House of Commons Hansard #81 of the 35th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senate.

Topics

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6 p.m.

Reform

Herb Grubel Reform Capilano—Howe Sound, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like raise a question about the role of a Senate in an ideal world. Most countries have found that the idea of a totally sovereign legislature in the form of a House like ours is not adequate in protecting the interest of the people as a whole.

What we have at the moment costing $27 million a year is not the ideal kind of chamber that we see around the world. This was brought out by hon. members today and I agree. It is essentially a chamber which is serving the purpose of a sober second thought. We should not be too harsh on it because it has done a very good job.

For example, the amendments it has proposed recently to the bill on redistribution served a useful function. There was some partisanship which served the country in bringing out debate over the GST, over free trade. These served useful functions.

However, $27 million a year may be a bit expensive. The role we should strive for is that the Senate take the other functions that we see in similar chambers around the world, namely the protection of regional minorities and for senators who have a longer election-

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6 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

I regret, but it is very difficult for chair occupants when members choose to split their time, in fact speak for 10 minutes and only have five minutes for questions and comments.

I hesitate when there is only a minute left because I appreciate that all members want to make their point leading up to their questions. I would ask the member for Capilano-Howe Sound whether he wants to leave the comment as is or if he has a short question to add.

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6:05 p.m.

Reform

Herb Grubel Reform Capilano—Howe Sound, BC

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the time constraint. I am sorry if I went on a little long. I did not keep track of time.

With a reformed Senate, one which is modelled after successful upper chambers around the world, I wonder whether there is not a chance that the member who spoke so articulately against the present system might be willing to consider that a reformed Senate might be in the interest of all Canadians, in particular the people of Quebec.

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6:05 p.m.

Bloc

Jean-Guy Chrétien Bloc Frontenac, QC

Mr. Speaker, back in 1968, Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson abolished the provincial equivalent of the Senate, the legislative council. Is Quebec worse off today because of the elimination of that council 26 years ago? Quite the contrary. The National Assembly in Quebec is much

more effective. The legislative process is shorter. Is it not true that the $65 million we spend for the Senate would be a great help to create jobs? I would like to hear your views, Mr. Speaker.

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6:05 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

I thank the hon. member for Frontenac for his invitation. Time permitting, I could have accepted, but I am afraid I cannot.

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6:05 p.m.

Bloc

Antoine Dubé Bloc Lévis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity as the member for Lévis and above all as the official opposition critic for training and youth to report on consultations I have had carried out with young Quebecers concerning the Senate. They have been most revealing.

Let me explain the context of those consultations. Last February, young Quebecers participated in a youth Parliament experiment. I noticed that one of the motions passed as a matter of priority concerned the abolition of the Senate. I found that concern interesting and, later on, asked a few young assistants to help me with a survey of young people on that issue. I feel that my findings make a suitable follow-up to remarks made by the hon. member for Frontenac on the point of view of senior citizens in his riding.

What do young people think? I asked them first of all what they thought of people in the Senate. My first finding is that they do not know what the Senate is all about. Most of them do not know what it is. Very few of them know. I will quote the answer, such as it was, that they gave: "It is a room full of older people who cost a lot of money to the taxpayers and whose work does not appear to be useful, in the eyes of young people". Who could give even an approximate number of senators without counting the empty seats in the Upper House? The vast majority of young people, almost all of them, did not know that there were 104 senators. As for determining the composition and the role of that other place, we can only get an answer by referring to the Constitution.

A second question that was raised was: "But who elects these 104 people?"

These young people wondered, since these are not elected people, how they can get involved in various debates, supposedly as representatives of the Canadian citizens.

In Quebec, for young people as well as older people who are familiar with the Senate and have read about it, such as young people who are studying political science or history, the Senate is the Mecca of patronage, with members from God knows where, but who surely have good friends in high places. Some young people believe that, once they have been appointed, senators are the people of Canada who benefit from the best job security, because we all remember that the age limit in the Senate is 75.

