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House of Commons Hansard #18 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was provinces.

Topics

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

I thank the hon. member, but I would much rather listen to the hon. member for Hamilton Centre, who has been recognized and who has the floor for the next 11 minutes.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I forget exactly where I was when I left off, which was probably the point of doing that.

I was pointing out that a lot of this partisan pettiness, and that is what it is, exists no matter where one goes, whether one is in the provincial legislature or here. If members are elected to the Senate, we are going to get the same thing. If that is what Canadians want, fair enough, but let us understand that by electing and giving legitimacy to the incredible constitutional powers the Senate has, we create a whole new political dynamic in Canada. This place will function nothing like it does now.

We could look to the Americans as an example of the kind of gridlock there can be between two strong elected houses. They have conference committees where they are forever trying to find compromises so they can actually get something done. We could go there, as complicated as it is, but for less than 35 million people, is it really that practical?

Ontario, Quebec and every other province that had a Senate got rid of it. I believe that our provinces have incredible responsibility under the Constitution. Health care, environment, police services and administration of the courts are just a beginning list of things they are responsible for. They are important matters. The people of all the provinces did not believe they had to elect another tier, find another class of politicians to go into a second place to provide that sober second thought.

The people were quite competent to decide who among them they would send to their provincial capital and make the decisions, and it works. I am quite prepared to be corrected, but I am not aware of a single province where there is a huge clamouring to reinstate the Senate in that province because it cannot trust the people who have been elected directly to the legislature. They may not like them, but then we have a means of taking care of that, do we not? It is called an election, which we do not have in the other place.

This notion that the country needs it as part of its structure I do not think holds. I know there is a concern, particularly among members from smaller provinces, that in the absence of the Senate there would be some kind of a ganging up of the larger provinces. I say this right up front as a member from the province with the largest population in our Confederation. I understand the concern, but as I have said earlier, I am not aware of just how much province protecting is going on in that other place. I am sure I will get examples of senators who have done things for their provinces, but I am talking about the grand scheme of things. Unless we actually walk over there, we do not know what is going on as the Senate does not have TV cameras. My point is that alone is not reason enough to keep the Senate.

What about the notion that because we have such big provinces compared to many smaller ones, without the Senate, no matter what role it is playing directly, somehow that is going to be a real problem for the smaller provinces. Having served municipally, provincially and now federally, I can say that as long as there is representation by population, we are always going to have this.

My good friend, the hon. member for York South—Weston, a former regional chair, would understand better than most what it is like with densely populated areas such as a downtown area and then the more suburban areas that feel they are not being treated fairly because all the attention and money is going downtown where the people are. It is a constant struggle.

I was an alderman, but if a councillor has an area in the ward where there are only a few houses or maybe an area by an industrial sector and most of the money seems to be going toward the development of a new area, a new school, a new recreation centre, people constantly say, “You are only doing it because that is where all the votes are for you. You are ignoring us”. I am not saying it is not a problem; I am saying that it is inherent in representation by population.

At the city level and more appropriately as a comparison at the provincial level, we get past that. We elect premiers in cabinet who are partisans, clearly, but we also expect that for the most part we do not do too badly overall, and I am talking historically, in managing to ensure that everyone has a piece of the pie and gets a share of the interest of the senior level of government. There is no reason we cannot do that. We do that here. We do it in our caucuses.

We have to elect the right kind of parliamentarians. I do not want Hamilton to win at the expense of my neighbour, Burlington. I want Hamilton to win, you bet. It is in large part why I am here, but I care about my neighbours in Burlington. I also recognize there is a self-interest. We cannot be isolated. We are part of a regional economy in southern Ontario, as well as a national economy. So that does not hold, in my opinion.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to focus on the power that senators have, why Canadians ought to care about this, and why it matters. I am going to use a very pedestrian issue compared to the huge issues of the day that we deal with here at the national level.

Not long ago, there was an attempt by this place with a bill passing all the stages at committee and here in the House, to reduce the ability of railways to ignore the noise they make, especially when the trains are idling in neighbourhoods. This was a good thing. It was Parliament responding to issues that affect people where they live. It is not just about the big issues of the day; we have to care about where people live, how they live and the quality of that life.

The House of Commons and the minority Parliament was doing the right thing. The bill went over to the Senate. The Senate changed it. It gave the power back to the railways, not to make as much noise as they want, but to go beyond the language and the restrictions that the House of Commons, the elected people, said that the railways should abide by.

