Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-43, An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate.
One of the reasons I am interested in being here today is that in a previous life I was parliamentary secretary to the minister responsible for democratic reform. I also sat with the previous hon. member on the procedure and House affairs committee where I had the opportunity to travel with Ed Broadbent to several countries in Europe to establish a process on how we could study democratic reform here in Canada. It, therefore, is something I am very interested in but I also feel that the bill could be entitled “how to fulfill your electoral promises while not engaging in any of the significant constitutional changes that you promised”.
Before going further, let us start by understanding what the Senate does. To function well, any independent state needs a system of checks and balances, mechanisms to ensure that all political decisions are in the best interests of the population and all citizens.
The Canadian Senate is our checks and balances. Senators are there to provide sober second thought on the work done by the House of Commons and, since senators are not subject to the vagaries of elections, they can track issues over a longer period of time than can members of Parliament. Canadian senators can contribute to indepth studies by Senate committees on public issues, such as health care in Canada, illegal drugs, deregulation of the Canadian airline industry and urban aboriginal youth.
Furthermore, the wide range of experience of Canadian senators, who include former Canadian provincial premiers, cabinet ministers, business people from many Canadian economic sectors and respected Canadians from all walks of life, provide substantial expertise to these investigations. Senators also represent regional, provincial and minority interests that tend to be overlooked in the House of Commons. Therefore, the Senate is like the watchdog of Canadian politics, but it is a lot more than that.
I will attest to that from my own personal experience. When I first came here as a member of Parliament some five years ago, at my first meeting of the northern western caucus I had an opportunity to meet Senators Dan Hays, Jack Austin and Jack Wiebe from Saskatchewan. I had the preconceptions that probably many Canadians have, that senators are not necessarily that useful and are not doing much of a job. However, after that first meeting with them, my whole concept of the Senate and the quality of the people completely changed.
What I found with the people I just named and those with whom we share the second House is that they have a huge passion for their regions and provinces. Members of Parliament obviously do but our knowledge is limited to our ridings. However, I do not believe we could find better people who have a better understanding and a better perception of what is going on in their province or region as a whole than those senators.
I would like to name a few people and talk about the actual work they have done on certain files. In Manitoba, for instance, Senator Carstairs is now one of the world authorities on palliative care. She is asked to speak everywhere in the world. I know she travels a lot and is asked to go all over Europe to speak on palliative care. It is very important for us to have people like her representing Canada. When she is out there, she is speaking on behalf of the Canadian Parliament and we are very proud of that.
I look at Mobina Jaffer and her fight for Darfur. It is extremely important to have Ms. Jaffer representing us on Darfur.
I think of Roméo Dallaire. Can anyone think of a better person to have in terms of someone who knows about genocide and about the tough areas in the world? He has been a wealth of information. His credibility on the world stage is second to none. Those are the kinds of people we have in the Senate who are providing leadership and advice to both Houses.
On the cultural side, we have people like Andrée Champagne and Viola Léger who have contributed incredibly on the cultural side. We also have Hugh Segal and Norm Atkins. I could go on forever. The quality of the people in the Senate is varied, it is solid and they make a very strong contribution to Parliament as a whole.
For decades, discussions have taken place and studies have been undertaken on the need to reform the Senate. Some have simply asked for the total abolition of the Senate, pleading that the Senate accomplishes nothing. The leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, campaigned for a triple E Senate: effective, equal and elected. Many asked for a better representation of British Columbia and Alberta in the Senate.
Canada has undergone many major demographic shifts since the 1970s and it is easy to understand why a major reform of the Senate is needed. However, let us face it, as we say, “If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. If the government is not willing to fully go ahead with a true, complete and real reform of the Senate, which requires wide consultation with the provinces and the ever perilous road to constitutional amendment, then it should not try to use smoke and mirrors to project the image that it does care about Senate reform, as it is trying to do with Bill C-43.
When I was referring to our study in Europe on democratic reform, my Conservative colleagues who were with me will certainly confirm that nobody thought we should be doing democratic reform on a piecemeal basis. Every country we visited told us that whatever we did we should ensure to analyze everything because by changing one thing we could affect another. That is extremely important to note and that is one of the reasons we think this legislation is not very serious.
Our government structure is based on the British parliamentary system and if we were to take one piece away, it would affect something else negatively. I am not sure all the repercussions have been examined and explored. We live in a very successful democracy right now. Our system does seem to be working fairly well. Is there a better democracy in the world than Canada? Someone would need to name them because I think we have been very successful over our last 125 to 130 years as a country.
