Mr. Speaker, there are few issues that conjure up more debate within Canadian political circles than Senate reform.
In fact, in 1874 and in 1909, only a few years after the proclamation of the British North America Act, there were calls for Senate reform. This country was only seven years old when the issue of Senate reform first materialized. Despite calls for Senate reforms in 1874 to the present day, the institution remains essentially unchanged since its inception in 1867.
In fact, the only material change of note that has taken was in 1965 and that was a change under the British North America Act respecting retirement age. It was Parliament alone at that time which introduced the retirement age of 75 years for Senators who had previously served for life. Parliament was able to do this exclusively without the need for approval from the provinces under section 91(1) of the British North America Act.
The reality is of course that the introduction of the new retirement age in 1965 was essentially reasonable and would have found no substantial opposition from the provinces, as it did not dramatically affect the reform or function of the Senate.
The fact that there has been only one relatively small change to the Senate since Confederation clearly suggests to any reasonable person that reform is necessary. The real challenge, of course, in the context of Canada's unique political realities, is how to bring about this change.
Let me clearly state without equivocation that I do support Senate reform and I do believe in an elected Senate.
The Senate was, as most of us know, created as an institution of sober second thought. It is a place where laws and policy can be debated in an atmosphere that is less politically charged through the very nature of how its membership is determined.
This place of sober second thought is an aspect of the Senate that we should endeavour to retain. Indeed, even the current Prime Minister agrees with this concept, or at least I hope he still does. He stated before a Senate committee in 2006, “Canada needs an upper house that provides sober — and effective — second thought”.
It is for this reason that I am particularly concerned when the Prime Minister and his government make statements that the Senate needs to be reformed as they dictate or they will support the goals of our colleagues in the other opposition parties who want outright abolition.
This position hardly demonstrates a government with solid commitments to principle. I believe we need to reform the Senate, along with other institutions of our democracy, in consultation with Canadians and their provincial governments.
Within the context of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms we should also look at rules governing the succession of our head of state, as enunciated by the British Act of Settlement, 1701. It may be recalled that I tabled a motion in this House about the Act of Succession that discriminates against Roman Catholics and violates our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Indeed, I share the belief of many observers and scholars that the amending formula as outlined in the Constitution Act of 1982 requires the consent of at least 50% of Canada's population and at least seven of our provinces before the kind of significant change being proposed is allowed to proceed.
In section 42 of the Constitution there are four specific exceptions to Parliament's right to exclusively amend the Constitution as it relates to the Senate. These are: first, the method of selection of senators; second, the powers of the Senate; third, the distribution of Senate seats; and, fourth, the residence qualifications of senators.
I believe that at the very least Bill C-19 violates if not the letter then certainly the spirit of the exceptions as outlined in the Constitution Act.
We know that the Prime Minister is proposing that there be a term limits for senators of eight years. We know that the Prime Minister wants to institute a somewhat complicated and indirect electoral process for senators that in the end would have him or her, or whoever is the prime minister of the day, choose from the list of those put forward by virtue of this electoral process.
One obvious concern about this electoral process immediately comes to mind. Should prime ministers be fortunate enough to form more than two majority governments, they would by virtue of the eight-year term limit have effectively chosen every single senator by the time they would leave office at the end of their third mandate. I believe this is a very serious and potential affront to the concept of a Senate of a sober second thought.
Yes, there will be electoral choices put forward by voters, but in essence the Prime Minister would have chosen from these lists and effectively determined the composition of the entire Senate should he or she last in office for more than two majority terms.
If a prime minister were to remain in office for a period of over two terms, would all members of the Senate be in the position to obey his or her orders? My point is simply that this is inconsistent with the role the Senate should be occupying in our parliamentary process.
We must also understand that Canada is a unique country born of unique realities that are reflected in our national institutions. The Senate is one of these with its unique characteristics.
How can the Prime Minister simply ignore provinces like Ontario and Quebec that have expressed concerns about his path forward? The founders of this country chose to have representation in the Senate which reflects the character and size of our regions. We did not choose for example the United States or Australian model or representation that ignores population size.
In the latter case of Australia, the region of Tasmania, with a population of 650,000 people, has the same senate representation as New South Wales with over 6 million people. This is not the experience that has or would serve Canada well.
We should also remember we have not for the most part witnessed the kind of interparliamentary confrontation between our upper and lower chambers that has for example been the British experience. Historians will tell us than in 1911 and subsequently in 1949 the parliament acts were passed in Britain to assert the power of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. This was as a result of the 1909 budgetary obstruction by the Conservative House of Lords against the Liberal House of Commons. At one point King Edward VII and his successor King George V were prepared to appoint hundreds of Liberal lords to resolve the issue. The Conservative House of Lords conceded and accepted the new reality.
My point is simply that we in Canada have for the most part had a productive relationship between the Senate and the House of Commons that has served Canadians well.
What we need is reform and not the Prime Minister's sword of Damocles which he tries to dangle over the Senate calling upon it to “accept my terms or be abolished”. As members may know from Greek mythology, the sword of Damocles hung by a single hair over its potential victim ready to drop at the first sign of refusal to comply. This is not the way to reform fundamental institutions like the Senate. It is not compatible with the consensus nature of our country's political heritage.
We do not have to repeat the troubled experience of past constitutional reform undertakings like the Victoria agreement, the Meech Lake accord or the Charlottetown accord. There is I believe a desire among Canadians for Senate reform. Indeed, poll after poll suggests this. Likewise, polls also indicate that Canadians do not want Senate abolition but rather Senate reform.
This leads me back to my original comments on this issue. Let us undertake real Senate reform. Let us consult Canadians and their provincial leaders. It is neither good constitutional policy nor is it consistent with our political traditions to push one version of Senate reform or else threaten abolition.
Let us have elected senators, let us have Senate reform, but let us make the changes in a manner that reflects Canada's history of consensus and that honours the traditions of our country's foundation and our nation's progress throughout history.