I want to know what senator is from Hamilton and is going to be accountable to the people on Stinson Street, Aberdeen Avenue, Lawrence Road and Allison Crescent, where we have trains that park and idle, people who would have benefited from this House passing that law. What senator is going to answer to my constituents? I do not even know who it is.

I spent 13 years in the Ontario legislature and I never once had a senator call and ask me what I thought about something or what Ontario thought about something. I was in the Ontario cabinet. I never had a senator call and ask me, “What does Ontario think about this?” or “I want to talk to you about this and how it affects Ontario”. No, but that place has the power to make the lives of my constituents who are living beside those railway yards worse.

That is not right. It is not right, when we have taken the time and the effort to improve the quality of life of Canadians and an unelected body, not answerable to anyone, not consulting with anyone, can override that decision. If they are holding public meetings, I would like to know about it. I have never heard of one.

That is not the end of the process. We then start going back and forth with it, which takes me right back to the idea of whether we want that process. If the senators were elected and had that power, they would certainly be democratic, but we have to have this whole big battle over what the final law will look like, rather than just letting the democratic process that serves us so well in this place be the final decision.

If we get a law passed through here and it is signed by the Governor General, it becomes the law of the land. Then we go back to our constituents, and in this minority Parliament we do that a lot, and we knock on those doors and we say, “Yes, sir and yes, ma'am”, and we account for our time here.

In the absence of that, Canada cannot offer up all that we believe Canada is, because when we get out on the international stage, people look at us and say, “But do you not have an appointed upper house?” There is no answer to that. The only real answer is that we are trying to fix it. The way to fix it is to abolish it, or at the very least, have a referendum. If none of that works, we can try reform, but the reality is that it is probably going to fail.

What has the best chance is to have an agreement that we will take what that place is supposed to do in terms of representing provincial interests and have it reflected in this place, and thus not rely on an unelected house.

I look forward to questions and comments.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1 p.m.

Port Moody—Westwood—Port Coquitlam B.C.

Conservative

James Moore ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on this debate today. I appreciate the passion from my colleague from Hamilton and from the NDP on this subject.

I really do disagree with the NDP's position on this issue. I want to talk a bit about some of the merits of Senate elections and the demerits of the NDP position.

I am the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works. As members know, the Minister of Public Works is a senator. One of the benefits of the current system is seen when we have a federal election. In the last federal election, the Conservative Party did not get a member of Parliament elected from downtown Montreal. We have the view that the second largest city in Canada should have somebody sitting at the cabinet table to defend the issues relating to the city of Montreal. We appointed Mr. Fortier as a cabinet minister and Minister of Public Works.

We also decided that there should be a measure of democratic accountability, so he was appointed as well to the Senate, because the Senate has a question period and has an access so that opposition parties can ask him questions directly about his activities as Minister of Public Works.

I suspect the NDP may well condemn what we did in this regard, but my colleague should know that when the NDP was in government in British Columbia, it did the exact same thing. When the NDP was in power, it appointed as minister of aboriginal affairs an individual who had not been elected. The NDP did so because at the time we were just coming out of a debate over the Nisga'a agreement in British Columbia and that party wanted to have an aboriginal cabinet minister at the cabinet table.

We believe that at this time in Canada's history all regions of Canada should be represented at the cabinet table. We also want to make sure that all the diverse regions of Quebec are represented, including Canada's second largest city. This is an important thing. This is a practice that has been done before.

We want to make sure that regions of this country are represented. There are 50 separatists here in the House of Commons who want to rip Quebec from the future of this country and we want to make sure that the province is well respected and well represented at the cabinet table. We have done that. Minister Fortier will be putting himself forward to be a member of the House for the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges in the next election campaign.

I have a question for my colleague. It has not been uncommon for provincial premiers historically to be in favour of abolishing the Senate, because they all have unicameral legislatures so it makes sense for them to say that this should be transitioned federally. The problem, of course, is that historically it is a two party system in most provincial election campaigns so there are majority governments and of course it makes sense to get rid of an upper chamber so there is unfettered support.

However, in our system it does not serve our best interests. I believe that my colleague's constituents in Hamilton would not support the NDP position of abolishing the Senate, given that if it is abolished, the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver alone, those three cities, would have an absolute majority of seats in the House. The regions, the suburban areas, the rural areas and the northern areas in this country would not have the same effective voice that they do now with a balanced system where we have provincial representation and a fair voice in the House of Commons.