The reality is that Bill C-43 contains no real reform for the Senate. The bill is full of flaws and has an extraordinarily high potential to create awkward, bizarre situations. Even from a Conservative partisan perspective, the bill is far less than what the Conservatives promised and it actually creates more problems than it solves.
Let us be frank. The Conservative government is not really seeking reform with Bill C-43. It simply wishes to keep an old Conservative promise made to its political base without taking the time to truly reform the Senate. Once again it is unfortunate that this government is putting its own election platform ahead of real reforms that would benefit all Canadians.
Once again it is a question of perception.
It reminds me of the Federal Accountability Act. The Conservatives have been talking about the accountability act as the best thing since sliced bread.
In fact, when we start looking at the details and we start at looking at what is going on within the accountability act, we are finding certain things. For instance, part of the backbone of the accountability act was the public appointments commission. It would be a commission with people and guidelines in place to make sure that when we nominated people to certain appointments, it would be a fair, just and transparent process. But in fact, literally hundreds of people have been named over the last little while and there is no public appointments commission yet.
When we ask the President of the Treasury Board why that is so, he will just say that it is a complicated issue and it takes time. But Canadians are not fooled by that. They know that the Conservatives need to bring in their 300, 400 or 500 Conservative crony appointments before they can do this. That is what is sad. It is all about smoke and mirrors when they do this kind of thing. But the Canadian public is getting wise and they are seeing that this accountability act is not real .
I think we are seeing similarities here with Bill C-43. The Conservatives always speak against the Senate, that the Senate is not effective, that it does not do its job. But in fact when it serves their purpose, all of a sudden the Senate is allowable. Mr. Fortier was brought in as a minister through the Senate and all of a sudden that is acceptable and that is okay. So, there are certainly some major double standards here.
Bill C-43 is about trying to deal with constitutional matters without touching the Constitution. It cannot be done, clearly. Bill C-43 will not do it. In fact, some might even question the constitutionality of this proposed bill. I know my colleague asked that exact question a few minutes ago. I am sure there are experts right now who are not sure if this bill is constitutional.
Even if Bill C-43 is adopted, the Prime Minister will have full power to appoint whoever he wants to the Senate, as we saw last week. The Prime Minister is already choosing senators based on public consultations, as he did last week by appointing Bert Brown. I know my colleague spoke to that a few minutes ago.
This is nothing new or revolutionary. Almost 20 years ago Brian Mulroney appointed Stan Waters based on the result of a public consultation in Alberta. So, clearly, there is nothing new in Bill C-43 and it is not what it is all hyped up to be.
With the adoption of Bill C-43, the government would consult the population with regard to Senate candidates, but it would not make these consultations binding, like true elections. There is always a condition there and that has a lot of people very upset. Again, it is about smoke and mirrors. It is about the perception that the Conservatives are making real changes but in the end the Prime Minister will have the final decision as to who gets named.
This means that if the Prime Minister disagrees with the winner of one of these Senate consultations, he could technically ignore the result and appoint whoever he wants. This is not how democracy works. This is not a true elected Senate. Even more troubling is that it could create awkward situations where an elected senator is not appointed to the Senate by the Prime Minister. But for the government it is about, again, smoke and mirrors, making people think that they are making meaningful change, but it is not reality.
Do not get me wrong. I fully support reforming Canada's Senate. But on this side of the House, we believe true Senate reform needs to reflect some public policy while respecting the Constitution. The Liberal Party believes in democratic reforms. We believe in concrete, complete and real democratic reforms. It is just unfortunate that Bill C-43 is not such a reform.
Once again, I refer the members to the study we did, I believe it was last year. Half of the procedure and House affairs committee travelled to Australia, I believe, and the other half to Europe. I was on the European trip. The advice we had from people who had done some major democratic reform was not to do it piecemeal. We were told to ensure that it is very comprehensive. I am very concerned. My Conservatives colleagues who were on that trip with us heard that as well and it seems to me that they are not listening to the advice that we received from a lot of experts.
If this government truly wants to reform the Senate, my party would be happy to collaborate and ensure a real and complete Senate reform is put forward. But true Senate reform needs to address a number of issues that are totally ignored by Bill C-43.
I believe the Senate needs to represent all provinces and territories and give a voice to those who do not have one. Regional representation is extremely important, but the process of electing senators, particularly in large provinces, would be unwieldy and would give unprecedented influence to large urban areas over small communities.
In the United States, senators such as Patrick Leahy of Vermont and the late Edmund Muskie of Maine have clearly shown how regional representation is important. Although they have come from tiny states, they have had a voice in the American senate.