The job situation today in Canada as well as in Quebec is a precarious one for young people. To them, job security is an unfamiliar concept. According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 is 17.7 per cent. According to the Conseil permanent de la jeunesse in Quebec, 4 out of 10 part-time jobs in Quebec are held by young people under 25; part-time jobs represent 33 per cent of all jobs held by young people between the ages of 15 and 19; and more than two-thirds of young people under 25 who are working get minimum wages.

Therefore we should not be surprised by the perception or position of young people regarding an institution that costs almost $1 million for every session day.

Who are they? Very few young people can identify more than five. Since I cannot give any name, I will somewhat change my speech.

Those who could identify some senators were able to do it by recalling current events. For instance, a very well-known person in Quebec has resigned because she was 75 years old. People finally realized that she was much better known for her novels and the books she had published than for her work in the Senate.

It is the same thing for a senator known for his constitutional law expertise, who had a high-profile role at the time of the Charlottetown Accord. I know that by mentioning that fact only many people in Quebec will be able to identify that person.

Besides, how can we blame young people for not being able to identify the senators? The best one of them could do was to name five out of 104. I have not put my colleagues on this side of the House through this test but I think it would be worth trying to ask new members for instance-because older members might find it easier-how many senators they can name.

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6:10 p.m.

An hon. member

How many senators could the Chair name?

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6:10 p.m.

Bloc

Antoine Dubé Bloc Lévis, QC

I will not ask the hon. Speaker of the House to take part into this exercice because of his parliamentary responsibilities.

The young people I consulted did not know that senators represented ridings, just like MPs. They did not know that. How can we blame them since I am convinced that adults themselves would not know any better. I must admit that I myself could absolutely not say which senator is representing my riding. It is not obvious. Perhaps I should have done some research but I realize after listening to the last speaker that I cannot tell the name of the senator who, among 21 others, is representing me. I did not have to do this research but I must say that she never called or dropped by.

Nevertheless, how could we blame young people for not knowing their senators' names?

Young people wonder how unelected senators can block bills like the GST. Remember that big debate. They blocked the drug patent bill, and once again very recently, we have the example of Bill C-18. The House of Commons and this government proposed postponing consultations on redrawing the electoral maps. The bill went to the Senate and the Senate asked us to reconsider our position. That is not the issue today, but we realize that it is a source of delay which slows down the work of the House of Commons.

You know, this federal system is already complicated for Quebecers. They already see it as double representation and duplication. I will not take you through this whole scenario again, but you see that the Senate duplicates what the House of Commons is doing. The triple E was mentioned, but I see it as a threefold exercise of political power and you can understand that young people, who already find it difficult to be interested in politics in this state of affairs, find this situation triply complicated and even more repulsive.

The Senate should act as a social conscience, but how can it play this role when senators are appointed by political parties and constantly surrounded by lobbyists. Some senators even sit on the boards of private companies. The various possible conflicts of interest are not considered. What about openness? Furthermore, senators now represent two political parties. Furthermore, the majority of senators currently belong to two political parties, one of which has almost been wiped out in the House of Commons. How can we explain such a situation to a young person interested in politics and tell him that the Senate is open to the future, when, in fact, the exact opposite is closer to the truth. I personally have difficulty explaining that situation, and I think it is also the case for any member of this House, regardless of the region which he or she represents, even outside Quebec. How can we claim that senators are representative of the different regions of Quebec and Canada when other political parties are present in those regions?

In the minute that I have left, I simply want to remind everyone of the extremely difficult context in which young Canadians and Quebecers find themselves right now. Last year, Gilles Lesage, who is a journalist for the daily Le Soleil , referred to the Senate as a nuisance costing $50 million a year. This comment was not made by a politician, but by a journalist, an editorialist.

Remember the debate held last July, when it was thought that Quebecers and Canadians were on holidays and that they would not notice anything. Senators wanted to vote themselves a futher $6,000 allowance.

Our young people see that senators have very good pension plans and working conditions, while they themselves are unemployed and worried about their future. Under the circumstances, is it really a surprise that a resolution from a group of young people interested in politics proposed, at the beginning of February, that the Senate be abolished. I certainly can understand them.

