Madam Speaker, we find ourselves in a rather unique situation this morning. Only a few months ago, the government introduced a bill in this House to delay the electoral boundaries adjustment process. Bill C-18 called for a two-year postponement of the boundaries review process and for the dismantling of commissions responsible for travelling across Canada to hear the views of citizens about the redrawing of their riding's boundaries.
The arguments which were put forward by government representatives, by Liberal Party members, and which were supported by the official opposition were based on two points: first, since the members of the 35th Parliament were elected on October 25, 1993, the next elections would not, in all likelihood, be held until sometime in 1997 or 1998.
Therefore, there was no rush to redraw electoral boundaries. During the debate, the government said it could take all the time it needed to ensure that certain criteria were taken into account during this process, criteria such as the number of voters, of course, and also attachment to a particular region. Therefore, let me say again that the government, supported by the official opposition, agreed to vote in favour of this bill to postpone the process for the next two years.
A few weeks later, the leader of the Conservative Party and the hon. member for Sherbrooke, a great democrat if ever there was one, joined forces with the Conservative majority in the Senate and together, they decided to take on the mantle of defenders of democracy. They decided to propose some amendments to Bill C-18, claiming, I say again, to be the defenders of democracy.
Let me point out several inconsistencies in this position. During the last election campaign, the member for Sherbrooke and leader of the Conservative Party, at least what remains of it, claimed in his ads running several times a day in Quebec that to be effective in the House of Commons, one needed to be part of the government.
The hon. member for Sherbrooke and leader of the Conservative Party argued, unlike the Bloc Quebecois candidates, that the real power was not in opposition, but on the government side because, to his mind, that is where decisions about the running of the country were made, not in the opposition ranks.
The member for Sherbrooke and leader of the Conservative Party also said that the opposition operates behind the scenes and that opposition members have no real power in the House of Commons. This was what the leader of the Conservative Party and member for Sherbrooke claimed and this debate is eloquent proof indeed of what he meant.
Since he views the role of the opposition as that of lobbyists, like he indicated during the election campaign, he immediately set to work, hardly ever participating in the regular business of the House, preferring to lobby senators into embarrassing the government. I do not mean to ascribe intentions to him, but he may have had in mind the days when, with a Liberal majority, the Senate manoeuvred to create difficulties for the Conservative government in passing significant legislation like the GST or free trade. We all remember those days.
But the Senate is now comprised mostly of Conservative senators, although it may be more appropriate to call it purple than blue, because several of these senators side now with the Liberals, now with the Conservatives. If you mix blue and red, you get purple.
The leader of the Conservative Party and member for Sherbrooke, no doubt a fervent defender of democracy, persuaded the Conservative senators that amendments had to be made to Bill C-18 to ensure that the Upper House could impose its agenda on the government.
The inconsistency is striking here. During the election campaign, the Conservative leader said that the real power was on the side of the government. Yet, the first thing he did in opposition, aside from not attending any of the debates in this House, was precisely to get busy in the wings, to use the Senate, and its Conservative majority, to interfere with the intentions of
the government and the House of Commons. In my mind, that is miscarriage of democracy.
Now that masks have been shed, we can see what the Conservative leader and member for Sherbrooke is really after. Amazingly, the Liberal government goes along with him. We really need to be clear on what is going on. I will come back in a moment to the role of the Senate. When Bill C-18 was introduced in this House, as the Solicitor General said just a moment ago, both the government and the Official Opposition intended to ensure time was taken to do serious work on this bill, instead of proceeding hastily at the risk of finding ourselves in impossible situations later on.
Several government members and several members of the Official Opposition spoke in this debate to explain the tragic, disastrous effects the changes proposed by the electoral boundaries readjustment commission will have on people's lives. I for one described the problems affecting my riding of Mégantic-Compton-Stanstead in this House. The commission planned to literally turn the riding of Mégantic-Compton-Stanstead upside down in the most incredibly thoughtless fashion, attaching one part of the riding to another riding with which it had no ties, either sociologically or in terms of business communications, and also communications between constituents and their elected representatives, or in terms their dealings with the government.
Many examples were given. I would say that just about every hon. member spoke of adverse effects the proposed changes would have on their ridings. Never, on the side of the Official Opposition, did we want or intend to interfere with the electoral boundaries readjustment process by preventing the commission from making any changes before the next election.
