, it is such great business that they get to decide what the business is and where they are going to go. Boy, would it not be good to do important business of the nation at a casino in New Mexico just when it is minus 50°?
We do need democratic reform. We do need to move us into the 21st century. But, unfortunately, the process that is being put forward by our colleagues in the Conservative Party is not going to address the issues.
What we have seen here is an ad hoc bill that has been brought forward that is going to open all kinds of questions about how we choose and apportion seats based on region and population across this country.
Certainly, we need to increase the number of voices in the House of commons, but to do that is much more than simply bringing forward a bill with an arbitrary number of seats thrown around. We need to ensure that we have a proper process in place that actually involves, for example, consultations with the various regions. That has to be done.
The model that is put before us right now would seriously raise questions, for example, with the traditional floor of 25% being guaranteed for Quebec. That will be thrown out of whack. There is no way to address that in this bill.
Before anyone thinks that this is an issue of pitting one region against another on these seats, it is interesting to note that Premier McGuinty, Premier Charest and Premier Doer from Manitoba have all made statements and have said they recognize the need to work together for a common solution on this. That kind of willingness to talk seemed to be absent from our government when it came up with this bill in the first place.
I have heard the issue that some areas will be overrepresented. I have heard the issue that in terms of democratic reform, if we have a system by population, it has to be fair. I certainly believe that.
If we look at how seats are apportioned already in Canada, there are vast discrepancies. We have ridings with populations as small as 29,000 people, 34,000 people, and rural regions where the base has been set at 68,000 per riding. Are we suggesting that we are going to a one size fits all? We will certainly see many seats begin to disappear.
Less should be said for some urban members who think that representing a region with 29,000 or 30,000 people is probably easy. I would like to see how big that riding is before I would jump in on that argument.
For myself, I represent a region in Ontario, and Ontario seems to have been the big discussion point today. My riding is the size of Great Britain. It is cheaper for someone to fly from Ottawa to Portugal and back than it is for one of my constituents to fly from Peawanuck to my office in Timmins. That is the vast size of the regions we are representing.
Under the last seat distribution more seats were taken out of northern Ontario because of the imbalance in population between southern Ontario, which is densely urban now. We have ridings that for some members are pretty much untenable. They simply cannot get to all the communities they have to represent because there are so many fly-in communities and so many isolated communities.
The issue of democracy is based on having access to our elected representatives. We have to have a balance. We also have to recognize that in Canada, our regions were not all set out with the same amount of population, so we have to have some form of balance.
The issue of fairness to Ontario, for any of the Ontario caucus, is a serious issue. We want to ensure that the regions of Ontario that are growing and that have needs are being represented. We also accept the fact that in the west there has been incredible population growth and that needs to be reflected in the long term.
However, we also recognize that this is a serious issue in terms of how we will actually bring all the different functions together because Canada is a very complex jigsaw puzzle.
What needs to be done? We certainly need to move forward with democratic reform. I have said from the beginning on this bill that we need to be careful. Let us not pit one region against another.
My hon. friend from the Liberal Party, from the Maritimes, was giving us the Niemoller defence of why he as a maritimer was standing up for Ontario because first the Conservatives would come after Ontario, then they would come after the Maritimes. I think that is dangerous talk.
I also think it is dangerous talk to simply assume that the government can come in, arbitrarily set the number of seats, and not have to deal with the fact that the province of Quebec has traditionally had 25%. That has been an understanding since Confederation. We need to make sure that if we are to be looking at this, that it be taken into consideration.
The balance in Quebec is the same as the balance that we have had in other regions of this country, where from the beginning, areas have been told they will get a certain amount of representation.
We need to deal with the issue of more divergent voices in the House, voices from across Canada, but we need to do that in a collaborative fashion, not in terms of a government bill that comes in and says, “We are setting this. This is how it will be”, and then asks us, “Are you telling us that you will vote against the interests of Ontario? Are you telling us that you will vote against the interests of Alberta or British Columbia?”
