Mr. Speaker, I rise today as the Bloc Québécois critic for democratic reform to speak to the motion moved by the member for Hamilton Centre. The NDP member's motion contains many elements, including the holding of a referendum on the question of amending the Referendum Act in order to abolish the existing Senate and to appoint a special committee for democratic improvement made up of 12 members. The motion also defines how the special committee would operate. Today I would like to focus on point (a), which is the most important and which reads as follows:
the House recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada, specifically the unnecessary Senate and a House of Commons that does not accurately reflect the political preferences of Canadians;
I would like to examine this point from two angles: the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, and the unnecessary nature of the Senate. In that regard, we quite agree with the NDP.
Bills on democratic reform have been coming up over and over again for the past few sessions. This time around, we have Bill C-12, which aims to change the formula for calculating the number of members per province to increase the total number of members to 338. The distribution of new seats would be as follows: five more for Alberta, seven for British Columbia and 18 for Ontario. That would give us a total of 338 members, compared to the 308 we have now. This bill, if passed, would have a direct impact on Quebec's weight in the House of Commons, which would drop from 24.3% to 22.19%. Quebec would be even more marginalized compared to its current weight in the House.
It is of the utmost importance to maintain Quebec's weight in the House because Quebec is the only majority francophone state in North America and because Quebeckers are a unique linguistic minority on this continent. Louis Massicotte, a political scientist at Laval University, published an article on federal electoral redistribution entitled “Quelle place pour le Québec? Étude sur la redistribution électorale fédérale”. It is also more important than ever to protect our language and our culture when negotiating free trade agreements. We are talking about the cradle of the Quebec nation, which this House recognized in November of 2006, although, in practice, this means nothing to the Conservative government.
Make no mistake. If the government is insisting on increasing the weight of these particular provinces, it is because they are its stronghold or because it hopes to make political gains there. By going forward with this democratic reform, the Conservative government is claiming that it wants to respect democracy. However, the Conservatives are not fooling anyone. They are masters of flouting democracy. For example, they prorogued Parliament to avoid votes. They failed to follow the House's orders to submit documents, in particular, documents on the transfer of Afghan prisoners. They refused to appear before parliamentary committees. They recommended that unelected senators vote against bills that were passed by a majority of votes in the House, thus going against the will of the people. In 2008, they also failed to abide by their own legislation on fixed election dates.
The government is blatantly misleading the House and the public, as in the case involving the Minister of International Cooperation. I could go on but there are other points I would like to make.
Any recommendation in the House made by a special committee should not only take into account the current demographic weight of Quebec in the House of Commons, but it should also ensure that this weight is maintained because under no circumstance should Quebec's weight be any less than it currently is in the House.
In its current form, the Senate is unnecessary. It is a vehicle for partisan politics. Ever since the minority Conservative government came to power, it has been using this vehicle to introduce bills that the House of Commons opposes, in order to go against the will of the House of Commons. I cited a few examples, but there are many more.
Going against the will of the elected members of the House of Commons is completely anti-democratic in that this opposition comes from people whose legitimacy comes from a partisan appointment, unlike the legitimacy of the members of Parliament, which comes from the people.
We do not have to look too far back to find an example. Just consider Bill C-311. Bill C-311, An Act to ensure Canada assumes its responsibilities in preventing dangerous climate change, was supported by the Bloc Québécois and the majority of the legitimately elected members of the House of Commons. The bill imposed binding greenhouse gas reduction targets to ensure that Canada respects the IPCC recommendation and the requirement to submit a significant action plan every five years. The Prime Minister allowed the Senate to deny the will of the Parliament of Quebeckers and Canadians by allowing Conservative senators to defeat Bill C-311 without even studying it.
Yet, during the last election campaign, the Prime Minister declared that an unelected chamber should not block bills from an elected one. He then did an about-face and is now making use of the Conservative senators. He made sure that he appointed the majority of senators to the Senate to ensure that they would block bills or motions that Parliament had adopted and sent to the Senate and that they would introduce bills before members of Parliament even had a chance to speak to them.
When the seats of Liberal senators opened up, the Prime Minister made sure to appoint loyal Conservatives. By allowing their senators to vote against Bill C-311 without even studying it, the Conservatives created a precedent, a first since 1930, and showed a flagrant lack of respect for our democratic institutions.
The Conservative senators also managed to block certain bills passed by the House and sent to the Senate to be studied. Take, for example, Bill C-288, regarding the tax credit for new graduates working in designated regions, introduced by my colleague from Laurentides—Labelle, or Bill C-232, An Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages), which would require Supreme Court judges to be bilingual. The Prime Minister could be confident that the senators would vote against these bills. In both cases, the Senate blocked the bills. On May 5, Bill C-288 received the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. For the second time in less than three years, it was sent to the Senate. Since then, it has only been debated twice. Bill C-288 would help thousands of young people who want to study and remain in the regions, some of which are struggling economically.
