Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Québécois is opposed to the bill concerning the appointment of senators. Parliament cannot reform the Senate unilaterally or without a constitutional amendment. At any rate, even a reformed Senate is a useless institution.
Canadian institutions cannot be reformed. The numerous attempts to reform the Senate illustrate perfectly the “Canadian dead end.” Proposals to reform the Senate date back as far as 1874. Barely seven years after the creation of the Dominion of Canada, the Senate was the subject of criticism and calls for reform.
A motion in April 1874, by member of Parliament David Mills, recommended that “our Constitution ought to be so amended as to confer upon each Province the power of selecting its own Senators, and of defining the mode of their election”. Now, 133 years later, we are still debating this issue. Senator Serge Joyal, who wrote a book on Senate reform, identified at least 26 proposals for Senate reform in the past 30 years alone.
The Bloc Québécois believes that the Senate reform proposed by the current government is a slap in the face for Quebec federalists. The minimum position of successive Quebec governments has always been clear: no Senate reform without first settling the question of Quebec’s status.
In 1989, Robert Bourassa said he did not want to discuss Senate reform until the Meech Lake accord was ratified. In 1992, Gil Rémillard said that signature by Canada of an accord involving Senate reform would depend on the outcome of negotiations on the concept of a distinct society, division of powers and the federal spending power.
Clearly the Senate cannot be changed unilaterally and without a constitutional amendment. The Canadian Constitution is a federal constitution. Consequently, there are reasons why changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made by Parliament alone and should be part of the constitutional process involving Quebec and the provinces.
In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada examined Parliament's ability to amend on its own the constitutional provisions concerning the Senate. According to its decision, known as “Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House”, in 1980, decisions pertaining to major changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made unilaterally.
All reforms of Senate powers, the means of selecting senators, the number of senators to which each province is entitled and residency requirements for senators, can only be made in consultation with Quebec and the provinces.
Benoît Pelletier, the Quebec Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and MNA for Chapleau, reiterated Quebec's traditional position on November 7, 2007, which was not so long ago:
The Government of Quebec does not believe that this falls exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Given that the Senate is a crucial part of the Canadian federal compromise, it is clear to us that under the Constitution Act, 1982, and the regional veto act, the Senate can be neither reformed nor abolished without Quebec's consent.
That same day, in November 2007, Quebec's National Assembly unanimously passed the following motion—I hope the government is listening:
That the National Assembly of Québec reaffirm to the Federal Government and to the Parliament of Canada that no modification to the Canadian Senate may be carried out without the consent of the Government of Québec and the National Assembly.
Quebec is not alone in opposing the idea of an elected Senate. The outgoing Premier of Saskatchewan, Lorne Calvert, and the Premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, have called for abolishing the Senate instead of trying to reform it. The Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, has also expressed concerns about whether electing senators to the Senate might not make the inequalities even worse.
In summary, indirect election of senators would change the rapport between the House of Commons and the Senate. These changes cannot be made unilaterally without the consent of the provinces and without the consent of Quebec, recognized as a nation by the House of Commons. Whether the Senate is reformed or not, it is a useless institution.
Initially, the Senate was supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought that also protected regional interests. Regional equality in the Senate was supposed to counterbalance representation in the House. However, it seems that partisanship has gained the upper hand over regional representation, thus rendering null and void the purpose of the other place, which has a tendency to follow the lead of the House of Commons.
How can this government justify having a Senate whose responsibilities would be much like those of the House of Commons at a cost of $81 million per year? All the provinces have done away with their upper chambers. No province has had an upper chamber since Quebec abolished its legislative council in 1968, and as far as I know, the provinces are able to govern appropriately.
Bill C-20 would not make the Senate democratic. Public consultation is not binding. Bill C-20 provides for public “consultation” to choose senators. The Prime Minister maintains the authority to appoint or not appoint the senators chosen by the public. The Prime Minister could therefore decide not to appoint a candidate selected by the public. The background paper provided by the government concerning this bill 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”.
Besides, 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 to the Senate? The current Prime Minister's real motivation is to marginalize the nation of Quebec. Under the pretext of an orthodox reform of federalism, the Conservative government is proposing shattering the balance of the federation.
In Australia and the United States, having an elected senate has enhanced the legitimacy of the federal government and has “nationalized” public life rather than serve the representation of the federated states within federal institutions. To be heard in Congress, the American states have been reduced to being lobbyists. Senators elected to represent an entire province would overshadow the authority of the provincial premiers and run the risk of supplanting them as regional representatives. That is what the proponents of a “triple E” Senate want: a federal Parliament that would be more legitimate because its elected members were more sensitive to regional interests. Quebeckers would never stand idly by as their own province blithely accepted Senate reform.