moved that Bill C-43, An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to open the debate on Bill C-43, the Senate Appointment Consultations Act, which is important legislation to make Canada's democratic institutions better. It also represents another step in the positive reform of the Senate undertaken by this government.
This bill follows through on the promise made to the people of Canada in the Speech from the Throne to “explore means to ensure that the Senate better reflects both the democratic values of Canadians and the needs of Canada's regions”. More importantly, this bill strengthens the pillars of our proud Canadian democracy. Bill C-43 not only strengthens but also revitalizes and modernizes some of our traditional Canadian values. What I am talking about, of course, is what Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker called the “legacy of freedom” cherished by all Canadians.
In 1960, Prime Minister Diefenbaker's definition of Canadian values included the right to “be free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, and free to choose those who shall govern my country”.
The right to choose who will govern our country or the right to vote is perhaps our most precious and fundamental right, something that has been in our thoughts this week as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We on this side of the House are proud and honoured to be part of a Conservative parliamentary tradition of expanding rights to Canadians, including particularly the right to vote.
It was Sir Robert Borden's wartime government that first extended the right to vote to women who had close relatives in the armed forces through the Military Voters Act of 1917.
At the dawn of 1919 all women were enfranchised with the enactment of the Act to Confer Electoral Franchise Upon Women, again by Borden's Conservative government.
Likewise, in 1960 Prime Minister Diefenbaker put an end to what he rightly considered an unfair law that forced native people to choose between their right to vote and their treaty rights. Giving aboriginal people the right that was granted to them at Confederation was an ideal to which Prime Minister Diefenbaker had long been dedicated. He noted this in his memoirs:
I felt it was so unjust that they didn't have the vote.I brought it about as soon as I could after becoming prime minister.
Diefenbaker's government granted status Indians the right to vote, without having to give up their treaty rights on March 10, 1960, thus eliminating once and for all voting rights restrictions based on race or religion in Canada.
Our government is following the course charted by our predecessors in Parliament and strengthening the voice of the Canadian people in the Senate, one of our most valuable institutions. We had told Canadians that our government would be mobilizing and democratizing the Senate so that they could have a say in the appointment of their senators. It is time that all Canadians be allowed to exercise the most fundamental right in any democracy, namely the right to vote, in the selection of those who will represent them as senators.
As soon as it took office, our government undertook, as promised, a process to strengthen democracy.
The first legislation passed in this Parliament was the government Bill C-4 that created a review of party registration rules, and just before Christmas, we finally secured passage of the Federal Accountability Act. From a democratic reform perspective, the act reduced the influence of big money in election campaigns and imposed new donation limits and disclosure requirements on those who seek public office.
We have, again with the support of our colleagues in the opposition, passed legislation in the Commons to establish fixed dates for general elections, that is, every four years in October.
Just like the bill we are discussing today, Bill C-16 represents a meaningful improvement to the democratic landscape without requiring a constitutional amendment. Ironically, the Liberal Senate has blocked it from becoming law by amending it at the last minute. We will be asking the Senate to remove that inappropriate amendment so that fixed dates for elections can become law.
Bill C-31 will enhance the integrity of the electoral process. It is currently awaiting approval in the Senate and we would like to see it passed as soon as possible, so that it can be put in place for the next general election.
As we know, citizen involvement is fundamental to any democratic institution. Unfortunately, Canadians have had no involvement in the selection of their senators.
There is one exception. In 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Stan Waters to the Senate after he was selected in a Senate election sponsored by the province of Alberta.
This week, the Prime Minister told us another exception is coming, with his intent to appoint Bert Brown to the Senate, also chosen by Albertans in a vote to represent them.
These are the harbingers of change and the democratization that will be made a permanent fixture in our Canadian democracy, allowing Canadians a say in who will represent them in the Senate, strengthening our Canadian democracy.
Bill C-43 moves to make this happen by immediately involving Canadians in the process.
This bill will enable the government to consult Canadians about the people who will be representing them in the Senate. It is also an important step in the evolution and modernization of a great Canadian institution.
Furthermore, this bill recognizes that citizens—not political friends or big donors—are in the best position to advise the Prime Minister about the people who should speak on their behalf in their institutions. We know that Canadians think it is time to act on this idea.
Bill C-43 will do more than enable Canadians to have their say about the representatives who will be making decisions on their behalf here in Ottawa. It also guarantees that those representatives will be accountable for the decisions they make.
Consulting the Canadian public on Senate appointments will help to boost the Senate's legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians by transforming it into a more modern, more democratic, and more accountable institution that reflects the core values of Canadians.