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6:15 p.m.

Reform

John Williams Reform St. Albert, AB

Mr. Speaker, I find it rather surprising that Bloc members are telling us we should not have the other House and they are trying to remove the funding from the other House. They comment on how ineffective the other House is, when they sit here trying to destroy this House and this country. They talk about the ignorance of the people in Quebec and that they do not understand the other House.

Why do they not take the opportunity to go back to the province of Quebec and tell people what a wonderful institution this Parliament is in both Houses? Why not take the opportunity to tell people how much better off they would be if they remained in this country? Why not do that rather than saying: "We are not aware of what goes on there. Therefore it is irrelevant and does not matter, so why not set up our own institution in Quebec City?"

Why does the hon. member and his colleagues not take the opportunity to make this institution work, both Houses that is? Why does he not take the opportunity to make this institution work, rather than thinking they are better off to pack their bags, walk out and destroy this institution and everything it stands for, thinking they would set up something better in Quebec City? What does the hon. member say to that?

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6:20 p.m.

Bloc

Antoine Dubé Bloc Lévis, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is my turn to be surprised. The questions and comments of my colleague from the Reform Party express a particular point of view.

We have a debt of over $500 billion. In the six months I have been in this place, I have heard almost every day Reform Party members say that we must cut our expenses, that the way we are overspending does not make sense. On that I agree with you. We have to find ways to reduce expenditures.

What we must consider today is not the abolition of the Senate, but rather the funds requested by the Senate. Until there is a referendum on sovereignty and until the majority of Quebec-

ers support this idea, it is obvious that-since we are paying 24 per cent of taxes-we must protect the interests of Quebec.

Today, we are not requesting the Senate's abolition. We only oppose the funds allocated to it. We feel that, in these very tough economic times, these funds should be reduced. I am very surprised that Reform Party members do not agree with a measure aimed at reducing expenditures in Canada.

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6:20 p.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think it is necessary to ask a supplementary question to follow up on the one just asked by my colleague from the Reform Party.

The member opposite says that he is not amending the Constitution when eliminating a vote in the Main Estimates. At least, I think that this is what he is saying. He is not abolishing the Senate, because an amendment to the Constitution would be required to do so, and I do not personally, and neither do my constituents, feel in the mood to amend the Constitution at this time.

However, this seems more or less what the member wants to do. Does he think, since the two chambers, the Senate and the House of Commons, are under the authority of the Constitution, that the House of Commons has the right to abolish almost all the Senate votes? Does he also think that the Senate has the right to abolish all the House of Commons votes, including his own?

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6:20 p.m.

Bloc

Antoine Dubé Bloc Lévis, QC

Mr. Speaker, the member usually asks questions that are, I will not say devious, but certainly clever from his point of view.

Let me repeat: no, the purpose of the motion is not to abolish the Senate. It concerns budget votes. I think we have the right to say, to estimate, to declare that the amounts voted for the Senate are too high. That is why we are expressing such an opinion.

A member of Parliament should, among other things, reflect the opinion of his constituents. I mentioned certain opinions, more particularly those of young Quebecers. Members from Quebec are here to say to the other side of the House: "Here is what Quebec thinks, here is what Quebecers think of this situation". That is the long and the short of it.

I think my time is up, but I feel any member should share my concern, he should find ways to attract young people to politics. I think we should propose alternatives to young people so that they get interested in the public life. Therefore, any member should be open to discussion on changes, even if these changes affect something that he considers to be very important today.

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6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Gaston Péloquin Bloc Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in the House today to defend the interests of Canadian and Quebec taxpayers, by demanding that votes for the Senate's expenditures be cancelled.

I believe that this whole debate on the Senate is highlighting two aspects of Canadian federalism; it proves that it is not only inefficient, but also unable to renew itself to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As we all remember, on February 22 last, the Liberal government tabled its budget.

