Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to stand in the House and outline some of the concerns that Canadians should have about the thin gruel of the agenda on democratic reform that is coming from the Conservative Party and, frankly, the attacking of parliamentary privilege, the disrespect and the shallow nature in which the minister responsible for democratic reform is attacking these issues.
Because I think we all need to be drawn together in a real debate about where we are going with respect to Liberal-led democratic reform, I would like to start with a quote from the Bible:
And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
That is the Gospel according to St. Mark, chapter 3, verse 25.
What we kind of forget is that there is a history and it is called the history of Canada. Canada was founded on bases that were different from our two feeding democratic countries by way of origin. We have certain influences from the United Kingdom, which we see when we look around this House, the other place, Parliament in general and the system of government, that reflects our British heritage and the influence of Great Britain on our founding.
What we cannot ignore as well is that there was an influence from the south, that there was a young republic that was going through the throes of a civil war, one of the most bloody wars in the history of humankind, and that country is the United States of America that was very prescient on the minds of the Fathers of Confederation at the time that debates took place regarding how we came to have this House, the other house and the system of responsible government.
We specifically did not copy the British model. It is not often that I would quote with favour a Conservative politician but I will do it this once because I think, with the distance of time and separation, that our first prime minister, John Alexander Macdonald, was right when he said:
An hereditary Upper House is impracticable in this young country.... An hereditary body is altogether unsuited to our state of our society, and would soon dwindle into nothing.
This was said in 1865 when the Confederation debates took place. There was a very early understanding that we were different than the United Kingdom.
Looking at events extraneous to Kingston and to Charlottetown where great debates took place at the time and the carnage that resulted from the American experiment, that Conservative prime minister, the first prime minister of Canada, also said that we needed to distinguish ourselves from the United States of America. He said:
...the defects which time and events have shown to exist in the American Constitution. They commenced, in fact, at the wrong end. They declared by their Constitution that each state was a sovereignty in itself, and that all the powers incident to a sovereignty belonged to each state, except those powers which, by the Constitution, were conferred upon the General Government and Congress. Here we have adopted a different system. We have strengthened the General Government. We have given the General Legislature all the great subjects of legislation. We have conferred on them, not only specifically and in detail, all the powers which are incident to sovereignty, but we have expressly declared that all subjects of general interest not distinctly and exclusively conferred upon the local governments and local legislatures, shall be conferred upon the General Government and Legislature. We have thus avoided that great source of weakness which has been the cause of the disruption of the United States. We have avoided all conflict of jurisdiction and authority, and if this Constitution is carried out, as it will be in full detail in the Imperial Act...we will have...all the advantages of a legislative union under one administration, with, at the same time, the guarantees for local institutions and for local laws, which are insisted upon by so many in the provinces now....
We must remember that the provinces came together to form a union. We must remember that those provinces were the seed for the plant that is now Canada. We must remember that the provinces insisted on specific legislative powers but they also insisted on protection for their interests. Thus, the legislative council, now known as the Senate, arrived.
This must be the starting point for all discussion about the Senate: the provinces. As John A. Macdonald said, “The central government was well-defined, the federal powers were entrenched and this House, the House of Commons, having almost all of the powers of the new federal government, was well-ensconced”.
What of the Senate? The legislative council was there to protect provincial rights. I submit that since 1867 there has only been one change in the Senate makeup that has had any effect on those powers as deemed important by the provinces since 1867, and that was the one change with respect to the length of time that senators may serve.
I am shocked that the Minister for Democratic Reform, a person who has had at least some legal training, suggests that the change made in 1965 was constitutional. It was done and it was passed unilaterally. Any constitutional scholar who we have taken the advantage of listening to will say that unilateral change to the Constitution may or may not be constitutional. If it is done and not challenged, then it lies there in possum waiting for someone to challenge it perhaps.
However, the change was not that objectional to all parties concerned. It limited the life appointment of senators to the age of 75. I do not hear anybody objecting to that from the Senate or from any other quarter in this country. It was done unilaterally in 1965 before there was an amendment formula for the Constitution Act of Canada. Therefore, to say that it was done constitutionally is misleading.