There are reasons for the status quo. There are ways to improve it, but I think the NDP approach is thoroughly backward.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the hon. member caring enough to listen and to ask a good question. The answer is that, first of all, there is nothing perfect about democracy. It is the people who decide who comes to this place, not parties, not governments, not any of us. The people decide and it is then up to us to make sure that we give the people, as best we can, a Parliament that works.

Also, if that is the member's only justification for keeping an entire Senate, then I would say there is an easier way to accommodate these kinds of needs. I understand the point the member is making. It is a valid one. What I do not accept is that to me it is the same as the senators saying to look at all the good work they do. That is not the point. The member's point is not the issue. Here is what matters. Would my colleague have an entire Senate with half of our constitutional power residing in that other place just to solve that one issue that does come up from time to time?

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Alan Tonks Liberal York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member on a very eloquent speech and an insightful one with respect to the issue at hand.

I would be interested, in that same vein, to hear the member's response to what I see as an inconsistency between the New Democratic position with respect to the Senate, based on accountability, and its support for proportional representation.

Proportional representation would have a group of members in a legislative assembly who would not have a direct responsibility to any constituency. That is the same argument, to some extent, that the member has been putting forward. I accept that and I am sure the House does, but it seems inconsistent with the position that his party has put forward on proportional representation. I wonder if the member could address that.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is an excellent question and I thank the member for it. My answer to that would be that to the best of my knowledge each of the parties in this place, if we ever did go that way, has confirmed that it would elect anyone on any list within each one's own party.

There would have to be some level of democracy. I doubt that any of us would stand for our party leader unilaterally saying “him, her and him”, who suddenly get seats. There is that accountability back to the party. In large part, that accountability will be reflected by how well the party did in the last election. If it did not do very well, it knows where the weak spots are. The hon. member has been around politics a long, long time. He knows how that would be.

The difference, of course, is that with the Senate, if a person is appointed at 40 years old, he or she has a 35 year term and at no point, none, ever, does he or she account to anyone for that time.

I take the point. It is a valid one, but I do think that the element of democracy still being in there does stand the test of time in terms of a comparison between the “win a lottery for life” sort of thing over there versus still having to go back to somebody in the democratic process, where at the end of the day, the people still decide. If we do not get any votes for our party, nobody will get in there.

That is not case in the other place. It is still a matter of one person in this entire nation, one person in the Prime Minister's Office, who decides who goes into the Senate. Once they are there, they never, ever have to account to anyone about anything.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

There are three minutes left and there are three people rising to ask a question. If I can trust each of you to have half a minute questions, we can have half a minute answers. The hon. member for Ottawa Centre.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar NDP Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I just want to make sure we hold to the same standard for all members here. The government member previous to me gave a little speech a minute ago, but I will be succinct.

When we look at the bill, what we see is that the government is tinkering. At the end of the day, we are asking if this is enough. That is my question for my colleague. Is this enough to actually make the Senate a democratic institution? Is this tinkering enough or should we be doing more?

If this bill and the other bill for Senate reform are all we have, is it enough? Does the hon. member think his constituents will be happy with that or do they need more?

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, my colleague's question is an excellent one. I will answer by saying no, and that is the difficulty, it does not go all the way.

There are two pieces to this. First, is this enough democracy to say in regard to the existence of the Senate that it is okay, we can live with it and at least it is democratic? The answer is no, not by a long shot. One election in eight years is not democratic accountability. I do not know anybody else who has an eight year term that is somehow called accountable and democratic.

The bigger issue, though, is still whether or not the Senate, even if it were fully democratized, and this is far from that, is the structure we want. Do we really want to duplicate the whole process? Do we want to run the risk of gridlock? Do we need two full houses for 35 million people? Is this in the best interests of Canadian governance?

We in the NDP believe it is not.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The hon. member for Western Arctic should know that there are 45 seconds left for both the question and the answer.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington NDP Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, I am not very verbose, but I do tend to use more than 45 seconds.

I want to go back to the point that the hon. Conservative member was making on using senators to fill positions of importance in the cabinet. To my mind, that goes against the principles of this institution. The people who elected members from Montreal were in a--

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The member for Hamilton Centre should know that the clock has run out, but I will allow a short moment to respond.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will not abuse it except to say that the biggest problem with the issue was the government saying one thing before the election and doing something else afterwards. I answered it one way, but there is also that aspect.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

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.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Port Moody—Westwood—Port Coquitlam B.C.