We said that this two-year timeframe-as, may I remind you, the Solicitor General just reiterated-can be seen as the maximum amount of time needed to make intelligent changes, to take into account the number of voters per riding and to ensure that in the next election campaign-in which we in the Official Opposition do not wish to participate-riding redistribution will be based on data from the 1991 census rather than the 1981 census.
Everyone agreed. And everyone still agrees today that we have all the time we need to ensure that intelligent public hearings will be held in Quebec and throughout Canada, that the proposed amendments will be tabled in this House, and that a bill can be passed in time for these changes to be in place before the next election.
I want to look at an argument that was used not only by columnists and Liberal Party faithful during their last convention but also by our friends from the Reform Party and others, namely that delaying the process would forestall any changes and that we in the Official Opposition act as though we do not want to take the number criterion into account. We do think that this criterion is important. There must be a kind of balance, of equity in the demographic weight of the various ridings.
That is not the only criterion to be considered, however. That is another reason why we in the Official Opposition support postponing the review process. We wanted to ask the House committee to review these criteria and we will do so in a few weeks. At the beginning of July, hearings will be held by the parliamentary committee to review the criteria used by the commission to redraw the electoral map.
Agreeing to review these criteria is one more argument in favour of deferring the process. If we accept the fact that the current redistribution criteria must be revised, we should, I think, immediately admit that we must suspend the review process, wait for the decisions on these new criteria and then go out and consult the people throughout Quebec and Canada, to ensure that the proposed changes respect the will of the people and the new criteria that will be adopted.
After hearing the government position that the Solicitor General has just outlined, we must come to the conclusion that, under pressure from the senators and from Liberal militants at their last convention, the government has decided to go back on its word and to ensure that the process will be shorter than the two years set out in Bill C-18. Strangely, as I mentioned earlier, it shows that the process initiated by the leader of the Conservative Party was right. We must keep this in mind. Madam Speaker, this means that the leader of the Conservative Party, with a caucus of two members in this House, is the one leading the government. Our friends opposite must realize that they are being led by the leader of a party that has almost no members left in this House. Is that democracy? I doubt it. I see democracy differently.
We must also realize that this political game, because that is what it is, is supported by individuals who were never elected anywhere, and I refer to the senators. As we know, they are appointed by the government for all sorts of reasons, but especially for their political connections. It has been well known for a long time. Since our institutions were created, the senators' role has been to look after very important issues on occasion, I agree, but more often than not, to look after the affairs of their party, be it Conservative or Liberal.
The unelected senators are teaching a lesson in democracy to us, members of Parliament who have been democratically elected by all the voters in our ridings. So what legitimacy does the Senate have to act in an issue like this? It is totally ridiculous. Just being here in the House today dealing with
Senate amendments on the redrawing of electoral boundaries, which lies at the very heart of our democratic system, is absurd.
Unelected senators, some of whom are there simply to ensure that the traditional parties have enough money in their election fund, are telling us elected members: "You did your job badly. You are undemocratic. You do not represent the will of the people and we in our ivory tower know what the people need. We know what you must do and we are imposing it on you".
Madam Speaker, I just cannot get over it. We must remember this date, June 3, 1994, when unelected people were able to impose their agenda on the government which was elected barely six months ago. I would also like to point out that for many years, Quebec has been represented in the House of Commons in proportion to its share of the population; that is, about 25 per cent of the members of the House of Commons come from Quebec, which is the same as Quebec's share of the population.
Among the changes proposed by the commission, a certain number of ridings are to be added. In fact, two ridings would be added in British Columbia and four in Ontario, for a total of six, raising the number of members sitting in the House of Commons from 295 to 301. For one thing, this would lower Quebec's share of the representation in this House and of course, something not to be overlooked, it would increase government spending, because six more members would cost the taxpayers of Canada and Quebec more money.
We must send a clear message since Bill C-18, as was also agreed during the negotiations surrounding Meech, protects Quebec's relative weight, that is a representation equivalent to 25 per cent of the total in the House of Commons. In our future decisions, we should always keep in mind-and I say this for the benefit of government and Reform Party members-that Quebecers represent approximately one quarter of the Canadian population. As long as Quebec remains part of Canada, this proportion should be reflected here in the House of Commons.
