That, in the opinion of this House, all proceedings of the Senate of Canada in the Senate Chamber should be televised.
Mr. Speaker, this evening's debate revolves around Motion No. 98, which states that in the opinion of the House all proceedings of the Senate of Canada in the Senate Chamber should be televised.
While the House of Commons will not hold a recorded vote on this subject, it is my sincere hope that perhaps some senators are watching and may finally take action. Perhaps some senators are even watching tonight's proceedings live on television. Maybe they are working late on Parliament Hill. Maybe they have gone home and are watching a rebroadcast on CPAC.
If I say something particularly outrageous tonight they may see it repeated on television newscasts throughout the day tomorrow, but I would never do that. I must therefore choose my words carefully.
The point is that our debates in this Chamber are open to television cameras. We have nothing to hide in this place. To senators watching tonight this may seem surreal. We are in front of television cameras debating whether the Senate of Canada should allow television coverage of its debates. Currently the Senate forbids such broadcasting. Granted, it allows some cameras into selected committees, but the Senate of Canada is not a group of committees engaged in study after study. It is a legislative body. It is the other half of Canada's parliament and it is a chamber where unelected people debate proposed legislation. It amends bills. It adopts bills. It even defeats bills passed by this elected chamber.
Regardless of how one views our current set-up, whether we want it to be reformed, abolished or left alone, surely we want to be able to watch our senators in action. We ought to be able to watch them stand and be counted.
The Senate of Canada should draw back its dusty curtains and expose itself to the scrutiny of television. Perhaps I should contrast the Senate's approach to television with our experience in this place. The House of Commons reached agreement to go on the airwaves in 1977.
By way of background, I should say that the legislative chambers in all democratic countries and states have public galleries. Since the days of the Magna Carta the public's business has been seen by the public. If I flash forward from 1215, some 762 years later a debate occurred here in the House of Commons on extending the galleries by way of television, realizing that in the era of electronics and as the medium known as television matured it was the ideal and modern way of extending the principle of the public galleries in the Commons into Canadian homes.
On January 25, 1977 the House adopted a motion to broadcast live all of its debates and proceedings. In September 1977 our Chamber went on the air.
The concept of extending the galleries is based on some very clear and sound philosophies. First, as I have said, the public has a right to see its legislators debating the public's business.
Second, for our federal chambers to be relevant—and we have to be more relevant—debates and proceedings must be fully accessible to the public.
Finally, public broadcasting gives viewers firsthand experience of legislators at work, as opposed to what otherwise would be received through reports or commentaries prepared by journalists. Quite simply, it is not filtered and it cannot be construed or censored in any way.
It is interesting to note that today more than 100 countries broadcast their legislative chambers' proceedings on a daily basis, yet in this parliamentary precinct, which was the first elected chamber in the world to broadcast its proceedings, there is an exception and it is called the Senate Chamber.
I should tell the House that the only debate in that place on this issue took place on November 5 and December 3, 1975, 25 years ago, when senators expressed a majority opinion that the public should not view their proceedings by way of television. I will provide details on this later.
I draw the attention of the House to the Senate rule book, which is the equivalent of the standing orders of the House of Commons. Its rule book says that the televising of proceedings is strictly prohibited.
I should declare my own bias concerning the Senate. It will come as a great shock. It would be my preference to see it abolished. In fact, I have joined with other members of this elected chamber in circulating petitions in support of abolition. I want to read part of the official response to these petitions. This is an official response from the government, and it states:
The government shares the petitioners' concern about modernizing parliamentary institutions. However, a constitutional amendment would be required to abolish the Senate—
We know that.
A consensus does not exist on what the role and form of the Senate should be in the future, that is, whether it should remain as it is, or be reformed or abolished....In the meantime, the Senate will continue to play a fundamental role in the federal legislative process.
Let me repeat that. “The Senate will continue to play a fundamental role in the federal legislative process”.
Let us look around the world. There are 80 countries which televise all of their legislative chambers' proceedings, yet we in this parliament average 50%, one out of two.
The British House of Lords, for example, went on the air in 1985, about four years before the British House of Commons, and rather than affect the general demeanour of that place, public opinion polls suggest in Great Britain that it has clearly revealed two points. First, the public in Britain actually like the House of Lords. In fact, it became a rating success. Second, it is agreed among the British public that the quality of debate in the House of Lords went up, not down.
Finally, I want to repeat that we live in an electronic information age. I have to ask, is it not ironic that the other place, the Senate of Canada, is not available to Canadians through the medium known as television?
We can gain inspiration from the practice of televised proceedings elsewhere in Canada. It is alarming to realize that the Senate of Canada is the only major assembly not to televise its proceedings. I think it is odd that such a centrally important institution is effectively not open to the public. Other sorts of assemblies in Canada are required to bear the democratic weight of visibility. Why should the Senate not meet this democratic litmus test?
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Canadians are effectively barred from the affairs of the Senate. For the 30 million Canadians who do not live within the boundaries of the national capital region and cannot make it to the Senate public galleries, the lack of television coverage means that they are unable to follow the business that is being transacted supposedly in their names.