Conservative

James Moore ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and for the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics

Mr. Speaker, what our government has endeavoured to do is put forward non-constitutional but effective reforms regarding the Senate, for example, consultation with the provinces and term limits. We want to limit the Senate term from a maximum of 45 years to 8 years, as this bill proposes to do.

My colleague has said, and I respect my colleague as a good friend, and a number of Liberals have persistently said over the years, they are in favour Senate reform. The Prime Minister joked in the last election campaign that the previous leader of the Liberal Party was not in favour of piecemeal Senate reform and was not prepared to engage in comprehensive Senate reform, but other than that he was all in favour of Senate reform. It has to be one or the other.

The Liberal Party, as my colleague must know, historically supported Meech Lake and Charlottetown, both of which had an elected Senate as part of their mandate.

It has opposed all of our efforts for electing senators. In the province of Alberta, where the new elected senator Bert Brown was just appointed, the Liberals in the province of Alberta and the federal Liberals opposed that Senate election. They did not want to get involved in that process.

Frankly, I am at a loss to understand exactly what the Liberals have in mind in terms of Senate reform. I think if we ask Canadians, they would vote 95 to 5 in favour of the idea of limiting Senate terms from 45 years to 8 years. It seems like a layup. However, I am still at a loss to find out exactly what the position is of the Liberal Party with regard to Senate reform.

In February of next year, my province of British Columbia, the third largest province of Canada, the fastest-growing province, is going to have three Senate vacancies. Half of our Senate delegation will be vacant. I am personally encouraging Premier Campbell to support the idea of electing senators in the province of British Columbia.

What is the Liberal position? Do the Liberals continue to oppose the idea that Alberta should have elected Bert Brown, having an elected senator appointed to the Senate?

When British Columbia has half of our Senate delegation vacated in February of next year, is it the Liberal position that the province of British Columbia should not have Senate elections in order to fill those seats?

Specifically, what is the Liberal position on Senate reform?

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, one thing is very clear, and I think it is important that the member is also aware of it. We are not in favour of abolishing the Senate. As well, we have never threatened the Senate with abolition.

The approach that has been taken by both the Prime Minister and the government concerns me greatly. On one hand they are saying they want reform, but they are also saying they might also abolish it at the end. I think that is a wrong way of approaching the issue. I think we need an approach that builds on consensus, that in fact engages our provinces, engages our population, and then we can move forward.

The government is coming out from the very beginning saying that it is not happy with the Senate, as though somehow it is the Senate's fault that the composition is the way it is. It is in fact a constitutional issue. The senators have a role to play, but so do we have a role to play. I do not think we should be getting all the blame for the way the nature of the composition of the Senate is at the very moment.

The approach has to be one of collaboration, cooperation, and engagement, specifically with our provincial partners. By approaching it in that constructive way, I think we can get a lot further.

This is a very important institution in Canada. If we are going to mess around with it, if we are going to in fact alter and change it, then we need to do in a respectful way, not in a threatening way, saying basically, “Do it or we are going to abolish you”. I am totally opposed to that approach, and I think most members of my caucus are also opposed to that approach.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:20 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I also find it odd to hear the Liberals talking about Senate reform and problems with the Senate. But before speaking about Senate reform, which, by the way, should be discussed as part of a constitutional negotiation including all the provinces—which is the point the Bloc Québécois is bringing up today—there is one thing that all the members in this House could do: stand up to non-elected Senators when they go against the opinion of this House.

I will give an example of something that affected me in particular: the transport bill passed last session. I worked very hard and encouraged the members of the Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities to make amendments that strengthened the bill, in order to better protect our citizens against noise, vibrations and disruptions cause by trains travelling through our communities.

We held hearings during which people spoke about their particular situation and the difficulties they face. All the members of the committee unanimously reached a compromise to strengthen the bill, to be able to have real control over the railway companies. That was already a compromise. The Bloc Québécois members and I would have liked to have gone further, but we agreed unanimously.

The other place also held committee hearings, but exclusively with railway companies, without inviting those affected by this kind of problem, the people living near the railways. The Senate committee rejected every amendment unanimously adopted by the committee of this House. It rejected these amendments unanimously and returned them to this House.

As members of Parliament, we could have said that we are the elected representatives of the people and, as such, did not accept that these amendments could be rejected; and then, we could have sent them back to the Senate. No constitutional reform was required for that. No government bill was required for that. All we needed to do was to stand on our hind legs.