Legally speaking, it was done unilaterally before there was a constitutional amendment formula. We live in an era where there is a formula now and we have to fast forward discussions to today's reality, today's legal environment, and understand that the constitutional amendment package that is part of the laws of this country is in play.
It shocks me. If we were here as a result of extensive federal-provincial consultations, negotiations, conferences or even a video conference that the minister might have had with his provincial counterparts, I might be a little less shocked about how the government can bring these bills forward and say that every Canadian wants them. I know they are government-driven by opinion polls and that for the government it is 37% of Canada. In reality, however, we are talking about provincial rights and interests and anything that touches upon Senate reform touches upon provincial rights.
We have a Senate. Right now, there are vacancies in the province of British Columbia, two vacancies in Ontario, two in Quebec and five in Atlantic Canada. There are disproportionate vacancies in Atlantic Canada. Would the premiers of those provinces feel that perhaps the government does not feel that those regions, which are completely under-represented in the Senate from its structure, might want to have a say in its redevelopment?
I look at the number of seats for western Canada. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba each have six seats. We all know, by the layout of the Senate as envisioned when Canada was a much smaller place, that it gives more seats to eastern Canada and yet those seats have not been filled by the government and remain vacant.
There is a disequilibrium with respect to the number of seats. This is not me just saying that. There are very weighty tones on the issues of what affects our country. Most of the scholars suggest that we will have two major problems for the next 100 years in the existence of this Confederation. One of the major problems, which I do not need to go into too deeply, is the unacceptability to Quebec of the Constitution as revised without its agreement in 1982. That has been floating out there for a long time.
One would think that the Minister for Democratic Reform and the Prime Minister might have a concern about that and might want to occasionally talk to premiers about this issue.
I will quote from the book entitled, A House Divided by Gordon Robertson. It states:
The other major problem that had to be remedied was the imbalance in political power and influence that led Western Canada to feel that its interests were normally subordinated to those of the populous centre of Canada—Ontario and Quebec. Here the only thing that seemed likely to help was Senate reform.
Western Canada has, for some time, through its scholars, through its elected leaders and through some of its elected politicians, been active and perhaps more active than any part of the country with respect to Senate reform.
Let me start the debate as well by saying that I thought we were here discussing Senate reform. The Prime Minister, in his speech before a Senate committee in September of last year, made it very clear that he was there to talk about reform. We had no indication from the Prime Minister or the Minister for Democratic Reform or spokespeople for the Conservative government that a referendum or otherwise on abolition was the ultimate end game of these bills. No discussions have actually taken place yet with the provinces.
I suppose, if that is the case and the Conservative government is actually putting time limits on debates with respect to all of these bills, then maybe the government should be honest and say that it will just skip steps one and two and go to step three and put the abolition element to a constitutional amendment process, which is clearly required. I think we had that admission from the minister today that, in his view, anything more than tinkering with tenure and selection or nomination processes, anything beyond that as he said, composition of the Senate or abolition would require the constitutional amendment formula to take place.
Perhaps the government should be honest with Canadians and say that it favours the abolition of the Senate, it supports Progressive Conservative Senator Hugh Segal's amendment and go straight to that point. Otherwise, I believe that it is pulling a fast one on the people of Canada by suggesting that these bills, other than getting the headlines that the Conservatives so crave, will actually affect Senate change. I do not think that is the case. It is pretty clear that there is a constitutional issue here and the amendment formula will come into play.
As I started to say, we should be talking about western Canada. We talk about western alienation. It seems perhaps funny for a member of Parliament from the shores of the Bay of Fundy to talk about western alienation, but I suppose, if we look at half the population of northern Alberta, it is probably from the Atlantic provinces, so I feel some kinship to the concerns and respect very much the concerns of successive western premiers who have not had a chance to have constitutional conferences or meetings with the Prime Minister. He has not had a first ministers meeting since he was elected. His first meeting is coming up and he will be talking about the economy, which, obviously, is an important subject.
However, if the reform of Canada's Senate continues to be important and, as the scholars said, to bring in the west, to effect a change to their under-representation, then we should know that the west of Canada has spoken before. The Canada West findings in 1981 suggested, for instance in terms of distribution, equality for all provinces, six to ten senators each, territories one or two each. This would be a cutting back of the number of seats, which is 24 each in Quebec and Ontario. I am not sure that would fly with the respective premiers of Quebec and Ontario.
