Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss Bill C-20, a bill that, by any definition, is purely political, even by Ottawa standards. Like everything we see from the government, the facts play little relevance in what it crafts as legislation or policy. This is all about politics.
Even the name, an act to provide for consultations, shows us what qualifies as consultations in the eyes of the government. It has not had discussions with the provinces and it did not take very long for provinces to speak out against this in its earlier incarnation and again now. As as my colleague from Newfoundland and Labrador mentioned, Conservatives in my province of Nova Scotia very recently spoke out about it.
The bill has little to do with reforming the Senate, but much to do about fulfilling an election promise made by the other side in order to appease their narrow base. Does the leader of the government in the House really believe a discussion, at this moment, on this topic is in tune with the needs and the realities of most Canadians?
In my riding of Dartmouth—Cole Harbour people are worried about the coming economic downturn. Is the government, which squandered away a lot of money it inherited, ready for that economic downturn? Is it ready to provide the support and the stimulus that Canadians will need to get through this difficult time?
Are students interested in this? None who I have talked to have raised this as an issue in the schools I go to on a regular basis. I always ask kids what is on their minds. They talk about the environment, Afghanistan, the high cost of tuition, literacy, social services and infrastructure that provides the social supports for which Canadian is known. They do not talk about the Senate.
It indicates that the government is either trying to waste the time of the House as we go toward an election, or it is using this as a political wedge, or both. The bill and others like it are props to be used to distort or to create the impression that the Conservatives champion change when in fact they do not.
The bill does nothing to address the issue, for example, of Senate representation. I will have that discussion. We should have a discussion about the House of Commons and about the Senate.
When we go back to the original Senate, when we had Confederation, the design of it was not bad. It was a good design. It was such that regionally there was representation in Canada. Lower Canada, Quebec, had 24 members. Upper Canada, Ontario, had 24 members. The Maritimes had 24 members. Then as the west joined Confederation, it had 24 members. Then the north and Newfoundland and Labrador joined and they were accorded seats in the Senate to represent the important regional issues that mattered to the people in those areas.
Yes, the House of Commons has a largely proportional say in voting on all the important measures of the day. The elected members of Parliament made those decisions.
The Senate is designed, not only as a chamber of sober second thought, but to provide that regional balance, and we saw that. My colleague from Timmins—James Bay, for example, suggested that Atlantic senators did nothing on the Atlantic accord. That is entirely untrue. After it passed in the House, the Senate had further hearings on the Atlantic accord. All senators from Atlantic Canada on the Liberal side voted against the budget. They did continue that fight. Probably at the end of the day, they played their role, which was to bring more attention to it. For example, the Premier of Nova Scotia came up for hearings. However, at the end of the day, the will of the elected House prevailed, but that did not make redundant the role of the Senate.
My colleague from B.C. talked about representation. I agree that my province of Nova Scotia, with 10 seats, and B.C. and Alberta with six seats, need to have that discussion. The bill does not talk about that. We need to have those discussions in a serious and positive way throughout the country.
We need to look at Senate terms as well. Let us talk about the Senate terms. Should they be lifetime to 75? I do not know. I suspect probably there is a better way of doing that, but it is not by coming forward and suggesting that we are going to have consultations, ignoring a lot of the important issues that matter across the country.
I would be very open to some kind of Senate reform package that would allow Canadians to feel they were more connected to the Senate, just as I would support some reforms in the House of Commons that would allow them to feel more connected to this chamber as well.
I want to read the May 2007 resolution from the National Assembly of Quebec, when this bill came back in its original incarnation, Bill C-56. It states:
THAT the National Assembly ask the Parliament of Canada to withdraw Bill C-56, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, introduced in the House of Commons last 11 May;
THAT the National Assembly also ask the Parliament of Canada to withdraw Bill C-43, An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate, whose primary purpose is to change the method of selection of senators without the consent of Québec.
Most recently, in the province of Nova Scotia at the Conservative annual general meeting of the struggling Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald, this proposal for elected senators was put forward to Progressive Conservatives in Nova Scotia. The report in the now defunct Daily News of Halifax the next day headlined “Tories reject Harper's plan for elected Senate”. It lead off:
[The] Prime Minister's dream of an elected Senate suffered a set back yesterday when Nova Scotia Tories defeated a resolution that asked the province's Progressive Conservative government to organize a vote this October. Delegates at the party's annual convention in Halifax voted overwhelmingly against the idea.
And a number of reasons were given.
It is not particularly creative or imaginative to run around the country and bash the Senate. It has been done for years. The language we hear of the unelected and unaccountable Senate, filled with party hacks and all that sort of stuff does not add a lot to the debate.
In fact, if we look at what the Senate has done for Canada and the work that it has done for Canada, it has actually served this country very well, not only as a chamber of sober second thought but also through its committees.
At around the same time that Mr. Romanow prepared his national commission on health care, Senator Michael Kirby produced his. They were both excellent reports and a good synopsis of the current situation.
I would suggest that the Kirby report from the Senate was every bit as good or perhaps even better in some areas than the Romanow commission report. He went on to do work on mental health which has now become sort of the hope of mental health advocates and people who suffer from mental health illness in this country. That came out of the Senate as well as Joyce Fairburn on literacy, Colin Kenny's work on military issues and a whole host of studies, some of which I individually would agree with and some of which I would not, but which no one could deny was important work.
I may be a little bit biased coming from Nova Scotia. We happen to have some pretty good senators. There is the senator from my own riding, Senator Jane Cordy, who is an outstanding senator. On the work I do on post-secondary education, Senator Willie Moore is the champion of post-secondary education.
If we talk to the AUCC, the CFS, the CASA, and the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and talk to the granting councils, they can tell us that they can always get a good understanding of what is happening when they talk to many of these senators who are particularly focused on this issue. Senator Terry Mercer from Halifax has done some championing work for post-secondary education.
Again, I want to go to the regional aspect of what they have done. When we talk about post-secondary education, we can talk about tuitions and the unique nature of Nova Scotia where we have the highest tuitions in the country.
We can talk about research and development. If it was not for the work, I would suggest, on the part of senators as well as Atlantic Liberal caucus members, some of the important investments through ACOA in research and development would not have happened. We need to build up the research capacity of our universities in Atlantic Canada which are very good, but they need a certain amount of attention.
I think that is a regional issue that is very important. I mentioned the accord. Even the Progressive Conservatives have nominated good senators. Senator Lowell Murray is actually a senator from Ontario but he is a Nova Scotian and he has been a champion of a lot of issues including the duplicity of this government on the Atlantic accord.
I think it is easy to bash the Senate. In fact, the Senate has done some very important work across this country. We can make changes. There is no question about that. We all want to see changes in how Parliament works. We want to see changes in this House and in the Senate, but here we are talking about this issue, when Canadians are worried about the economy, poverty, the environment, jobs, education, literacy, and the list goes on.
I cannot support this bill. I am open to discussions about Senate reform. This is not the answer. It has not been brought in with consultation. It does not meet the needs of Canadians and I will not be supporting this bill.