The Liberals failed to do so, and the Conservatives did the same. Both these parties grovelled to unelected senators. Here they are today talking to us about Senate reform and democracy.

Basically, the real solution is first and foremost to have real, honest to God members of Parliament who really represent their constituents, stand up to the senators and never yield on principles. Our democracy would be better served already if we took that approach.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for his question.

The reality here in Canada is that we have always had two houses. We have to respect the fact that these two houses make up our country's Parliament. The Senate is an institution that plays an important role in our democracy and in our democratic system.

My colleague's question was about Senate reform. I am in favour of it. After all, we can change our system, but we cannot abolish the Senate. I am against abolishing the Senate because it plays a very important role in our country. Canada has always had two houses, both of them important, in its parliamentary system. I still support that system.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar NDP Ottawa Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to the member's comments on the Senate and I am not clear where the party stands on the bill. What would he say to the position of the Ontario government, in particular the Liberal premier of Ontario? They are on the record that their position presently, unless it has changed recently, is the abolition of the Senate.

Has the member had conversations with the premier of Ontario, or for that matter his brother who sits close to him, about this issue? At the end of the day, if this does not work, if the real reform that is necessary is not limits of eight years but limits of zero years, does he agree with the Ontario government and the Liberal premier of Ontario that abolition of the Senate is the way to go?

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have been quite clear in my remarks that I do not believe in the abolition of the Senate. It is a very important institution that has served Canada well, but it needs reform.

I do not want to speak for the hon. member or for the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty. My understanding is the premier stated that abolition should be only the last stage if the solution is election. I think he probably prefers to maintain the system as it is.

However, I am stating quite clearly that the Senate is important. I do not support the NDP position of abolition of the Senate. If a poll were done, I believe most Canadians would oppose the abolition of the Senate. I think they would understand that there is a need for an upper House, for the Senate to be part of the parliamentary system of our country.

Constitution Act, 2007 (Senate tenure)Government Orders

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

It being 1:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

The House resumed from October 29 consideration of Bill C-284, An Act to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act (Canada access grants), as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of the motions in Group No. 1.

Canada Student Financial Assistance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

Daryl Kramp Conservative Prince Edward—Hastings, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am thankful today for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-284. The bill would alter the administration of the government access grants program. I thank the hon. member for Halifax West for proposing the bill. It gives me the opportunity to discuss what the government has done for students. Ours is a record that is worth discussing.

Let me first say that this government recognizes that access to higher education is critical to Canada's economic success and the continued social development of all Canadians. That is why the government has acted to increase funding to the provinces for post-secondary education after a decade of Liberal cuts and inaction.

In fact, it was this government that followed through on its commitment to post-secondary education with a 40% increase in the Canada social transfer, which includes more than $800 million for post-secondary education. Our commitments are followed by action and this is our record.

On the other hand, we have the actions of the previous government, a government that talked a big game about supporting students, about expanding access to post-secondary education, yet it was the previous government that cut $25 billion from the Canada social transfer. That is the sad Liberal record.

The Liberals lacked a comprehensive vision for post-secondary education. They came in with a hodgepodge of proposals on which they never followed through. Under their watch, tuitions skyrocketed, infrastructure crumbled and attendance rates stagnated. Universities were underfunded. Year after year the capacity for universities to take in new students was stretched to the breaking point. That is the Liberal record.

How do they now expect Canadians, and especially students, to believe that they are looking after their best interests. Canadians and students certainly know better.

Canadians do know that it was the present government that has already begun acting to ensure that Canada has the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world. We have done this by implementing a knowledge Canada, which is part of our “Advantage Canada” plan.

Direct support to students, parents and post-secondary institutions is just one of the ways the government will bring about a knowledge advantage. That is why the government has invested over $8.4 billion this fiscal year alone to support post-secondary education through transfers, direct spending and tax measures.

It is why we are providing $1 billion to provincial and territorial governments through the infrastructure trust fund to rebuild and to renovate campuses across the country. It is why we have committed substantial tax relief to help students and parents with the cost of text books. It is why we have exempted scholarships and bursaries from income tax. It is why we committed $35 million over two years as well to expand the Canada graduate scholarship program.

We also recognize that not all parents are able to contribute to the cost of their children's education so the government has cut the amount that parents are expected to contribute to their children's higher education because ability to pay cannot be barrier to access.

This is our record and it is one that stands and head and shoulders above the record of Liberal cuts and inaction.