We must remember that this budget made significant cuts affecting the unemployed and senior citizens. Moreover, it increased the tax base for the middle class. Therefore, this budget hit the unemployed, senior citizens and the middle class.

When reviewing allocations in this same budget, one notices that close to $27 million are ear-marked for Senate expenditures. No cuts there. This very brief analysis of the latest budget tells a lot about the Liberal government's real priorities, and even more about the operation of this bankrupt Canadian federation.

We do not want to play party politics, because we know full well that the previous government would have done just the same, and that the next one will do likewise. As we just saw, it is now simpler for the government of this country, regardless of the party in office, to hit the poor, those who are already reeling from the recession, than to ask its very rich friends, the senators, to do their share.

A country where it is easier to let the deficit grow, signing away future generations' life, where the only cuts are made on the backs of the needy, where government patronage appointees do not reduce their extravagant lifestyles while the public is stuck in a very hard recession, is a very sick country. It could even be terminally ill.

All in all, when we add indirect spending inherent in its operation, this Senate packed with the government's non-elected and non-representative friends, spends more than $54 million dollars over some forty sitting days a year, about twelve hours a month. Moreover, the absentee rate of some senators is around 66 per cent. All this is highly significant.

Those nasty Quebec separatists are not the only ones asking that this House made up of non-elected members be eliminated. Somebody called Claude Ryan-maybe some of my colleagues have heard about him-proposed in 1980, in his beige paper, the elimination of the Upper House. That is why during the 1980 referendum debate in Quebec, federalists were proposing the total elimination of the Senate.

A few months shy of another important referendum, what do federalists suggest to Quebecers? The status quo. In other words, they want taxpayers to go on paying more than a million dollars a day to keep a House that represents no one.

Some Reform Party members could argue that, contrary to their unimaginative Liberal colleagues, they have a suggestion for Quebecers: the well-known triple-E Senate.

This brings me to the second part of my speech in which I intend to demonstrate once again that Canadian federalism does not work and never will.

The proposal for a Triple E Senate reflects a very poor understanding, not only of Quebec but of the history of Canada and of the purpose of our institutions. I would urge the Reform Party to examine the reasons and discussions that led to the adoption of the Constitution Act, 1867. At the time, francophones and anglophones decided to unite in a confederation that recognized the equality of its two founding peoples. It took some vigorous negotiating before these two founding peoples managed to agree on their choice of political institutions for this country.

A constitutional expert, whom I will not name but who is also a member of the Senate, recalled, and I quote: "Sir George-Étienne Cartier wanted parity between Quebec and Ontario for the Senate and he got it, in other words, 24 senators for each province".

We signed acts of union with a partner, English Canada, based on two houses, one with proportional representation and one with equal representation for Upper and Lower Canada. Over the years, as new English-speaking provinces were added and of course new senators for each province, Quebec's political clout in the Senate gradually diminished, so that today, Quebec is under-represented in the Senate in terms of its demographics, with only 23 per cent of the members in that house.

As though this were not enough, our English Canadian partner now wants to marginalize us even further and consider us as only one of ten partners. I may recall that in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation felt that the presence of the Senate was also required to restrain the democratic excesses of members elected by universal suffrage.

Perhaps the Liberal government still thinks it is necessary to restrain the democratic excesses of elected members. However, it should realize that times have changed and that Canadian and Quebec public opinion has changed as well.

To sovereigntists from Quebec, English Canada's desire to make the Senate more effective, elected and equal is not a problem. However, there is no way we would agree to be included in this reform.

We will not let the other provinces further diminish Quebec's political clout within our federal institutions. On behalf of all Quebecers, we say no, no forever to this kind of reform. Senate reform will happen without Quebec, or not at all. If the Reform Party or the other supporters of a Triple E Senate truly wants to provide English Canada with a democratic legislative system, one that is less cumbersome and more efficient, then they should begin by ensuring a victory for the sovereigntist forces in the next Quebec referendum.

Need I remind members that to reform the Upper House, the constitutional debate would have to be reopened? Pursuant to section 42 of the Constitution Act, the consent of the federal government and of seven provinces representing more than 50 per cent of the population is required in order to alter the powers of the Senate or the way in which senators are appointed.

