Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the bill.
I have listened to many of my colleagues give their rationale as to why all members of the House should support the bill. There has been a lot of technical information and a lot of legislative and legal support for arguments put forward. I would like to take a somewhat different approach in terms of my remarks today.
As a member of Parliament, I often speak to school students. In Ontario, grade 5 students have a section on Canada, so sometimes I speak to grade 5 classes and other days I speak to grade 10 classes, because grade 10 students in Ontario have a civic section in the standardized curriculum. Those are the two grades I visit.
Often the students ask me about my job and about Parliament. I have a very difficult time explaining to students why our Senate exists the way it does. If we take a step back, it is actually shocking that in a mature and developed democracy like Canada, we still have an institution like the Senate.
Years ago I went to graduate school in the United States and I actually taught a course on government there. Students and colleagues would ask me about Canada. They were not familiar with our system.
When I would explain to American political science students how the Senate worked in Canada, they were shocked. They actually did not believe what I was saying. They would say, “Come on. That is not the way it really works”. They did not believe that we could have a system where prime ministers can unilaterally put whomever they want into the Senate for 20, 30 or 40 years and that person functions as a parliamentarian with an office, staff and voting rights, and participates in the great debates in our country with absolutely no credibility or democratic legitimacy.
That is what this all boils down to. For years I thought I was the only one who thought that our Senate was shocking simply because it existed the way it does. I remember in the early 1990s the first time I heard Preston Manning speak. It was before the Reform Party was even in Ontario. He talked about democratic reform. I thought to myself that finally someone was talking about this. I remember thinking that I was not the only one who thinks that the Canadian Senate is grossly inappropriate and should be fundamentally changed.
I am very proud that I was one of the first people in Ontario to join the Reform Party and was involved with the party at that time. I came to the Reform Party because of my interest in democratic reform, not so much on judicial or economic reform, although I agreed with those planks, but democratic reform.
We have about 400 parliamentarians in Canada and 100 of them are in the Senate. They are there simply because one individual, the prime minister of the day, put them in the Senate and they stay there, at one time it was for life, but now it is until they are 75 years old. I am a pretty calm person, but if I want to get myself agitated, I just think about the Senate. The Senate is something that can actually make my blood boil because it is so outrageous the way it exists.
I heard one of my colleagues say that while he does not agree with the NDP position on abolition, he can respect it. I feel the same way. I believe that in a large diverse federation like Canada a bicameral legislature will work better than a unicameral legislature. I appreciate there are lots of people in my party who think the Senate should be changed.
The really interesting question is, who on earth actually thinks the current Senate is defensible? How would people justify the structure of the Canadian Senate today? I have come to the conclusion that there are only two groups of people who would support the current structure of our Senate.
The first group would be the people who are already there, because it has worked for them. They would argue that the system works fine because it put someone such as themselves into the Senate. The second group would be the people who thought one day they might be appointed to the Senate. They think if they play their cards right, if they are nice to the party leadership, if they raise funds, if they do this and that, maybe somewhere down the line, as a reward, they will become senators, and they do not want to close off that option. I put that group of people in the same category as the 20% of the public who say that part of their retirement plan is winning the lottery. I guess a certain number of Canadians think getting appointed to the Senate is part of their career path and they do not want to lose that option.
This is the first point I make with students when I talk to them. I tell them that it is outrageous in the 21st century in a country such as Canada that we still have one of the two chambers of our national legislature where members are appointed for life by a prime minister.
I remember 10 or 15 years ago when the Iron Curtain came down in Europe. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe took the tentative first steps to establish democracies. Countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world had already crossed that gap and had gone from a military government or a totalitarian or a communist state to become a democracy. I imagine at the time, those countries looked at how they should structure their new democratic government. They probably looked at other countries such as Great Britain, or France, or the United States or other places to get ideas whether they would use a parliamentary system or a presidential system and how they would set it up.
I have often thought what would have happened had those countries brought in consultants and asked them how they should set up their new democratic government and the consultants told them they should have bicameral legislatures, but one chamber would be elected by the people. However, there would be strict party discipline and the prime ministers would pretty much control that in a majority government. In terms of the judiciary, they would let the prime ministers unilaterally appoint all the judges. Maybe the prime ministers would also unilaterally appoint the heads of all crown corporations and all ambassadors. For the second chambers in the national legislatures, the prime ministers would also unilaterally appoint all members to them.
If a consultant had said that in one of the countries in Eastern Europe 10 or 15 years ago, the individual would have been laughed out of the room. Somebody would have said that it was an absurd notion that any country could function in that way. I guess the consultant would have said that was not true, that Canada functioned this way.
In considering this bill today, we are talking about taking one step in the right direction. Some of us, particularly on this side of the House, would like to take more steps and we would like to take them faster.
We are satisfied with taking steps to deal with at least indirectly electing senators, having some mechanism where people would have some say in who would become their senators. If that is combined with the other bill that would limit Senate terms to eight years, those two things would create a somewhat legitimate democratic institution infinitely better than we have today.
I hope we will take those two steps. I think they would work, they would make the Senate a more legitimate place and it would create an appetite for more steps in that direction.
Members in the Liberal Party say that they want everything or nothing, either a comprehensive fix the whole Senate package of reforms or they do not want to change anything. There is one of two explanations for that. First, they want comprehensive reform to the Senate. However, given they have been in power most of the last 50 years, they have had ample opportunity to do that but they have not. Second, they do not want any change to the Senate, but it is a convenient way for them to not publicly say that they are against Senate reform.
If the Liberals can have all the pieces fit together at the same time, if it is done through proper channels, including the constitutional amendment, then they will support that. However, they will not support other measures even though they are easily defensible, are logical and unarguably make the Senate more democratic than it is now.
On that basis, I encourage all members of this place to support the legislation. Help us take one baby step in the right direction. Before I leave this place, I hope we have a Senate that functions with the robust energy of a legitimate, democratic institution and that it can play the role that it is meant to play in our national political debate.