Many in the House might also be aware that there is currently an extensive review of the Canada student loan program being held and that online consultations for the review have just concluded. I for one look forward to the results of the review being announced in the coming months. For the government, consultations actually mean something.

Unlike my colleagues across the way, with all respect, the government likes to seek the input of the people and groups feeling the effects of the proposed changes. For example, if the sponsor of the bill had consulted with the provinces, which are responsible for administering the program, he would have found that not a single province in the country has supported his bill. In fact, they all oppose it. They have said that they are in no position to administer such an expanded program for the foreseeable future. Therefore, why does my hon. colleague want to pass a bill that the provinces do not want and cannot implement? Is this his idea of how a new program should run?

If my hon. colleague had listened to the provinces that administer programs of their own, most notably Quebec and the territories, he would have found out that the proposals in his bill would strip millions of dollars away from them.

Unlike the previous government, this government cannot support a bill that strips millions of dollars away from post-secondary education.

I understand the problems with this bill were discussed extensively in committee. My colleagues on the human resources committee exposed the fact that instead of providing money for education, this bill would strip it away. It exposed the fact as well that not a single province has come forward in support of this bill. It discussed the fact that the provinces have said that they cannot implement the proposals in this bill, which is why this bill was brought back gutted.

I want to thank the Bloc in this particular case for its help in killing a bad bill. I say again that I find it surprising to see the member for Halifax West trying to resurrect it now, knowing full well all the problems that it would create.

This government aspires to do better for its students. We want to ensure that every person who wants to obtain higher education has the ability to do so and that the cost will never be a barrier. The record of this government is working toward those goals.

I want to thank the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, the Minister of Finance and our Prime Minister for their continued hard work on these important issues.

Unfortunately, this bill just does not inspire me for better. Like so many other bills being proposed by the official opposition, this bill is fatally flawed and there are many reasons why we cannot and will not support it.

From the outset, this bill was poorly conceived and poorly drafted. The provinces were not consulted and they have said that they cannot implement the proposals contained in it.

I would like to thank the Bloc members again for finally listening to the government, which has been warning about how this bill would hurt Quebec. I thank them for listening to how millions would be ripped from the education purse of that province if this bill were to pass. I thank them for voting against this flawed bill because they would have a rough time explaining it to constituents.

I do not know how the sponsor of this bill has explained this program to his few remaining Quebec colleagues but I am sure they will have a rough time explaining this program, a program that would do nothing to improve access, rip millions from their province and hand it to their constituents.

Canada Student Financial Assistance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:35 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, before discussing the content of the bill, I want to say how pleased I was when my Conservative Party colleague thanked us for doing our work in committee.

Members of the Bloc Québécois always take our work very seriously and do a thorough job. However, I would point out somewhat ironically that his colleagues from Quebec have not been saying the same thing when they express themselves in French. Our colleague just said that the Bloc was very helpful in amending the bill and ridding it of all substance. Yet his colleagues, when speaking in French, say that the Bloc Québécois is useless. The members of the Conservative Party should come to some agreement on that.

The truth is that the Bloc is constantly working to defend Quebec's interests. When the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are right, we support them. However, when something is not in Quebec's best interest, we have no problem going it alone if we have to. Therefore I take that as a real compliment concerning the Bloc Québécois' usefulness.

The genesis of this bill is precisely an intrusion, once again, into the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces. For the Bloc Québécois, the original grants program ensured the right to opt out with full financial compensation, for Quebec and any provinces that wanted to do so. We were prepared to examine the terms of this bill in committee, provided, of course, that we maintained this right to opt out will full compensation.

Now, the Liberals' schemes in committee and the amendments made to parliamentary procedure meant that, in the end, we were overburdened by the legislative provisions that would allow this opting out with full financial compensation for Quebec. Clearly, we could no longer support this bill as soon as it became a program imposed by the federal government, when the provinces could no longer withdraw that money and use it according to their own needs.

In Quebec, we have a grants and bursaries program that is quite different from programs found elsewhere. It is unique in Canada. Among other things, it is based on need and on a range of criteria. The program is very generous and produces good results. We therefore do not need another similar grants program, but rather more financial resources to improve the existing system.

In light of this, we could not support this bill and we, along with the Conservatives, tried to throw out the entire bill. The motion in amendment before us today is meant precisely to bring it all back to the House. It was not acceptable to the Bloc Québécois in committee and it is still unacceptable to us here in the House.

