Mr. Speaker, taking part in this debate on Bill C-43, is a little like going to the dentist. Personally, it is the last thing I want to be doing, but what can I say, sometimes we need to go to the dentist. However, we never need to go to the tooth puller.
I truly think the bill before us is of absolute no relevance. It addresses a very secondary matter to the detriment of more pressing priorities than the proposed reform, and that the Conservative government should be concerned about.
Bill C-43 provides for the consultation of electors in a province with respect to their preferences for the appointment of senators to represent the province.
Part 1 provides for the administration of a consultation, which is exercised under the general direction and supervision of the Chief Electoral Officer.
Part 2 provides for the holding of a consultation, initiated by an order of the governor in council.
Part 3 provides for a process whereby prospective nominees may confirm their nominations with the Chief Electoral Officer.
Part 4 addresses voting by electors in a consultation.
Part 5 sets out the rules for the counting of votes pursuant to a preferential system, which takes into account the first and subsequent preferences of electors as indicated on their ballots.
Parts 6 and 7 deal with communications and third party advertising in relation to consultations.
Part 8 addresses financial administration by nominees.
Part 9 provides for the enforcement of the enactment, including the establishment of offences and punishments for contraventions of certain provisions.
Part 10 contains transitional provisions, consequential amendments to the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act, coordinating amendments and commencement provisions.
As I mentioned from the outset, the bill is irrelevant. First, it is quite clear to us that the government, the House of Commons, cannot unilaterally change the Senate without the Constitution being changed. Since the Constitution is a federal constitution, all the stakeholders, in other words, all the provinces, Quebec, the federal government, the parliaments of these different jurisdictions, have to take part in the reform process.
As I said at the beginning, we do not think this bill is appropriate because what we really need is something that includes a review of the Constitution. In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada studied Parliament's ability to unilaterally amend the constitutional provisions concerning the Senate and, in a 1980 decision concerning Parliament's jurisdiction over the upper chamber, decided Parliament could not unilaterally make decisions about major changes to the essential character of the Senate.
It is likely this legislation will encounter opposition from the provinces, including Quebec. Quebec is not the only province that does not support this government's approach in tabling this bill. The government is heading down a path that leads to the reform of an institution whose relevance is in doubt. Even so, the proposed reform is a minor one.
Do they seriously think that a constitutional negotiation process—which would be necessary, as I said—makes sense right now when the government and Parliament should focus their attention on far more important issues? Just consider reintegrating Quebec into the Constitution that Pierre Elliott Trudeau unilaterally patriated.
All of Quebec's governments, regardless of whether they were Liberal or Parti Québécois, have refused to sign the Constitution as it was patriated in the early 1980s. I would note that there is a three-party consensus on this in the National Assembly among the Liberal Party of Quebec, the Parti Québécois and the Action Démocratique du Québéc.
It is clear to us that neither the powers of the Senate, nor the senator selection method, nor the number of senators for each province, nor the residency requirements for senators can be changed without going through the usual amendment procedure set out in section 38 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which requires the consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of at least two thirds of the provinces, that is, seven provinces, making up at least 50% of Canada's population.
This is the famous 7/50 formula.
We can see that this bill is irrelevant and could even be harmful, setting in motion a round of constitutional negotiations on a relatively minor issue, as I said. On September 21, 2006, Quebec's intergovernmental affairs minister, Benoît Pelletier—who was recently reappointed—testified before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, where he stated:
—from the Quebec government perspective, clearly any future transformation of the Senate into an elected chamber would be an issue that should be dealt with through constitutional negotiations and not simply through unilateral federal action.
If the Senate becomes a chamber of elected representatives, its original purpose would be changed. Whether this is achieved directly or indirectly, it becomes an extremely important change which must be debated within the framework of constitutional discussions.
So as I mentioned, Quebec's intergovernmental affairs minister, Benoît Pelletier, simply reiterated Quebec's traditional position to the senate committee by saying two things: first, that the federal government cannot reform the Senate unilaterally, and second, that the federal government cannot achieve indirectly what it cannot achieve directly. Clearly, introducing this bill is a way of doing indirectly what the government does not want to do directly.
