Motion No. 1
That Vote 1, in the amount of $30,051,000, under PARLIAMENT—Senate—Program expenditures, in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000 (less the amount voted in Interim Supply), be concurred in.
Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to respond to the motion before the House and the objection raised by some hon. members in connection with the vote for the Senate program expenditures for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000.
I would like to use the time I have been given to try to expand the debate and to describe the context surrounding this initiative by the government.
First, I think we need to draw a distinction between two aspects of the debate: On the one hand, the place of the Senate within our parliamentary system and, on the other, the financial requirement in connection with the exercise of that role. It is one thing to promote the improvement or even the abolition of the Senate, but the issue before us today is rather whether the Senate ought to obtain the moneys it needs to fulfill its mandate under the constitution.
In other words, I think it would be wrong to block this vote simply because one favours improving or, even for those who want that, abolishing the Canadian Senate. Let us all agree on one thing. The current Senate is an institution which has its foundations set down in the constitution and is therefore fundamental to the functioning of the Parliament of Canada. It has a constitutionally mandated role to play. Therefore, it must have the resources it needs to fulfil that role.
The Senate, in its current form, may not be the most popular there is within our system of government in the eyes of some. It is easy for members to sidetrack the debate with knee-jerk speeches about its usefulness and its legitimacy. It may be that changes could be made to the current Senate so as to enhance its legitimacy and make it more representative. My party has advocated such changes in the recent past.
Nevertheless, there is now, and I do not think it is any secret, no consensus as to what those changes should be and how they should be made neither among Canadians nor within parliament. In the meantime, the Senate must continue to fulfil the role it has been assigned, and it is the government's role to ensure that it has the means to do so and that includes an adequate supply process.
I am not surprised by the criticism that has been made by some hon. members who have opposed this vote. For those who feel that the current Senate is ineffective, any vote for the Senate expenditures, no matter what the amount, will always be for them too much. It is easy to question the relevance of a vote for the Senate program expenditures, but it must be emphasized that these votes are essential for our parliamentary system to function and that the members of the House have a responsibility to concur in them.
Our government has made modernizing our federation one of its top priorities. We have made our system of government more efficient in many areas and have ensured that government programs and co-operation agreements concluded with our provincial partners better serve the interests of the community. Indeed, co-operation between the two orders of government is an inherent part of our system of government.
I am dwelling on this aspect of the debate because the reason the hon. members have opposed this vote is because they believe the Senate ought to be reformed or abolished. We all know that there is no consensus on this issue among Canadians, as I have already stated. Furthermore, the issue can be resolved only through a constitutional amendment. You don't amend the Senate by cutting the supply. Few members of the House can seriously claim that the current context lends itself to such an initiative of amending the constitution.
More specifically, under section 42 of the Constitution Act, 1982, reforming the Senate would require the consent of at least seven provinces representing no less than 50% of Canada's population. That is the prerequisite. It is not cutting supply.
To then abolish the Senate, for those who think that is a proper course of action, the government would likely have to comply with section 41 of the Constitution Act, which requires the consent of the House of Commons, the 10 provincial legislative assemblies and the Senate itself which would have to vote itself out of existence. That is the prerequisite for doing that under our constitution.
I do not think I am going out on a limb in saying that the constitutional debate is not a priority for Canadians today. I was in my riding all last weekend and amending the constitution was not the favourite issue raised by my constituents. They had many other topics in mind. A grand total of zero people have raised it with me in the last several months. I think we can all agree that this is not a scenario that could be really taken seriously in the short term.
Our government is not opposed to Senate improvement, but we have to be realistic and operate in the context of how things really are. In terms of constitutional amendments, when the population has asked for those we have provided and have accommodated that, be it the issue of schools in Quebec, the issue of amending the Constitution to recognize the linguistic duality of New Brunswick, even the school situation in Newfoundland and several other such changes that had to be made.
The program expenditures in the main estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2000 total $30,051,000. This may perhaps strike the members with objections to the allocation of credits as a lot, but I would ask them what other choice does the government have under the circumstances?
If the Senate seems to them to be an inefficient institution, and they have every right to think so, how does restricting the credits it needs to operate render it any more efficient? Of course, the answer is obvious.
I will go still further. This debate provides me with the opportunity to rectify certain points. The Senate, in its current form, already fills an important role, which too many of our citizens are unaware of. The Senate committees perform an important function in our legislative process by clarifying and improving legislation from the House of Commons.
We need only think of Bill C-49, which was before the House on Friday last and which will come back in a few days. The Senate has made some constructive amendments, and we all realize it, if we are prepared to admit it.
The changes proposed by the senators to these bills have frequently improved them. I have just given one example. Our Senate colleagues' contribution in clarifying certain laws means time saved for the courts. This too must not forgotten.
All too often parliamentarians say that it is the role of this House to legislate not that of the courts. We have a House that helps us legislate and clarify the law and some people want to abolish it. The effect of this would probably be to transfer even more powers to the courts, which we say every day that we do not want.
A number of senators have vast experience in varied fields, such as law, the world of business, public administration and so on. I am thinking of people such as Senator Eugene Whelan who will retire in a few days. He is an eminent Canadian who served as minister of agriculture for many years. He is a parliamentarian with three or four decades of experience. This is the calibre of people they are. There is also Frank Mahovlich, a world famous personality and a member of the Senate. Senator Wilbert Keon is a doctor with a worldwide reputation.
I have named only a few. This is the sort of person who represents us in the other place. We must not forget it either.
The experience of these senators becomes very important for all Canadians when it comes to crafting legislation that is a faithful reflection of Canadians' needs and aspirations. Obviously this cannot be readily measured, but one thing is certain and that is that it is part of the legislative process and part of our reality in Canada.
Furthermore, on several occasions senators have been called upon to look specifically at such problems as poverty, unemployment, inflation, the status of the elderly and science policy. There is even a Senate committee that is studying monetary issues right now, and the list goes on. The reports these studies produce have had an impact on the resulting legislation.
Since we are now debating the granting of supplies to the Senate, I would even go so far as to say that these studies have enabled Canadians to realize important savings since they have made it unnecessary to establish royal commissions of inquiry. God knows how expensive these commissions can be, I remember some. The senators are already being paid, already have staff and, most important of all, they have an extensive institutional memory. They have contributed much to this process and will continue to do so.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the House to support the estimates of the other place.
The government's position on Senate reform is simple. We support the idea of such reform but when the circumstances are right, when there is first of all a consensus to that effect among Canadians and when all partners in our federation are resolved to move ahead with such a project.
We also believe that such a reform must be carried out in a comprehensive and considered manner, not piecemeal and certainly not on the fly as certain opposition parties too often suggest in the House.
In the meantime, our government is pursuing the same policy, one of common sense. It appoints as senators people recognized for their competence, people wishing to contribute with us to the well-being of Canadian society.