It is surprising to see yet again the Liberal obsession with interfering in the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces. Honestly, I have asked myself why, again today, are we debating this issue in the House of Commons, a federal chamber that does not have any constitutional jurisdiction over education? Why do the Liberals still think that “Ottawa knows best” and why do they want to establish a wall to wall Canada-wide program in education? This is unacceptable.

If the hon. member who tabled this bill thought there were improvements to be made to the student loan program in his province, I respectfully submit that he should have run in a provincial election, gotten elected and worked on passing such legislation in his province. Nonetheless, it is certainly not the role of the federal government to do so.

Moreover, even though our discussions in this House revolve more and more frequently around interference in provincial jurisdictions, yet the federal government is not even capable of handling all of its own constitutional duties and responsibilities. If everything were going well in the federal government's jurisdictions and it had nothing better to do, then perhaps it could take care of provincial matters, but that is not the case.

I would like to raise a few points that still have not been resolved and are the responsibility of this House. Earlier today I was talking about the issue of regulating train noise. CN is a federally-chartered company that historically has been a responsibility of the federal government. Furthermore, legislation on transportation is a federal jurisdiction.

Amendments were made in this House and in committee to give the Canada Transportation Act more teeth and to protect our communities from the excessive noise caused by transportation companies, including CN. I am talking about CN because it relates to my riding. This issue was sent to the Senate, which studied it and only called as witnesses people from railway companies who told us we did not need these changes. In the end, the Liberal and Conservative members pathetically caved in to the senators and passed the Senate amendments that consisted essentially in going back to the original version, destroying in a single stroke all our amendments and all the work we had done.

We now find ourselves in an odd situation. The Conservatives argued that they did not have the time to return the bill to the Senate, even though the latter was saying that, if we persisted, they would give in. It said in its own discussions that it did not have the time to look after that. Why do we always have the time, in this chamber, at least in the case of the federalist parties, to interfere in areas of provincial jurisdiction? But when the time comes to look at a real issue that truly has to do with federal jurisdiction, it is not important enough and there are other things going on? There is something wrong here and it is a real problem with Canadian federalism.

This could also apply to the situation of aboriginals in Canada. We frequently see in the news and media reports, or if we have the opportunity to visit Indian reserves, the difficult conditions in which these individuals live. We see that the federal government is moving at a snail's pace, that no progress is made, that it hesitates, doubles back and looks after a lot of other things whereas that is clearly a responsibility within its jurisdiction. If it would at least look after that issue first.

This is also the case for international trade. Companies are waiting for the federal government to intervene, to defend them, to stand up for them and to ensure that international agreements and the decisions of the Canadian International Trade Tribunal are upheld. It does not have the time for that, it is not glamorous enough for federalist members. However, they always find the time to meddle in education when that is not at all their job.

I would like to conclude by giving another example of the fiscal imbalance, which still has not been corrected. Why has it not been corrected? What is the best proof that it still exists? The government is still able to spend money in provincial jurisdictions. Is the fact that the federal government has to spend money in the provinces' jurisdictions not the best illustration that it has too much money for its own jurisdictions and responsibilities?

If the government really wanted to correct the fiscal imbalance, it would transfer a portion of the tax base, such as the GST, from Ottawa to Quebec and the provinces. This would give Ottawa and the provinces the resources they need to look after their jurisdictions. We would have all the time we need to address the issues that come under our jurisdiction. Perhaps we would have a federation that worked better and there would be people in the provinces to look after health and education. We could look after aboriginal peoples, noise caused by trains, international trade and foreign affairs, as provided for in the Constitution.

It is slightly ironic that only the Bloc Québécois is calling for compliance with the Constitution.

Canada Student Financial Assistance ActPrivate Members' Business

1:45 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin with a comment directed to my Bloc colleague. He should know that, despite his comments that this bill interferes in an area under provincial jurisdiction, his colleague on the committee was prepared to support the bill, until departmental staff made it clear that it would have negative effects. I will discuss that later on.

I would add that financial aid for students does fall under federal jurisdiction even though we agree that education is a provincial responsibility. We have to respect that.

Since this bill comes back empty, today's debate allows me to speak to the NDP's approach to students' financial assistance, which differs significantly from other national parties.

We believe that post-secondary education is a public good and that is the key to Canada's social and economic future. It is through education that we will ensure a cohesive, peaceful and high functioning civil society and it is through education that Canadians will be able to compete in a globalized knowledge economy.