With Bill C-232, the Conservatives were trying to buy some time. They kept delaying study of the bill until they had a majority in the Senate. The Conservative government is taking advantage of the fact that it controls the Senate in order to dictate its agenda. It is one thing for the Conservative government to oppose a measure, but to recommend that the Senate prevent debate on these two bills is unacceptable.
This shows the Conservative government's contempt for the will of the democratically elected parliamentarians. I should point out that the Liberals were no better and also used some schemes to delay passage of bills. Nonetheless, they never went as far as the Conservatives are going. In 2006, by the way, the Conservatives campaigned on reforming the Senate and making it more legitimate. That was one of the Prime Minister's promises.
That is why this Conservative government introduced a bill to reform Senate terms and limit them to eight years. That bill does nothing to reform this outdated, archaic institution where appointments are strictly partisan. That bill does nothing to remedy the nature of the Senate. The Prime Minister has transformed it into “a permanent office for his organizers, a waiting room for his Montreal candidates, and an absolute circus by the use of his surprising appointments, to describe them politely”, according to Vincent Marissal from La Presse.
The democratic deficit in the Senate and its extraordinarily partisan nature derive from the choices made by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867. From an academic standpoint, the upper house or senate in a federal system must represent the federated entities alongside a lower chamber, in our case, the House of Commons.
According to Réjean Pelletier, a political scientist and a professor in the political science department at Laval University, it is clear that this is not the case in the Canadian Parliament. In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation could have chosen the American model, where senators are elected by state legislatures and all states have equal weight, with the ability to elect two senators for a six-year term.
Instead, the Fathers of Confederation copied the British House of Lords and thus made the Senate a chamber that reviews legislation passed by the House of Commons. So the Senate is a chamber of sober second thought that moderates the overly democratic ways of the lower house, which is subject to pressure and emotional pleas from the public. But it no longer plays that role. What is more, senators were supposed to be appointed by the crown.
The idea of representing and defending the interests of federated entities did not come up in the discussions prior to the signing of the British North America Act. And from that stems our objection to the Senate, with its lack of legitimacy and representation.
Given that the Senate has become a partisan tool for the ruling Conservative Party and that it lacks both legitimacy and representation, it is not surprising that the public is angry about senators' spending.
According to an article by Stéphanie Marin in the January 27, 2011 edition of La Tribune, it would cost $90 million a year to keep the Senate in place. I do not remember the exact number, but I believe that 60% or 70% of Quebeckers supported abolishing the Senate.
We also learned in January that some senators are incurring excessive if not extravagant expenses. Conservative senators have not stopped sending mail-outs despite the fact that, in the spring of 2010, the House of Commons prohibited members from sending these types of mail-outs outside their ridings and specified that the Senate should follow suit.
It is important to note that the total printing budget for the Senate increased from $280,500 to $734,183 in 2008-09. Last month, the senators gave themselves the right to use taxpayers' dollars to continue to send mail-outs in which they can attack members.
To remedy the representation and legitimacy deficits and truly reform the Senate—to create a Senate where senators are actual representatives of Quebec and the provinces who are appointed or elected by legitimate authorities in Quebec, such as Quebec's National Assembly, and in the provinces and where there is equal representation for Quebec and the provinces resulting in a truly effective and non-partisan upper house as they have in other countries—we would have to proceed with a constitutional reform that would require agreement from seven provinces representing at least 50% of the population. We know that this would be practically impossible because we would have to reopen the Constitution.
The Bloc Québécois does not oppose this motion given that the Senate, in its current state, is unnecessary and that the current method of democratic representation has many shortcomings, such as the ones I have already mentioned. However, the Bloc's support for this motion is conditional upon the inclusion of two basic elements. First, Quebec's political weight must not be reduced at all as a result of any democratic reform. Second, under Quebec's referendum legislation, a referendum must be held in Quebec on the abolition of the Senate.
I would like to make two amendments to the NDP's motion. I move, seconded by the member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges:
That the motion be amended:
(a) by adding after the words “the next general election,” the following:
“with the understanding that, in Quebec, such a referendum will be subject to Quebec law, in accordance with the current Referendum Act and as established as a precedent by the 1992 Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord,”;
(b) by adding after the words “recommendations to the House” the following:
“that in no way reduce the current weight of the Quebec nation in the House of Commons”. .