The joint committee hearings, which took place in 1982 through 1984, recommended a distribution of seats which would be in the formula of 2, 6, 12 and 24. What that means is that the territories would each get 2 senators, P.E.I., because of its historical incident, would get 6. Almost all the other provinces would get 12 except for Ontario and Quebec. It is a formula that was discussed. The Alberta committee in 1985 essentially came to a similar conclusion that there should be equality for provinces at 6 each.
We must remember that although we differ from the United States in terms of having provincial rights protected in a federal institution as opposed to ceding rights directly to states, it is the upper house in the United States that gives credence to small populations having equality with large populations. I do not think the people of California and New York are so much more magnanimous than the big provinces in Canada that they had not thought that Rhode Island and Maine having two senators along with their two senators in New York and California would not be a bit of a problem.
However, in over 200 years it has not been problem. There have not been calls for more senators for the larger states and the U.S. senate, when it is dominated by the right party, I suppose one could argue, works fairly well with respect to administering the Government of the United States. It is a check and a balance on the House of Representatives and on the government in question, and that may be the bigger issue.
I think the kernel of the real motive would be in the speech of the Minister for Democratic Reform when he said, repeatedly, the Liberal-dominated Senate. He is taking a snapshot in time. I wonder, and maybe the Canadian public wonders, if this were a Conservative-dominated Senate of the day and it voted with the government all the time, because of the nature of collegiality and the conformity to one's party, whether we would be here.
This is shortsighted for two reasons. Governments need checks and balances. It is why, Mr. Speaker, you have to sit through the gruelling, incisive and informative question period every day. Question period is an opportunity for opposition members to keep the government on its toes.
If not, what are we left with? We might be left with the press, members of the fifth estate, to be the official opposition. I lived as a citizen through something like that. Of course members will think I am talking about some despotic state in an undeveloped part of the world. I am talking about New Brunswick after former Premier McKenna wiped out the opposition parties with a 58 to zero majority.
As a former premier, he has spoken of this. He says that it was the worst nightmare for a premier. It was not that he had 58 colleagues. He may have said that privately and I do not want to quote him. The point was there was no institutional opposition to his government. It is a dangerous thing. He very much took steps to make opposition party leaders, although not having seats, comfortable in the democratic questioning process. He elevated the press to a higher position of knowledge and accountability than it likely was prepared for.
It is not a system that works very well, and these are unicameral situations in our provinces. They do not happen that often. There are usually oppositions in the democratically elected houses of our country. However, it would be a dangerous thing if the Senate were completely abolished. We are here to talk about making it more effective.
If the Senate were completely abolished and there was an overwhelming majority of any party, and we cannot see that in this minority Parliament because it is pretty well balanced, there would not be the institutional opposition or that chance for review and verification of legislation that exists now.
Is the Senate perfect? We can have that debate another day. Is the Senate open to change? Certainly. However, what are we discussing if, at the end of the day, a constitutional amendment is required? Why are we here at all if the government is too timid to meet its provincial homologues, both in terms of intergovernmental affairs and premiers?
Is the Prime Minister in fact afraid to meet other first ministers? Is there a problem that he cannot sit down with his confreres and discuss issues like this because he is afraid of the results?
We saw the Prime Minister attack the Premier of Ontario yesterday. I need to go very far east to say that he has not had collegial relationships with the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. On these issues reflecting Senate reform, at least four provinces have written us as to their opposition to Senate reform without consultation.
The two key issues here are that we need to have consultations with the provinces, in whatever form, to verify what their wants and desires are. This second House was founded for them, for the protection of their rights. We do not have any official word on what the provinces feel. We have letters written after spats that the Prime Minister created and we have the Minister of Democratic Reform going around and getting telephone opinions as to what people in certain provinces want, but it cannot be said that we have the stakeholders' interests in mind.
Finally, there is a huge question of constitutionality. If this matter proceeds to committee, which it likely will, it is very clear to me that we will have to hear from constitutional experts, who may well suggest that it may be necessary for this bill and other bills coming to be referred to a court of competent jurisdiction, whether that is a provincial Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada itself.