Why deny access to a key component of our legislative process? Whether someone agrees or disagrees with a unelected Senate, the fact is that it is a central player in our legislative process.
No government bill, private member's bill or finance minister's budget can be enacted without the Senate. The Senate signs off on every piece of legislation it receives from the Commons. Without the Senate's acquiescence laws could not be made. That is the law of this country. That is the way it is.
Under the constitution the Senate holds as much power as this place, the House of Commons. While it has usually been the practice of that place of the unelected senators to defer to the elected Commons, there have been occasions when it has invoked its constitutional prerogative to reject or to withhold approval of Commons legislation.
We know by our constitution, principally by the British North America Act, that the Senate is central in the lawmaking ability of what we call the federal parliament. Canadians need to have access to this component of the Canadian legislative process. It is 50%.
Not willing to televise the Senate places a shroud over an integral part of Canadian governance and, at worst—and I think this is becoming more common—it creates the perception that something is going on that the Senate is hiding.
Let us open up the old heavy oak doors, part those old dusty curtains to allow the fresh breath of public transparency and the bright light of visibility into a place that has been, some would say, dark and stale for too long.
The Senate belongs to all Canadians and, while only a select few can trespass on to its royal red adornments, it is important to at least provide some degree of ownership to citizens over an institution that is key to the conduct of public affairs.
It is not as though what I am proposing can even be considered radical or trend-setting because legislative assemblies across Canada already broadcast their proceedings, as do municipal councils, school boards and all kinds of quasi-judicial tribunals. Even the Senate of Canada standing committees have been known on occasion to allow the public to catch a glance of senators at work in committee, although it should be noted that Senate committees involve only a dozen of the 105 people who occupy that place.
Not only in Canada, but elsewhere upper chambers have their proceedings televised. As I have said, the U.K., the United States, Australia and over 100 other chambers in countries around the world televise their proceedings. I should say that in my own municipality of Sarnia I can get the Sarnia city council, I can get the Chatham council, which is about 75 miles away, I can get two city councils, but I cannot, unless I have a Ouija board, get the Senate of Canada.
In the House of Lords of the United Kingdom daily sittings have been permanently broadcast since 1985. The opponents of Canadian Senate broadcasting wrongly argue that TV would destroy its deferential and so-called polite decorum at the very high level of civilized debate that we are told takes places in the Senate. One senator has even described the place as being serene.
In the early 1980s, when the House of Lords was discussing proceeding with broadcasts, some peers echoed a similar concern. However, the track record tells a different story. The decorum and the politeness of the lords' debates has not gone down, but has probably gone up. The Senate of Australia, an elected body, has been broadcasting since 1990.
The wonder of the Westminster parliamentary system is its ability to evolve toward greater democratic governance with stronger links to citizens. The history of parliaments in Canada and the U.K., and I assume elsewhere in the Commonwealth, has shown that they have never shied away from strengthening the link to citizens. Televising the Senate should be viewed simply as another logical step in that evolutionary process.
Even though television did not exist in 1867, the Senate, I would suggest, has a duty and a responsibility to adapt toward greater accountability and visibility so that the link with citizens is strengthened. Letting public business into the living rooms of Canadians is a good thing. Not only will it let citizens hold senators to account in a more effective way, it will also contribute to a heightened legitimacy of parliamentary institutions, this place known as the Parliament of Canada.
If, as senators maintain, they are truly effective and they make a positive contribution, they should not fear television. Their deliberations should be able to withstand the bright lights of TV cameras.
As I said, in 1975 the Senate debated the idea of televising proceedings. It decided against the practice at the time and since that time it has been loath in any way to discuss it.
In 1975 former Conservative Senator Martial Asselin provided insight into why the Senate is so apprehensive about televising its proceedings. At that time he said:
I will give you my own point of view, since I feel that the best way to get the Senate abolished is to permit television and radio coverage of our proceedings.
As the Senate Hansard showed, some hon. senators concurred by saying “aye, aye”. They obviously did not feel that the Senate's work at that time was all that valuable. He seems to indicate that it would not be able to stand up to public scrutiny and that upon seeing the Senate in action, or should I say inaction, the public would call for its abolition.
I think it is a sad state of affairs when senators themselves do not even have confidence in the work they do to hold up their institution to public attention. I think I speak for all members in saying that we certainly hope senators no longer believe this.
I would like to close by referring to an op-ed piece written by a senator who occupies that place at the moment. Senator Joyal lists his daily schedule and tells how busy he really is, or says he is. He may have chosen a busy day to illustrate his schedule. His examples are by no means an accurate composite of activities for all senators, nor does his schedule appropriately address the substance that a senator might encounter in a typical day's work. It was a criticism against a newspaper article. I think Senator Joyal's criticism should not be directed to a columnist's assertions that most Canadians would agree with, but rather should be directed to the institution and its members who have a massive credibility problem.
We know that 90% of Canadians would prefer to see it changed. Of them, half would support it being abolished and the other half would support it being elected in some way. We know that 10% have no opinion or like it the way it is.
It is an institution which has an incredible problem of legitimacy. I am saying that TV would encourage senators to respond to issues that Canadians care about, lest citizens judge them as completely useless.