After the recent failures of the Meech and Charlottetown agreements, to name only two, I think that Canadian federalism has proven itself to be inflexible and incapable of adapting to new realities.

The members of this House who are concerned about the state of Canada's public finances must support the Bloc's motion. Canada can ill-afford from an economic standpoint the luxury of having a Senate. It is no longer dynamic enough or flexible enough to carry out in-depth reform. Until such time as they acquire institutions which correspond to the realities of Canada and Quebec, the members across the way sometimes enjoy pointing out that the official opposition is not truly representative of Canada as a whole.

In conclusion, I would simply like to recall the findings of the latest Gallup public opinion poll which asked how Canadians and Quebecers felt about the Senate. On July 22, 1993, Gallup found that for the first time ever since it started asking this question, that is since 1944, a majority of Canadians said they were in favour of abolishing the Senate. Fifty-four per cent favoured abolishing the Senate, as the Bloc advocates, while 37 per cent said it should be reformed, the option favoured by the Reform Party, and 4 per cent preferred the status quo, the option being defended today by the Liberals.

The results in Quebec are even more revealing. Sixty-eight per cent said they were in favour of abolishing the Upper House, while 20 per cent would prefer to see the Senate reformed and 4 per cent prefer the status quo.

The numbers speak for themselves. All that remains for the government to do is to heed the will of Canadians and Quebecers and vote in favour of the Bloc Quebecois' motion.

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6:35 p.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, while the hon. member is engaged in giving the House a history lesson he might be well advised to include in his remarks the fact that long before Claude Ryan in 1980, or long before they asked the

first question in a poll in 1944, the predecessor of the NDP, the CCF, was calling for the abolition of the Senate since 1933.

This is the longstanding position of our party with respect to the Senate and the effrontery over the decades at having an appointed body in the centre of our democratic decision making process. I have certainly found it very difficult on occasion to explain Canadian senators when I have been in other countries with them. They tend to be treated as if they are American senators. Everybody sort of oohs and ahs when they hear that someone is a senator. We have to take them aside and explain that they are not like American senators who get elected every six years, that these people are appointed for life and are thereafter untouchable except by the good Lord himself. It is something that most banana republics would not tolerate, the idea of having a body like this one appointed basically for life or until age 75.

I wanted to say that we agree with the notion that the Senate should be abolished. It is certainly something that has been on the Canadian political table for a long time, long before the Bloc Quebecois came along. We have been open in recent years as to how the Senate might be reinvented on a more democratic basis to deal with some of the political problems that the country has experienced, and we continue to be open to that.

As for the existing Senate, that appointed body, we continually take the same offence at it that we have historically taken. We therefore agree with the thrust of the motion to do away with the current Senate.

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June 8th, 1994 / 6:35 p.m.

Bloc

Gaston Péloquin Bloc Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for reminding me that his party and others before already debated the idea of the Canadian government abolishing the Senate.

I would just like to make a short remark here, Mr. Speaker, if you allow me. I wonder why this state of affairs exists. We members of the House of Commons are asked to tighten our belts, cut our budgets and act like good representatives of the people. Members of this House travel economy class, you realize. The representatives of the other House always travel business class. Members of this House refused, with the consent of the Chair, which you represent, to continue accumulating frequent flyer points. All that was eliminated.

However, members of the other House continue to use those points, which are a bonus. So I ask why members of the other House have special privileges that are better than ours, when we are just asked to cut the fat.

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6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Gilbert Fillion Bloc Chicoutimi, QC

Mr. Speaker, I think today's debate is most important since we are addressing the issue of the other place.

Today's economic environment does not allow us to take for granted the amounts allocated to the Upper House, especially since we in the Bloc Quebecois have been defending, since the beginning of the session the entitlements of the most disadvantaged in our society. Given the difficult situation now faced by the people, that is, the insecurity and unemployment-there is 14 per cent unemployment in my riding-how can one support allocating money to the Senate, when all sectors are facing cutbacks? How can one justify the money spent on the other place with its 104 members?

