Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate today on the motion presented by our colleague from the Reform Party, the member for Comox-Alberni. This motion reads as follows:
Given that the Senate has failed to respond to a message from this House requesting that a representative of the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration appear before the Standing Committee of Government Operations to account for $40 million taxpayers' money, this House express its dissatisfaction with the Senate for disregarding modern democratic principles of accountability and, as a consequence, notice is hereby given of opposition to Vote 1 under Parliament in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1997.
This is the wording of the motion, and it is not the first time we find ourselves discussing in this House the manner in which the Upper House, the other place, the Senate, operates. This is not the first time we have questioned expenses incurred by the Senate. It is also not the first time we have questioned the reason for the Senate's existence.
When I meet with people in my riding, and this is the case for all of my colleagues, one question comes up regularly. People ask us: "What is the purpose of the Senate? What do the senators do?
The public had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Senate during the reading of the last throne speech, but I do not think they came away with a more positive image. As you will recall, one or two senators were caught snoozing in full view of the entire population. Jean-Luc Mongrain, a very well known and very popular Quebec commentator, had a field day with it, devoting an hour of one of his broadcasts to the Senate.
It is easy to make fun of what goes on in the Senate. There are, of course, senators who do a serious job, who attend regularly, who carry out research and get involved in the political life of our country in order to improve it, to improve the situation of our fellow citizens. We must, however, admit that, for a large number of people at least, the impression is that they contribute absolutely nothing, that they are, to all intents and purposes, more of a liability than an asset for the people of Canada and of Quebec.
Our fellow citizens, the people with whom we have regular contact, who ask us that question, are not the only ones to wonder the same thing. Both the auditor general himself, to whom I shall
return in a few minutes, and several political commentators, have questioned the strange way the Senate operates year after year.
I would like to quote one in particular, because I feel that the examples he refers to are ones people can relate to, and are based on true facts.
This is an article from La Presse , over the byline of Claude Piché who refers to an article by the Financial Post 's Gord McIntosh.
Referring to the finance minister's speech, Mr. Piché said in his introduction that, at the very time the federal Minister of Finance is cutting back on expenditures-and this applies to all of the provinces-and asking people to tighten their belts, urging workers and governments to do more, telling everybody that there is no more money to throw away recklessly, we have to act prudently, manage the budget carefully, intelligently, make sure that the available money is spent on the right things.
Referring to the Senate, Mr. Piché writes: "Of course, the government's financial statements show us that the Senate costs Canadian taxpayers $43 million year after year". He also reminds us that a senator earns $64,000 a year, plus a tax free allowance of $10,100. We are talking about gross salaries, excluding operating expenses, of approximately $85,000 to $90,000, which is hardly at the poverty line or on the brink of social assistance.
Mr. Piché referred to Mr. McIntosh's investigation and said that what he finds totally unacceptable are the expense allowances in addition to this salary, on top of the fact that many senators are absent more often than not.
He said that what he and everyone find unacceptable are the totally inflated expenses. He provided some examples. He asked whether anyone had visited senators' offices. "Last year, a new lobby panelled in mahogany and adorned with green, black, salmon and grey granite," reports journalist McIntosh, "at a cost to taxpayers of $125,000". He added that "One senator even had the gall to add that it was a bargain".
Mr. Piché also noted that, in 1993, the Senate sat only 47 days. He reports: "The Senate employs 11 people full time at an average salary of $60,000 simply to immortalize the words of the senators in Hansard, minutes of a sort of Parliamentary proceedings. Obviously, these officials have a lot more free time and can therefore make month end by selling their services to other government agencies".
Another example: "Senators have their own exercise room, set up, of course, at taxpayers' expense. The equipment in this room at the senators' disposal is worth $29,000". Mr. McIntosh's report on his investigation reveals that only one senator used this room during the year the investigation was conducted.
And it goes on. He says, and I think that is what is the most striking for all our fellow citizens: "From February to May of 1993, the Senate met six days in February, ten in March, five in April and eight in May, for a total of 29 days in four months". Mr. Piché adds: "This furious pace of work appears to have been more than many senators could handle, judging from the mind-boggling rate of absenteeism at the Senate".
These examples show beyond the shadow of a doubt the merit of the motion before us. I could go on reading one example after another for hours and hours. Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Piché are not the only ones to point to such totally unacceptable situations. Earlier in my remarks, I referred to the auditor general's report for 1991. Five years later, there is still no indication that those situations condemned, raised and identified by the auditor general back in 1991 have been addressed in 1996.
Take the budget of the Senate, the Upper House, for example. Expenditures of about $40 million are mentioned in the motion. In 1991, the budget was $42.6 million. But the auditor general comments: "Total Senate expenditures are closer to $54 million, if we add the estimated $11.4 million in services provided to the Senate by certain government agencies". This "we" does not refer to Bloc members or to yours truly, but to the auditor general himself. This means that it would be more accurate to talk about upwards of $50 million in the wording of the motion, instead of $40 million.
The report is about 100 pages long. I will obviously not read it, but I will mention a few examples which reflect the views expressed by Mr. Piché, although in a more detailed fashion, since they are provided by the auditor general, who is accountable to the House, who works at arm's length, who has the necessary resources-even though he may sometimes think otherwise-to enable him to do serious work.
What does this report on Senate spending say? There is a recommendation, recommendation No. 2, on page 13. The auditor general recommends that the Senate should publish a statement on its expenditures and the performance of its administration. Under 3.23, recommendation No. 2 provides that: "The Senate should regularly publish a summary of committee activities and expenditures".
If the auditor general made such a recommendation in 1991 and if, as I said, nothing has changed since, the public will realize, like us, that the activities of the Senate and its members are not subject to any audit. Senators are not accountable to anyone. They can do what they want with the public money at their disposal. Again, the Reform Party motion is fully justified.
Take travel expenses. We read in the auditor general's report that there is nothing to guarantee that the travel expenses assumed by the Senate are for the Senate's operations. An example is given.
The example describes a senator who is reimbursed for a one-week trip to Vancouver for himself and four members of his family. Moreover, all of them came from different regions of Canada. To top it all, the senator himself was not a native of British Columbia. Would it be permissible to wonder about an expense of this nature? The auditor general thinks so. Those listening today, those who elected us, the public, taxpaying Canadians, think so.
Mr. Speaker, you are indicating that I have only two minutes left. That is, unfortunately, not enough. I will conclude with some remarks about the reason for the Senate's existence.
I will not give a political science lecture on the difference between the Upper House and the House of Commons, but in the opinion of many of our citizens, particularly those in Quebec, the Upper House, the Senate, is completely unnecessary.
All the members from Quebec share this view. What is more, the political option we are legitimately defending, whether we are from Canada, Quebec, or elsewhere, means that we want not just to see the Senate abolished, but as well not to be represented by anyone at the federal level.
But even from a federalist standpoint, and our colleagues in the Reform Party have, I think, very aptly demonstrated this, even from a federalist standpoint, almost everyone agrees on the need to reform the Upper House, to ensure that, if there is truly a desire for institutions that respect British tradition, at least that House will have real powers. It will also have to be accountable, unlike what we are seeing now. These days, and I will conclude on this note, the Senate is more like a Club Med to reward political organizers or to facilitate their party fundraising activities. More often than not, this is the purpose served by the Senate nowadays.
At a time when all Canadians are being asked to tighten their belts, to take another look at how they are doing things, they are entitled to require the same of their elected officials. The first expense that should be cut is not grants to organizations representing the disabled, but Senate spending. Action should be taken so that if our senators, our political organizers, want a paid vacation, they pay for it out of their own pockets.