As I said earlier, Quebec is not alone in its opposition to electing senators. The premiers of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have called on the government to abolish the Senate instead of trying to reform it. Even the premier of Ontario has expressed serious doubts, saying that electing senators would exacerbate inequalities, under the Senate's current mandate.
Electing senators indirectly would change the relationship between the House of Commons and the Senate and create confusion. I will come back to this. These changes cannot be made unilaterally without the consent of Quebec and the provinces, as Quebec is now recognized as a nation by the House of Commons. Everyone will appreciate that such a reform would be most unwelcome and would not be in keeping with the spirit of either the Constitution or what has been passed in this House.
I said that the first reason this bill is irrelevant is that it will inevitably lead to a round of constitutional negotiations, which do not make a great deal of sense, whether they concern the Senate or just the election of senators. Therefore, once again, if the government goes ahead, it will come up against this constitutional problem.
The second thing that, to me, makes this bill irrelevant, is that, even reformed by Bill C-43, the Senate is still an useless institution. Originally, the Senate was supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought. It was also supposed to protect regional interests. But when we look at the current makeup of the Senate, we see that the appointments were clearly partisan, which has distorted the nature or mandate of the Senate.
Introducing the election of senators will not resolve the issue, because senators will sooner or later have to affiliate themselves with a political party in order to have the necessary resources for the elections. So the Senate will become more partisan and we will depart even further from its original purpose, which, in my opinion, is no longer relevant in the 21st century.
As I was saying, the indirect election of senators would not improve this situation. On the contrary, the electoral process will tend to increase the role of political parties and indirectly elected senators could become concerned with things that now fall under the authority of the House of Commons. This would create a duplication, or, at the very least, confusion, at a cost of $77 million a year. We think this is an extremely high cost for an institution that is not only useless, but that , in the case of the proposed reform, would create confusion and a significant duplication of legitimacy.
It is important to note that because of the evolution of the democratic process in Canada, in the provinces and in Quebec, no province has had an upper house since 1968.
It is interesting to note that members of several provincial upper houses—unlike the Senate of Canada—once had to earn their election, for example, Prince Edward Island. Such upper houses have disappeared over the years, however. Quebec abolished its legislative council in 1968. That was nearly 40 years ago.
Furthermore, I feel it is important to point out another factor. Bill C-43 is irrelevant. Despite the amendments proposed by the bill, the Senate would not be truly democratic. The indirect election by Canadians would give the Senate a superficial democratic credibility. In many respects, the Senate would remain a democratic aberration.
First of all, public consultation is not binding. The bill provides for public consultation, but does not talk about an election, per se, in order to select senators. The Prime Minister maintains the authority to appoint or not appoint the senators chosen by the public and could therefore decide not to appoint a candidate selected in the election process. In one of the background papers provided by the government concerning this bill, it states:
The Prime Minister can take into account the results of the consultation when making recommendations to the Governor General regarding future representatives of a province or territory in the Senate.
Furthermore, how can we trust this Prime Minister, who did not hesitate to appoint Michael Fortier to the Senate, even though he himself criticized the Liberals' partisan appointments? We therefore see that this new Conservative government—which is no longer new, since it has been in power for 15 or 16 months—simply copied the Liberal method of appointing senators.
Also, I recall very well that, during the election campaign, the Prime Minister promised to appoint only elected members to the cabinet. With that Senate appointment, he broke the promise he had made to voters during the campaign. During the next election, voters will be able to judge for themselves how well the Conservatives can keep their promises.
One more factor is very worrisome. Voters will not be represented equally in the Senate. For instance, in the case of Prince Edward Island, one senator will represent some 27,000 voters, while in other areas of Canada—particularly in Quebec—that proportion will be much higher.
There will be virtually no way to remove senators.
The bill provides for the consultation of the population for the appointment of senators, although it is not binding, as we have just seen. They will be appointed for one term. I realize that some say that the bill provides for a maximum term of eight years for senators, which could solve the problem. But it seems to me that presenting oneself to the electorate only once in eight years is far from a guarantee that these so-called “elected” senators will reflect the concerns of citizens of Quebec or Canada.
