Mr. Speaker, it is with much anticipation and relish that I enter this debate on Bill C-10, regarding Senate term limits, not so much because what we have before us is something that can actually make things better for our country and for our future but because it gives me and my party an opportunity to talk about some of the worst aspects of our parliamentary system that exist right now and that need to be fixed in order to make this place better, in order to help begin the process of restoring the faith that Canadians need to have in their democratic systems.
I use the word “democratic” very specifically because all the discussion we are having here today in this democratic institution, in this House of Commons, is about some sort of historical relic, and that is what thePrime Minister used to call the Senate, an historical relic, in which being friends with the prime minister of the day is enough to get a person a job that does not end until that person is 75, which has no accountability whatsoever, no constituency at all, and uses up to $90 million a year of taxpayer money, for what purpose?
To listen to the Liberals talk about the Senate and accuse the Conservatives of stuffing the place with cronies is a bit rich. The entire history of their party seems predicated on the idea that simply being entitled is enough to gain power, that simply being connected, who one knows, is enough to have influence in the country. It is a crying shame, because at a foundation, every political movement, if it stands for nothing else, should stand for that moment when voters walk in to a ballot box and make a decision about their future and the future of their community. That is a sacred moment in our democracy.
In terms of hearing elected members in this place defend a Senate in which none of that happens and a senator simply knows somebody, I would like to read a quote. There are a number of great quotes, but a recent appointment of the Conservative government to the Senate, Senator Gerstein, said something that I think is very important for us to put into some context. On January 27, 2009, the good Senator Gerstein said:
Every one of you knows why you are here. I would ask if you might indulge me and let me tell you why I am here....
Well, I want to tell you that I do not admit to being a bagman; I proclaim it.
He does not want to admit that he has been a bagman for the Conservatives, a fundraiser, and a good fundraiser apparently; he proclaims it. He says that is why he is there, because he helped the government of the day raise money. That is why, not because of his ability to look over legislation or to think about the affairs of state, about where our country needs to go. It is because he can shake money out of the pockets of Conservative supporters better than the next guy. The Prime Minister seems to like that a lot, so he has given him this gravy train of a job. He is accountable to nobody. He gets paid $140,000 a year for doing virtually nothing if he so pleases, showing up less than 50 days to work.
Most Canadians would find this offensive, and do.
The reason we support and ridicule this particular piece of legislation is because it is tinkering around the edges of the fundamental problem, tinkering with the idea that we can somehow write on to an unaccountable place some level of accountability. We know it cannot be done this way. We are certain that when witnesses come forward and say the Constitution dictates this and dictates that, the tinkering around this $90-million slush fund that happens down the hallway is not going to enable any sort of democratic enhancement of the country.
Here is a sober second thought. There is no sobriety test when senators go into that place. There was no sobriety test last night when they took a piece of legislation that was voted on democratically here and they decided, without any debate, without any discussion at all, without any questions about a piece of legislation passed democratically, that they were just going to simply kill it.
Some of my hon. colleagues may say, “Well, so what? That is just one bill and maybe some of the Conservatives did not particularly like the bill”. To them I say, let us follow this through and talk about the future where an unelected, appointed body is able to override the democratic will of the chamber. We all come here with the bond between ourselves and our constituents that we seek through elections. We, parties and individuals, seek a mandate to do things that we hope will improve the lives of ordinary Canadians.
There is the idea that when we grind away on a piece of legislation, make changes, have studies and send that across, these folks are not going to tinker with it or smudge out a few lines; they will just kill it, and there is no recourse to that. The government says that, if it did not get its way in the elected place, it will get its way in the unelected place, and that is fine.
I ask the Conservative members to walk through what the future looks like if one of the fundamental constitutional traditions of parliamentary democracy in Canada begins to unravel, and appointed people with no accountability, no constituencies, no one to report back to, to hold them to a higher regard, are simply able to undermine laws and are simply able to veto the will of this place. What value are we getting for $90 million?
I wish it was only an irritant. I wish, for the $90 million we pour in there, that it was just a hassle once in a while. However that is not what we get. In fact, we have created a system and have allowed the system to go on existing in which we fund the erosion of our democratic principles. How utterly obscene is it that Canadians say they are paying people to go to work and undercut the work of elected members?