If I may, Mr. Speaker, I would like to give a few examples. Last year, the Senate paid a total of $125,000 for a new hall with mahogany and granite panels.

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6:40 p.m.

An hon. member

That is not cheap!

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6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Gilbert Fillion Bloc Chicoutimi, QC

The Senate only sat 47 days last year but it employs stenographers. Even when it is not sitting-and I will let you draw your own conclusions-these stenographers still get paid. They do not even have to show up at work. Some of them even fill their free time by offering their services to other firms, thus receiving two salaries. The total bill for taxpayers comes to $1.6 million.

The senators also have their own $29,000 fitness centre when there are schools indire need of such facilities. Yet only one senator uses the centre on a regular basis.

Between February and May 1993, the Upper House met for six days in February, 10 days in March, five days in April and eight days in May for a total of 29 days in four months. At least one day out of two, 17 senators or more were absent. They can miss 21 days a year without penalty. After that, they must pay $60 for every day they miss. It is totally ridiculous.

They also have their own furniture store. Eleven people-carpenters, cabinetmakers and even a professional framer-work there. As far as communications are concerned, each senator claims on average $10,000 per year in telephone charges. All these examples show how public funds are spent.

We are not talking about individuals democratically elected by the population. No, senators enjoy privileges without being accountable.

The existence of the Senate generates costs which Canadian and Quebec taxpayers can question in this difficult economic period, a period during which the government is targeting social programs. In that context costs related to the Senate have very little to do with the daily reality of Canadians and Quebecers.

People take an interest in the Senate because it generates costs, not because it plays a proactive role. It is the elected members who have democratic legitimacy. The public would not tolerate that a non-elected House, with members appointed by the central government, playing an interventionist role. Senators represent neither the population, nor the provincial

public authorities; yet, every year, taxpayers have to pay for that institution.

Those taxpayers have the right to ask themselves questions. However, it was not until 1991 that an audit was conducted for the first time. The Auditor General tabled a report on the administration of the Senate and made 27 recommendations. He said that the Senate is a unique institution operating in a rapidly changing framework. Senate management is different from that of a department, a public organization or a private business. Being a legislative body, the Senate can define and adopt most of the rules which have a bearing on its activity.

Consequently, the usual accountability rules do not apply. Even if you argue that the budget has been decreasing in recent years, it is not enough. Only minor cuts were made to the 1994-95 budget. For example, no Senate employee will be laid off, while thousands of positions are being abolished in the public service. There were 450 person-years in 1992-93, and there will be 447 in 1994-95. The numbers change only because of attrition, retirements and resignations. Six senators will retire this year. Unlike federal public servants, they will be replaced very quickly by friends of the people sitting on the other side.

Quebec and Canadian taxpayers must pay for the Senate. Yet, more than ever before, public money should be spent in a useful way. We must ask ourselves if it is appropriate to maintain the Upper House, considering all the costs involved. Why is a non-elected House allocated public funds which could be better used? Why, in the present context, should we continue to pay for an institution which has no fundamental reason to exist?

We live with a constitutional status quo. The situation is that the Senate continues to exist. How can we tolerate such a situation?

This status quo results in the continued existence of the Upper House, as well as the continued existence of major costs. This is what is happening. The Senate is the best example of the apathy of our federalism. That federalism is removed from the reality. In fact, discussions on a reform of the Senate began soon after Confederation, and, in the last 20 years or so, the number of studies, reports and proposals has increased significantly. The situation which persists is also the result of unacceptable federal proposals and is unaceeptable for Quebec.

Therefore, I firmly support the motion tabled by the hon. member for Richmond-Wolfe, opposing the vote of $26 million under the heading Parliament-The Senate-Program expenditures.

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6:50 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Is the House ready for the question?

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6:50 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

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6:50 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

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6:50 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

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6:50 p.m.

Some hon. members

No.

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6:50 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Kilger)

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

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6:50 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.