Mr. Speaker, one understands the lateness of the hour produces that mixture of melancholy and euphoria that we have seen at various stages of the debate this evening.
It is a pity perhaps that such an interesting subject has been consigned to a late evening session. There has been an absence of concern or attention in this parliament and perhaps the one before it with fundamental questions, the large principles of government. Yet in a way I think we are seeing the creaking and groaning of parliamentary institutions that are already out of date and, in some ways in this country, lag behind the creative changes that have been made in other countries with similar systems. In a sense, it is all a consequence of the too exclusive preoccupation for the last 30 years with the Quebec question narrowly defined. The narrow definition is not the fault of all the opposite side of the House. I think the blame lies equally. One could suggest that the larger solutions for the Quebec problem would better be obtained in a larger solution of general constitutional problems, but here we come back again to this basic principle that it is very difficult, since the Constitution Act, 1982, to change the Canadian constitution, but it is not impossible.
The other day I encountered a very distinguished senator and former member of this House who had to retire because he had reached the term of years, 75 years. He was complaining that he was forced to retire at that age. I told him that it was possible that it was not constitutional to compel retirement for age. I asked him if he had ever considered invoking the charter of rights and freedoms.
It would certainly be possible, without going to the provinces, for the federal parliament to establish within the federal parliament, with parliamentary power alone, a term of years for the Senate. It would be possible for this House and the Senate to make a constitutional amendment limiting future senators to four years, or eight years or two renewable terms of four years. This is solely within federal power.
It would be possible to extend the age issue. The only reason I think the age issue arose is simply because people had enough sense, 100 years after 1867, to realize a life term was just unacceptable in the conditions of North America.
The biggest problem in electing a Senate is that it would be a Senate elected on a basis of regional representation that reflected the social realities of 1867, the demographic realities that are totally inequitable today. There is no way in which British Columbians for example, would vote for Charlottetown or any other agreement that perpetuated an inequitable division of the Senate, even an elected Senate.
If we want to change these things we have to go the long route unless we take the surprising step, but not so surprising in other countries, of getting a court ruling on the constitutionality of these provisions of the constitution viewed in contemporary terms. Why not? Unless we go the ultimate route of a constituent assembly.
We are, in a certain sense in our parliament at this time, engaged in a form of low level problem solving largely because people, in reaction to the failure of the Meech Lake accord and the failure of Charlottetown, have said they do not want to discuss fundamental change. There is no particular evidence of that.
Earlier in the debate, I remember one of the members citing the example of a Gallup poll that he had consulted, or the equivalent, and finding that 43% of the people wanted to abolish the Senate. I wonder if he had asked how many people wanted to abolish the House of Commons as it is presently constituted. He might well have found that there was a similar large public disillusionment with the legislative process.
I think we badly need, on the evidence of this parliament, to reform our committee structure. We badly need to re-examine the relationship of executive and legislative power. These are areas that could be changed without the necessity of going to the provinces and going through that seven out of ten or ten out of ten formula. They have largely been left to one side.
I think one of the problems we have with the proposals put forward today on Senate reform is that they do not recognize the interdependence of constitutional institutions. If we abolish the Senate, we will dramatically change the House of Commons as it is now, and it is presently staggering under its current burden of office. Something obviously is needed: a little more comprehensive thinking.
The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were golden periods in terms of producing a consensus on constitutional change. Let me read the sort of consensus that emerged: That an elected Senate, if it were to be achieved, should have the power to ratify all international treaties; that it should have the power to confirm nominations or reject nominations to the Supreme Court of Canada; and that it have the power to confirm ambassadorial appointments and appointments as deputy ministers. Why not? It is common in other systems of government. It might have the power, if the governor general were to be a wholly Canadian appointment, to conduct the election of the governor general. An elected Senate could perform the function that we give at enormous public expense and with a term of years seemingly without limit to royal commissions of inquiry. Should a legislative body not be doing that? It is quite obvious that the House of Commons cannot do it. If we look at the overburdening and the number of committees and the mandates of the committees today, I do not think we are able to discharge the functions that are given to us now.