In addition, the Senate is an institution that was created a very long time ago, and I find it ridiculous that certain restrictions on presenting oneself as a candidate for the position of senator have been retained. At present, you must be at least 30 years old and own real property worth at least $4,000 in the province and the riding that the individual is appointed to represent. Hence, all those under 30 are excluded. I find that very discriminatory. The rule about assets penalizes a part of our population that might seek to be candidates for such elections. This additional factor demonstrates that the proposal before us does not address the root cause of the problem and that it even seeks to rehabilitate an institution that has lost credibility in the eyes of a good number of Canadians and Quebeckers.
Indirectly, the elected Senate would even undermine the parliamentary system. I will come back to that. As you know, in the British parliamentary system, the executive defends the confidence conferred on it by the House of Commons, which is also elected. Thus, the election of the Senate alone would undermine the preeminence of the House of Commons and would create confusion. The election of two Houses would complicate the issue of preponderance and consequently would weaken the parliamentary system.
The Bloc thinks that this is an ill-conceived and irrelevant bill. Moreover, there is no set spending limit for the candidates. The government says that the individual contribution limits and the transfer limits imposed on parties will be sufficient to limit spending. However, since there is an unlimited number of potential candidates and election spending is subject to partial reimbursement out of public funds, it seems unreasonable not to limit individual spending. Lastly, some seats could be vacant for four years, unless there is a reserve. If a senator left their seat for health reasons, if they died or left for some other reason, we would have to wait four years for a new senator. As I said, unless a reserve is created, the bill is ill-conceived from this perspective.
For all these reasons, we would have preferred debating another subject today. As I said earlier, I feel as though I am at the tooth puller instead of being at the dentist. I do not want to alienate my dentist or dentists in general. It is good to go to the dentist, it is even recommended. But it is not recommended to go to a tooth puller.
I think we should be addressing real problems and real issues, such as the fiscal imbalance. In the budget—we continue to support Bill C-52, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 19, 2007—there is a partial financial correction to the fiscal imbalance, but the crux of it is not corrected. The federal government has too much revenue in relation to its responsibilities. Its transfers related to matters under provincial jurisdiction continue to keep Quebec and the other provinces at the mercy of unilateral decisions made here in Ottawa, even though those jurisdictions belong to the provinces. The Bloc feels that the tax base corresponding to the transfers for health, social programs and post-secondary education should, quite simply, be transferred to the provinces as tax points, whether through the GST or income tax.
Still with the fiscal imbalance, the ability to control or even limit the federal government's spending power should be a priority. The Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister have repeatedly promised legislation to limit federal spending power. We are still waiting for this legislation. Such legislation would allow a province, such as Quebec for example, to withdraw from a program implemented, in a shared or unilateral manner, by the federal government in the jurisdictions of the provinces and Quebec. Quebec could opt out with full compensation and without condition. This is important for the people of Quebec and people who need a good health care system, a good education system and social programs that provide an adequate social safety net. For those people, the Senate is of little or no concern in their daily lives.
I would now like to talk about the environment. It seems to me that, ever since the plan was introduced by the Minister of the Environment, criticism has not stopped flooding in from all sides, including from scientists, environmentalists and industrialists alike. We just learned this morning about a poll conducted in Alberta that reveals that 92% of Albertans believe that the oil companies should make a greater effort to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even more interesting, 70%—I am not sure about this percentage—of Albertans said that these reductions should be in absolute targets, and not intensity targets. What people want in the next few years is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to what we have seen in recent years. They do not want to see merely a slower increase, which would still mean more in the end, even if we produce less per tonne. It is not only Quebeckers and the general population of Canada that are concerned about this. These are also the concerns of Albertans, who, as we all know, are closely tied to the oil and gas industry.
I would like to talk about foreign policy. This should have been a concern. We do not have a foreign policy statement. The Liberal government, before the election that brought its defeat, had introduced a foreign policy statement dealing with defence and international trade.
No one seems to know where we are headed with this, but we are still spending. The government has just announced the purchase of more tanks, but they were purchased on the sly. International cooperation, however, has not seen much development.
Lastly, employment insurance, assistance programs for festivals and exhibitions, the Saint-Hubert airport, these all deserved greater attention, but that attention has been diverted to Bill C-43.