However, to meet those two objectives, we need an effective system of financial assistance for students that ensures equitable access for Canadians from every province and territory.

In our society, it is vitally important for every person capable of post-secondary education to be there and to finish. Ireland is a good example of a country that has recognized the principle of equitable access for everyone. Ten years ago, it decided to abolish undergraduate fees resulting in dramatic increases in post-secondary enrolment and retention rates and a booming economy.

This idea is the precise opposite of the Liberal-Conservative approach which was best defined perhaps in the Bob Rae report that advocated keeping tuitions high and helping only the most needy with a token handout. Half a year's tuition for only the first year and for only the lowest income students would be laughable if it were not so appallingly inadequate.

For years, the NDP has argued for a national system of needs based grants to replace our inefficient and inadequate patchwork of student assistance. Such a grants system would tackle Canada's crisis of student debt for all students from low and middle income families in every year of study. This is what is missing now. It would be complemented with an adequate core funding to the provinces so that soaring student debt could be brought back to earth and everyday families could once again afford higher education for their children without the fear of overwhelming debt. It would ease the tremendous burden on Canada's broken down student loans system and enable fixes to make loans more flexible and responsive to students' needs and circumstances.

I believe that Bill C-284 could have been a tiny step in that direction. Unfortunately, it was fatally flawed, as I suggested earlier. It became clear to committee members that for technical reasons, Bill C-284 would exclude students from Quebec, thereby depriving them of $5.4 million in subsidies. That is unfortunate, because after 15 years, the Liberal Party had finally decided to give students up-front money for each year of study, not just the first year.

The bill was a lot better than the Liberal promise to pay half of students' tuition fees for the first and last years of study. That would have meant $600 million for children of millionaires as well as children from low and middle income families. Fortunately, the Liberals changed course with this bill, in which they proposed giving up-front funds to students in need.

That said, Bill C-284 has the same flaws as does the current Canada access grants program. First, the bill excludes middle-income families by making those whose gross income exceeds $36,000 ineligible. Second, it is based on income, rather than on a needs assessment. Third, it excludes adult students who go back to school after more than four years out of school. Finally, it does not target the specific needs of aboriginal students or of students living in rural areas.

Yet, by providing unconditional grants for all years of study, this bill would have helped keep students in school, while also dealing with the growing student debt crisis.

Unfortunately, the delay in Liberal action after a decade of funding cuts has left us to deal with a Conservative government that sees tax cuts as the solution to all problems.

The Conservative government is like some kind of free market cyborg that reduces everything into economic terms. When those members look at a university campus, they see student widgets that need to be moulded to fit into the cogs of the economy.

The Conservatives have delayed replacing the expiring millennium foundation with a real public system of upfront federal student grants. Their most recent reports on the millennium fund reveal the flaws in the old Liberal piecemeal approach to student aid. The seemingly preordained Conservative conclusions reflect an ideological bias toward more loans to students instead of non-repayable grants.

The fundamental problem with this bias toward student loans is that it creates two classes of students in Canada: one class that can afford to pay upfront the soaring student fees and other education costs; and, a second class who are forced to borrow and therefore end up paying substantially more for their education through loan interest. To make matters worse, interest rates charged on student loans are crushingly high.

Not only do we charge low and middle income students more for their education than we do wealthy families, but the federal government actually makes $300 million a year on those student borrowers. That is a shame.

In a petition I have been collecting from across Canada to fix student aid, students and their families are calling on the minister to go beyond mere administrative fixes of the Canada student loan program. They are calling for a comprehensive change to the student aid system.

In addition to a single grant system, they want a reduction in the federal student loan interest rate, a student loan ombudsperson to ensure that students are treated with fairness and respect, and better relief programs during repayment of student loans for those in financial hardship.

A few months ago, the Liberals offered a partial fix to this problem through Bill C-284. This would have helped to catch up to the needs and realities of today's students. It was regrettable to discover from a departmental legal expert that the bill was flawed beyond repair from the outset. In its current form, the bill would strip $5.4 million in grants from Quebec students. That is unacceptable by any measure.

I will end by appealing to Canada's students who are listening today, or their families, to stand up and join our campaign for a comprehensive student aid system that includes upfront student grants. Students need and deserve a public system of upfront student grants that ensures equitable access for everyone.

I urge Canada's student leaders to be bold and to demand nothing less from the government, from the NDP and any other national party.