Unfortunately, Bill C-43 totally ignores provincial and regional equity. It weakens the voice of provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, as those two provinces currently have fewer senators than the population warrants. It seems that this would be a major concern to some of our current Conservative colleagues from western Canada.
Alberta and B.C. have been growing disproportionately and we now have an inequity when it comes to representation in the Senate. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing that should be included in any change that we make. We cannot just leave that aside and deal with one issue when the other one is brewing as well. That is what we are talking about when we say that we are not dealing with the whole issue.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that no consultations with the provinces and territories were held prior to the introduction of Bill C-43. So far both the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have already come out against the idea of piecemeal Senate reform and so did Yukon. I am sure that is why my hon. colleague from Yukon is here sitting beside me. He wants to make sure that his territory is well represented in the bill.
When the government does not have the approval of Ontario and Quebec, those are substantially big provinces that are missing. When such considerable changes are being contemplated to the way that Parliament functions, we would think that there would be a buy-in from the big players. Actually, the government should have it from all the players, if possible, but when Quebec and Ontario say that they do not agree, then the government has a problem.
In addition, provincial Senate elections would be very detrimental to candidates from minority groups. The issue is very important and particularly disturbing for Manitoba. My province has a large number of anglophones and francophones are a very small minority. If senators are elected for the entire province, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Franco-Manitoban senate candidates to get elected. It will be almost impossible, given their numbers, to get an Acadian senator elected in Nova Scotia, for example, or in Alberta.
Since Confederation, Manitoba has had a francophone senator. For the Franco-Manitoban community, this has been vital. There is usually only one francophone MP and rarely are there two. There is usually one francophone MP serving all of western Canada. At present, we also have Senator Chaput from Manitoba and Senator Tardif from Edmonton. These additional representatives are of extraordinary assistance in supporting the efforts of francophone communities and francophone MPs from the west, who are attempting to support all their fellow citizens but who nevertheless have large francophone communities in their ridings.
I am thinking of Gildas Molgat, former Speaker of the Senate. He was one of the longest-serving Speakers of the Senate, and an extraordinary person. His term was renewed. I think he was the only person who served two terms, but I am not positive. He was well respected by all his colleague in both Houses. Mr. Molgat came from the small town of Sainte-Rose-du-Lac. With a small francophone minority, it would have been very surprising for him to have been elected. We believe that we would lose out on having people like Gildas Molgat.
I would like to come back to Claudette Tardif, former rector of Campus Saint-Jean and a invaluable asset to the Senate. If the Senate wants to really fulfil its mission and represent all regions of the country and all communities, all Canadians and official language minority communities must be represented in the Senate. The situation is not exclusive to the country's francophones. It would also be the case for the Métis, aboriginals and representatives of cultural communities, not to mention people from rural areas, who, statistically speaking, have fewer candidates in elections.
Senators from the Northwest Territories and Yukon sit on our northern and western caucus. They represent their region and represent, for example, the interests of Inuit, aboriginal, first nations and Métis people. If we had an elected Senate, these elements could disappear, and this is very worrisome. I think going from the current Senate—which is regional and representative of Canada's cultural diversity—to a more or less male and homogenous Senate, as the House of Commons now is unfortunately, would not necessarily be a step forward.
As for limits to senators' terms, I support maximum non-renewable terms. This would still enable the Senate to benefit from the wisdom and experience of seasoned senators while ensuring a good flow of new ideas and vision from newly elected senators.
There are many flaws in the bill and important items completely left out from Bill C-43. In some, the question we must address today is how to reform the Senate.
The Conservatives are proposing a piecemeal deal that will actually aggravate the problem of potential deadlock between the two houses of Parliament while increasing partisanship in the Senate. I really do not think they thought this scenario through.
On our side of the House in my party what we want and what we stand for is real Senate reform that would consider a wide number of critical issues: first, selection process and term; second, mandate; and third, fair distribution. We support Senate reform that would actually resolve problems instead of creating new ones. We support a reform that would better Canadian politics, not create deadlock between the House and the Senate.
This Prime Minister thrives on division and discord, not unity and harmony. This is but another example of that. Once again, the government is standing up for a partisan perception and image, rather than for a fairer and better Canada for all its citizens.
Unfortunately, Bill C-43 is just one more example of the government spending months taking its right-wing base of support for granted, and then trying to please it to keep it on its side.
Before tabling an act to provide for consultation with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate, I suggest the government consult with the provinces on their preferences for Senate reforms. Perhaps this way we could see the Conservatives introduce real, concrete and complete Senate reform, rather than the piecemeal bill we have before us with Bill C-43.