The people in Ontario are looking to make sure that we have a democratic system that works, that is functional, and that represents the various issues.
I do not say that this is an easy situation. We have arrived at a very complex formula to maintain the checks and balances. That is why I would prefer we go back to the original issue of democratic reform, something the former NDP leader, Ed Broadbent, pushed for many years. This would bring us in line with 21st century democracies in other countries, which is the system of proportional representation, so we are not only hearing from various regions of the country, but ensuring a wider variety of voices in the House of Commons, and people feel there is a reason to vote.
We can look at the dwindling numbers year after year of voters, people who are turned off by the main political parties. They feel the House of Commons is often, on any given day of the week, a little more than a monkey house. We have to find a way to reach the 50% of voters who choose to stay home on election day. Some areas are lower, some areas are higher, but it leads to a question of a legitimacy crisis. When more and more Canadians are choosing not to participate in the voting system, we have to ask ourselves this. What we are doing wrong and how we are going to ensure those voters participate?
To throw an arbitrary number of 10 or 20 seats for Ontario or 7 or 5 for Alberta and British Columbia should not be the approach. We need to look at the long term vision of moving toward a discussion with all Canadians on getting proportional representation in place, leaving it up to the Canadian public to decide if that is what people want to do. We need to make people feel like they can reinvigorate this old institution, that they can have a voice to make a difference.
The other element of that, which is very important, is the need to deal with the Senate. We simply cannot go on year after year saying that we do not need to look at the Senate, that there will always be other things at which we need to look. The fact is the Senate is unreformable.
Our friends in the Conservative Party believe in the triple E Senate while the NDP believes in the four U's, that senators are unelected, unaccountable, unreformable and certainly unnecessary in the 21st century. Nowhere else could we see a better example of that than the Senate code of ethics.
The Senate is under pressure because of the fact that the House of Commons is reforming itself. We were looking to help reform our recalcitrant brothers and sisters in the Senate, but, they were saying that they were in the upper House and they were going to choose how to set up their own standard of ethics.
These people sit on the boards of directors of major corporations. Many of them could have financial interests and take part in discussions and decisions in terms of federal law. Under the Senate code of ethics, senators can sit in, participate in and vote on debates where they would have financial interests. They are allowed to keep secret bank accounts. They are not compelled to disclose in any way any of the financial interests that direct family members have.
The other thing, which I find an outrageous sense of entitlement, is during in camera sessions, they can be involved in influencing decisions even if they have a pecuniary interest as long as they tell the other senators. However, they will rely on their fellow cronies not to make it public. It does not have to be made public that senators have a financial interest in something on which they are speaking. They wrote this code of ethics for themselves. They need a lot of help in being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
When I was a rural school board, it had a code of ethics standard that was 10 times higher than what the Senate wrote for itself. Anybody who has ever been on a municipal council, whether in a city or a rural municipality, knows it has a code of ethics that is higher than the Senate.
Just because the upper chamber is based on a system of privilege and unaccountability, why is it allowed to write itself a code of ethics that is this egregious? Senators are in the position to make decisions that can directly affect average Canadians. At the same time, they can sit on boards of corporations. Income trusts, telecommunications corporations, oil and gas and private health concerns are all areas that are brought forward continually for legislation. Senators can participate in those debates and vote.
In conclusion, the NDP believes Bill C-22 is a flawed attempt to bring democratic reform. Let us move forward with real democratic reform. Let us create a plan to engage the Canadian public in proportional representation and do the right thing.
Let us do the right thing. Let us abolish the Senate. It is a great room. There are beautiful paintings in there. I think it would make a wonderful public basketball court, but an open committee of Canadians could come up with many uses for it. We could certainly use the tax dollars wasted by senators on their trips, their privileges and their private buses. It would help to give us more support here the House of Commons, more committees and, at the end of day, more seats.