As for the addition of new members, we are not in a position right now to increase government spending. Everyone in the House agrees on that. I think the government, the Official Opposition and the Reform Party are unanimous to say that, at least, government spending should not increase. We, as well as our friends from the Reform Party, even hope for a review of all expenditures and budget items, in an effort to reduce government spending.
So, why create new jobs for additional MPs? I think there are more important issues to solve than to find jobs in this House for a few more individuals. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister used to say, and he still says, that the Liberals' main priority was jobs, jobs, and jobs. I do hope that what he had in mind was not to create jobs here in this House but, rather, in ridings across Canada, where people suffer from the current economic situation.
Again, this issue does not require urgent action. To delay the process for 24 months, as was originally proposed, does not, as far as we are concerned, jeopardize in any way the review process which will have to take place before the next election.
In 24 months means early 1996, unless the Prime Minister, after deciding that he can no longer run the country, is anxious to yield to the Conservative leader and chooses to act quickly, which I think is unlikely, so we can expect an election to be held in the fall of 1997 or even in 1998, which leaves us enough time to readjust electoral boundaries.
Another point is that there is absolutely no reason why we should increase the number of members in this House. None at all. There is no objection to readjusting electoral boundaries to ensure that the voter population is more evenly distributed. But there is no justification at all for increasing the number of members in this House.
Clarity is of the essence. The government must send a clear signal to the public that its objective is not to create jobs here, at taxpayers' expense, but jobs out there for the unemployed who are waiting for answers from the government.
I also want to point out that the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Commission has continued its work, which consists in conducting public hearings across the country to listen to what individuals and groups have to say about the proposed amendments. My point is that the Commission, despite the very clear message sent by the government when it tabled C-18 in this House, could not care less about the government's plans and that is why it has proceeded to conduct hearings across Canada, or at least in Quebec.
What impact will this have on the readjustment process? As soon as those concerned, including the municipal authorities in our electoral districts, realized that the government intended to postpone the electoral boundaries readjustment process for two years, people thought it was not worth appearing before the commission to make their presentations. They said to themselves: They will have to come back later, so we will go as soon as there is an official process duly approved by the government.
The commission simply ignored the government's plans. As the Solicitor General said a moment ago, the commission is a quasi-judicial body that can make decisions as it sees fit, and so it decided to go ahead anyway. As a result, in many locations, in the Eastern Townships for instance, only three groups appeared before the commission, while dozens of groups and municipalities would have done so if there had been a clearly established and clearly identified process.
The same happened in the Lower St. Lawrence district and other regions in Quebec, where many citizens and representatives of local authorities, especially municipalities, decided against appearing before the commission because they realized the process would be repeated in a year and a half or two years.
If we approve the amendments before the House, the commission's work will not be terminated but merely suspended for five or six months, after which, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Commission will resume its work. Does this mean that where public hearings were held, the commission will not go back to listen to members of the public and representatives of our municipalities? If so, there would be some justification for wondering whether the process is democratic.
That is why the commission, which was aware of the government's plans when the bill was tabled, should have stopped the process including the hearings, and waited until the government decided whether or not to extend the process. This is one more reason for repeating the entire process. Therefore, we should wait for the results regarding the criteria to be used by the commissions.
I said earlier, and other members also mentioned it, that the number of voters is one of the criteria, but there are others which should be taken into consideration. We should not forget the weight of regions within a province; we have to be careful not to strip regions of their representation because their young people, unable to find jobs in their area, had to move out, hopefully to a job in Montreal or maybe to join the ranks of those unemployed or on welfare in Montreal, Quebec City or elsewhere.
We have to devise criteria which do not jeopardize the future of these regions. We should take the time to think and to discuss the process, so as to be on solid ground when we finally launch the operation.
Second, when the readjustment process resumes, the government has to make sure that the commission's work is reviewed, and give private citizens and interest groups every opportunity to make their views known about the readjustments.
For all these reasons, and in keeping with our stated views as Official Opposition, we would like to see the schedule which was in Bill C-18 adhered to, while assuring the House, and indeed the people of Quebec and Canada, that what we are seeking is a readjustment which will apply to the next federal elections to be held in 1997-1998 and which will be based on sound criteria.