Senate reform has been something of a national preoccupation for more than a century now, consuming a great deal of time, energy, effort and attention, almost since Confederation in fact.
Well-meaning and reasonable proposals to improve the Senate have sadly become bound up in the broader national pursuit of omnibus constitutional reform, and those efforts to modernize the Senate came to naught.
Ultimately, of course, we know that fundamental reform of the Senate will require complex, lengthy and multilateral constitutional change. There does not exist, sadly, at present, the national consensus or will required to engage in the inevitably long and potentially contentious rounds of negotiations that would be involved.
Some people say that it would be best to do nothing. They just want to shrug their shoulders and say they cannot do what must be done. That is exactly what the Leader of the Opposition did this week. Others prefer to close their eyes and wait until some other time when all of the issues concerning the Senate can be resolved at once.
That is not what the government thinks, nor is it what Canadians think. We believe that Canadians expect more from their national institutions and their government. In fact, that is what they have told us. They know that some Senate reforms are within our grasp, and they want us to act.
There are, of course, other elements of a reformed Senate that will have to wait for another day, most notably redressing the inequalities of provincial representation. However, our step-wise approach will lay the groundwork for a strong foundation for any future change.
I am pleased to note that during the consultations of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform last fall, leading constitutional scholars agreed with the government's interpretation that the approach taken in Bill C-43 is legally valid without a constitutional amendment.
Speaking of that Senate special committee, I would like to use the example of another piece of legislation, Bill S-4, as clear evidence that Canadians need and deserve an upper chamber that is more democratic and more accountable to them.
Bill S-4 is legislation that proposes to limit Senate terms to eight years. Bill S-4 was introduced in the Liberal dominated Senate for consideration on May 30, 2006.
Last spring the upper chamber struck a Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform to examine the subject matter of Bill S-4. The committee held exhaustive hearings with witnesses, including the Prime Minister, ministers from several provinces and constitutional experts. In October of last year it reported its findings, which supported the government's approach.
Let me emphasize the point that the special Senate committee with its Liberal Party majority, in its report, endorsed the government's incremental approach to Senate reform. It went so far as to pronounce itself hopeful that the government would continue the momentum of reform it began with Bill S-4.
Paradoxically, however, Liberal members of the Senate brought the momentum of reform, so admired by the committee, to a screeching tortuous halt. Bill S-4 is now the subject of a second round of hearings by a Senate standing committee, a committee that is essentially duplicating the efforts of the special committee.
Despite the endorsement of the special Senate committee, Bill S-4 languishes in the upper chamber still, an astounding 325 days after its introduction.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the Liberal Party leader says he supports term limits for senators. He even bravely declared months ago that he would get the Liberal senators to finally deal with the bill. According to the Canadian Press, Dion's decision “Breaks an impasse in the Senate”. Despite his bold declarations, he could not get it done. More Liberal senators continue to obstruct and delay the Senate term limits bill.
A national institution that is truly accountable to the people would not engage in this political muscle flexing for almost a full year so far. An institution that is truly responsive to the people it purports to serve would not employ these recalcitrant procedural manoeuvres for the sole purpose of frustrating the government's agenda, an agenda endorsed by Canadians.
I would like to take this opportunity to once again implore members of the official opposition to urge their colleagues in the Senate to stop playing games, stop resisting constructive change, and get on with the job that Canadians expect and want them to do.
The government rejects the tactics employed by some senators and is taking action to respond to the wishes of Canadians on the subject of Senate reform.
In conclusion, Bill C-43, the Senate appointment consultations act, will strengthen and revitalize the very values that define us as Canadians, values such as democracy and accountability in government.
Indeed, it extends to Canadians the most fundamental right of all, the right to vote, by advancing the principle that Canadians should have a say in who speaks for them in the Senate.
The government believes Canadians should have that right. Bill C-43 not only allows Canadians to indicate who they would like to represent them, it ensures that the people they select are required to account for their actions. In fact, the bill proposes rigorous standards of accountability for nominees, similar to the ones Parliament has put in place for the Commons through the Federal Accountability Act's amendments to the Canada Elections Act.
Bill C-43 is a realistic and achievable Senate modernization measure. It will not have to go through official constitutional amendment procedures. This is not a bill to amend the Constitution, and there is nothing in it that requires a constitutional revision. That is the government's position.
Rather, this is an important step that is part of a gradual approach. The ultimate goal is to bring the Senate into line with the democratic values of Canadians. We need to strengthen democracy. The act to provide for consultations concerning Senate appointments lays the foundation for future changes that will transform Canada's Senate from a 19th century institution into one fit for the 21st century.