The cause of Senate reform is I think an interesting one. It offers the most promise in terms of changes in our federal institutions, if we can get over this dilemma of constitutional change.
I noted the comments by the member for Brandon—Souris. He said that he had help with a wheat bill. I would simply say that I faced a situation in which a House committee, for some reason, produced a unanimous report last December. Then, after the unanimous report had gone to the House, some members decided to change their minds. Having accepted that a committee obviously would be well informed on the subject, I read the project and decided it was not as well informed as it could have been. Looking for an arena for change, I also went to the Senate and spoke to senators. I was able at the Senate level, because the Senate has co-ordinate constitutional powers with the House, to produce changes which I think are more in line with contemporary legal thinking.
There is a role for a second chamber, certainly if the House continues to be overburdened in the way it is with the present committee structure, which I do not think is very satisfactory unless we have this unique combination of an experienced and pragmatic committee chairperson and a good parliamentary secretary working as a team, and sufficient co-operation or acceptance of the rules of the game by government and opposition members. It does occur in some committees, but not in all, and we have noticed the difficulty in achieving a quorum in committees in the last few weeks. That is one of the realities.
I welcome the suggestions that have been made. I think the suggestions for the abolition of the Senate are simplistic. They ignore the fact that taking the Senate out will dramatically change the House too. I am not sure that we have yet learned to assume the new types of burdens that would be placed upon us.
Tackling the issue of how to make reform, as I say, electing the Senate with the present totally inequitable and unacceptable basis of regional allocation of the seats, would be a step backward in time and I do not think we can go that way. But why not?
One of the suggestions made, which was an interesting suggestion from outside, was why do we not attempt a mini-Senate reform. One of the most popular steps the present Prime Minister has taken has been to appoint senators who, in essence, will serve for a short term of years only. I think they are among the best quality senators we have had in a long time. These people, usually with two or three years to go, were never expecting an appointment to the Senate, but bring a surprising degree of expertise and knowledge and a very large degree of pragmatism.
One of the suggestions made, and I know it is taboo to speak of anything the former Prime Minister in the previous government introduced, was with respect to the so-called GST senators. It is a section of the constitution that was forgotten, which had been raised with me by a thoughtful correspondent. Could we not in some way correct, partly at least, the regional inequities of Senate representation by region by using that section and appointing more senators for those underrepresented areas of the country, in particular if it was done on a term of years basis, four years or something else?
I offer these simply because we are not completely in a straitjacket. To get movement in the upper House in that way might encourage the larger type of reform that so many people in all parties favour.
I look at the expert committees, the Lamontagne-MacGuigan committee, the Goldenberg commission, the father of the gentleman who is on the Prime Minister's staff, Pepin-Robarts that I have referred to, much the best constitutional report that has been made in Canada in the post-war period.
If we directed our attention to these matters we would see a time when parliamentarians thought in an ambitious way, looked at larger ideas, and a great deal of it came across. Except for certain egregious errors in tactics, the Pepin-Robarts report, as reflected in Meech Lake, would have gone through. It is one of those interesting things, the overconfidence of the political leaders who were directing the situation at that time.
Will we get around to these larger questions? I have raised this issue. I think the next generation of Canadians will have a rendezvous with the constitution. I am sure the imbalances, the inefficiencies that have accumulated in this inherited British system that we have not kept up to date in the way the British and other British derived systems have, will become large enough, and in a very short time from now we might get a movement toward general constitutional renewal.
If we go the constituency assembly route and we go the usual way in which constituent assemblies are adopted, we get out of the straitjacket of the chapter 5 amending sections of the constitution.
I could say more, but the hon. member opposite has pointed out to me the problem of one of his colleagues who has been waiting for four hours to speak and time is running away, so I think I will cut short my remarks.