This allows direct control for the prime minister of the day. We know this. There is an interesting quote from a Conservative spin doctor that came out just after the Prime Minister broke the record on appointments. Canada is a relatively young country, but of many years and many prime ministers and circumstances, this Prime Minister broke the record in appointing 27 senators in one year.
A Conservative spin doctor said that we need Conservatives in the Senate who are loyal to the party, to the cause and to the Prime Minister. Notice in that list of loyalties that country was not mentioned. That is in fact what these folks are there for. That is why they got there, as Senator Gerstein has so eloquently pointed out. He says he is a bagman and proud of it, and that is how he got there. He was not just talking about himself; there are others, of course, who are there for their fundraising abilities not for their intellectual capacities or their devotion to this country.
I think we as Canadians are quite a forgiving people. We allow our politicians to make mistakes from time to time. There can be redemption. We can do something that we later regret and then correct the error.
What Canadians do not tolerate is outright hypocrisy. I will read a couple more important quotes into the record, because they are important. They are not that old, which I think is also significant.
From January 15, 2004:
Despite the fine work of many individual senators, the upper house remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the Prime Minister.
Who said that? The current Prime Minister. We can only take him at his word, that in breaking the record of dumping-ground cronies he is ensuring that the system continues.
Here is another quote from a little later on, 2006:
A Conservative government will not appoint to the Senate anyone who does not have a mandate from the people.
It was “we will not”. It was not “we may not” or “we will consider”. That is as broken a promise as there can be. I think the thing that frustrates people who voted Conservative in the previous elections is that they believed these quotes, because they were so clear. They were not nuanced or subtle.
I know my Conservative colleagues sitting in the House today said similar things when the topic came up for them when they were in elections, when they were at all-candidates debates and the issue of the Senate came up. They had seen the Liberal Senate up close. They remembered the Mulroney years of stacking the Senate year after year, and they thought it was an abuse of power. I believed them. I think their constituents believed them. Certainly people who voted for them believed them, but how can they believe them now? How can they believe them now after this many years in power, having broken the record of cronyism?
Here is a last quote, which is a little older. It is from Hansard:
They are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.
That was said by the current Prime Minister on March 7, 1996.
An appointed Senate is a relic of the 19th century. Why would the government come forward with a bill that seems to put a fresh coat of paint on an old relic and say this is brand new, this is something special?
New Democrats, because it is in our name, believe that democracy is something so fundamental that we have to fight each and every day for its survival and renewal, because democracy is not something we are entitled to. It was fought over. It was bled over for generations. Its maintenance requires us to sustain it.
There was a most egregious example just last night as we were all shocked to hear that the Senate called a snap vote. I am surprised the senators even bothered to vote. The vote was on a bill named, ironically enough, the climate change accountability act. What does the bill propose to do? The bill says we must set targets for our greenhouse gas emissions to reduce those emissions over the years and that the government must report on its plans and then report back on how those plans worked out. How offensive is that? The government would be accountable. Whether it was Liberal governments or the present Conservative government, there has been no accountability when it comes to climate change.
I can remember my Conservative colleagues railing about this when they were in opposition. They asked: Where is the accountability? Promises were made and promises were broken. This is what the act enshrined into law. It is the only climate change legislation in this place. It was, until the Senate called a vote last night and killed the entire bill.
One must think that the senators must have studied it. They had 191 days with it. They must have studied it. They must have found some fatal flaw, in their debate and discussions and hearing of expert testimony. But there was no testimony. There was no debate. There was no discussion. The senators just simply killed the bill outright with no reason given. A bunch of Liberals stayed away. A bunch of Conservatives voted to kill it, undemocratically. The Conservatives feel fine with this. It undermines all of our work. It undermines our principle of being here. It undermines the last election, the one before that and the next one. The Senate needs to be abolished.
Some will say this cannot be done, yet we know there are no senates at any of the provincial and territorial levels. But there were. In fact there were many. In 1892 New Brunswick said no more senate. Nova Scotia said it in 1928 and Quebec in 1968, in recent living memory. These provinces decided that the so-called sober second thought place was not worth the money or the time. They realized that they could actually be sober and have thoughts. They could do this. They do it all the time.
P.E.I. in 1893 and Manitoba in 1876 said no more senate. They tried senates. They had them. They were constituted. I am sure they thought they were valuable. Those with a vested interest in sitting in those senates thought they were valuable.
Is democracy any less in any of our provinces and territories? Do we concern ourselves in Ontario, P.E.I. or Quebec that democracy is somehow not being done, that sober second thought is missing and bills are going through that ought not to? Of course not.
The next question for Canadians is: If senators can do this with environmental climate change legislation, what else will they do it with? What is the next bill that the Prime Minister happens not to like but cannot win a vote here in the elected place and simply says never mind the election, because he will have the legislation killed down the hallway by his cronies, as he calls them?
The Senate seems to be the place for him to dump his cronies, his bagmen, spin doctors, past presidents of the party and failed candidates. The list is quite specific. One has to have some deep and profound and loyal connection not to country, God nor Queen, but to the Conservative Party. That is the qualification that is needed.
The government is tinkering around the edges and saying it will put limits on Senate terms. It seems to feel that if it puts an 8-year limit, the bagmen, spin doctors, past presidents and failed candidates will only get in for 8 years of patronage as opposed to the 20, 30 or 40 years of patronage. Any patronage is bad.
I remember Conservative-Reform-Alliance members all talking about the patronage gravy train that was the Liberal Party of Canada. The formation of the Reform Party was in response to the Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney patronage. As he was leaving office, Mulroney could not sign those patronage appointments fast enough. The Reform Party was born. It had had enough. The west wanted in. It wanted some kind of accountability.
The first bill in 70 years that the Senate killed was a bill called the climate change accountability act. These are mere words now. The promises that the Prime Minister can make in the next election mean so much less.
The concern, the sadness that I have over this entire issue, is that it erodes what little faith remains in the Canadian public over what this place is meant to do. Why do they bother to vote? We all lament the low voter turnout. We all lament that young people are not getting involved enough. How can we expect any different if we allow this fundamentally hypocritical action of a government to go untested and unchallenged?
For the people who formed the Conservative Party to say that breaking the all-time record of patronage appointments is a good thing for this Prime Minister to do, spinning in their graves does not quite account for it. The Liberals lament because they could not do it first, that they were not at the trough first. That is the Liberal complaint about this whole process. The people on the list to whom the Liberals promised the Senate now have to wait supposedly until they form office, whenever that tragic day will come again.
Senators have to be loyal to the party, to the cause and to the Prime Minister, those three things.
The conflicts of interest that reign supreme in the Senate are also quite staggering. A senator can maintain his or her position on a private corporation board while also being in the Senate. I see no accountability change within this bill for that. Senators can have private interest in a bill that comes before them and not remove themselves from the discussion or from the vote. They can simply vote on it and improve their own lot in life. That is fine. As far as this government is concerned, that is okay too.
This is what we mean by putting a fresh coat of paint on an old broken-down car. It is still broken down. To put a splash of paint on it, say it is new, that the grievances have been fixed, is one thing, but to allow the inherent conflicts of interest to exist within the body and not change those, it seems to me, and to everybody else, is mere tokenism.
Again, Canadians can suffer much and have been asked to suffer much from their elected governments, with the switches, flip-flops and changes of mind. The current government will not allow a free and fair debate on extending a dangerous mission in Afghanistan for another three years. Canadians have been asked to suffer a lot.
When a party campaigns explicitly on accountability, transparency and reform of the place, and then comes in and does this, and says “trust us for another mandate”, then Canadians can be forgiven for doubting. They will doubt and they must doubt because the evidence is before us.
Many of us believe in climate change, although I am sure there are some Conservative members who still think it is a socialist conspiracy, as the Prime Minister used to call it. However, there are those who believe that climate change is a real issue and needs to be addressed, and I think some of my colleagues within the Conservatives do.
When we take an issue like this and simply shred the only bill and offer nothing else, then Canada is going to show up at the next UN meeting in Mexico in a couple of weeks with nothing again. Right now we are spending on green energy at a rate of $1 to $22 versus the Americans. The Americans spend $22 per capita and we spend $1.
Green energy and technology companies are coming to us saying that we must have certainty when it comes to the pricing of carbon and that we must do something about cap and trade. The government's response is just, “Well, wait for Washington”. Imagine the abrogation of sovereignty at such a fundamental level as our environment and economy.
Finally, I wish to move the following amendment:
That the motion be amended by striking out all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
“the House declines to give second reading to Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate term limits) because the term limits do not go far enough in addressing the problems with the Senate of Canada, and do not lead quickly enough to the abolition of the upper chamber, as recent events have shown to be necessary.”