Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to one of my favourite subjects, our Senate.
When this bill was first brought forward, my response publicly was, “big hairy deal”, and it stands. Quite frankly, my constituents and most Canadians do not give a tinkers about how long people get to be senators once they have been appointed to the Senate. The issue is how they get into the Senate. Whether they are in there 40 years, 30 years, 8 years or 2 years, they are still free to do whatever they want and there is not one power on this planet that can hold them accountable.
We will go along with it but I want to be quite frank. One of the reasons I am pleased to support this bill is that I am hoping, if there are enough senators rotating through the door and there is publicity around each one, that ultimately the Canadian people will finally say “Enough”.
We go through these spats where there are appointments and then nothing happens for a long period of time and people forget about it, for good reason. Then all of a sudden there is another round and there is a huge increase.
If that is happening two or three times a year, that might start to get to people as they see this happening over and over again, especially when they realize that most of the people going in there are either celebrities, meant to help the government be inoculated from its appointments, or they do not know who they are but they know it sure is not them or anybody they hang around with or have a beer with or play hockey with or go to work with. They know it will be somebody well connected and, in many cases but not all, it will be for, in my opinion, partisan reasons.
Well, let us look at the news release. It says in here, right off the bat, from the minister introducing the bill, ”Our government is committed to moving ahead with reform of the upper house to--”, and get this, ”--increase the democratic legitimacy of the Senate”.
Before something can be increased, it has to be there to start with and then it can be increased. Right now there is no democratic legitimacy to be found anywhere in that other place or the appointment process that gets people in there.
Then the minister said, “This bill is a step forward and creates a solid basis for further reform”.
That is nonsense. It does no such thing.
Mr. Speaker, I will signal to the minister that we will be supporting this bill at second reading, as I have indicated to him, to get it to committee. It is just not a big deal to us. Fine, 8 years or 20 years, they should not be there by appointment anyway. Therefore, if they are there for a shorter period of time, I guess that is a little better. That is about where we are with this thing.
Now the preamble, which is the part we need to sort of swallow in order to get it to committee, reads:
WHEREAS Parliament wishes to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate within Canada’s parliamentary democracy as a chamber of independent, sober second thought.
Now we are getting to some of my favourite parts when we talk about the Senate. I will not talk about sober second thought. I will leave that be because it is a personal matter for those who might have a problem living up to that standard. However, “independent”, give me a break. I keep hearing this over and over, “independent sober second thought”, independent this, independent that. What a lot of nonsense.
There is a government leader in the Senate. That does not sound too independent. That sounds pretty tied to the government. The person gets extra money for that job, very similar to the government House leader here. The purpose is to shepherd government bills through the chamber. It sounds partisan to me. How could it not be partisan?
On the other side of the House, and it sounds a lot like our House, there are people opposed to them. What is interesting is that every Wednesday a good number of senators do not have the morning off. I would not go so far as to say that they all work but I would go so far as to say that quite a few of them go to caucus meetings.
I do not think I am divulging any secrets on behalf of any caucus here but does everyone know what happens at caucus meetings? We talk about politics and it is partisan politics. Those members attend the Conservative and the Liberal caucuses because those are the only two caucuses they belong to.
I want to get it on the record that there are some senators who are truly independent. In fact, I respect most of them. I wish I did not. It would make it easier, but I do. I acknowledge that upfront. I am talking about the system, that house and democracy, not individuals.
However, on Wednesday morning, the senators go off to their respective caucus meetings and they participate and agree on political strategies. That is not independent by any stretch. Many of them are political operatives who use taxpayer money to go and do who knows what, because they are not accountable to anyone. We know that many of them are doing partisan work on the $131,000 a year that the Canadian taxpayers are giving them. I will not even get into their travel, their offices and everything else.
Not only that, many of them participate in our elections, which in and of itself should not be a problem except they are the ones who want to stick label on themselves and say that they are independent, that they do not have anything to do with dirty partisanship, that this is why the need to maintain that house so they can have that sober, independence, once removed from the partisan antics of the House review. That is nonsense, my fellow Canadians. It does not exist.
This is the biggest charade perpetrated on one of the most modern, mature democracies of all time. Putin only appoints governors. In Canada we appoint the whole upper house.
Then the minister rolls in with a bill, saying that it is on its way to reform, that things will change. At that moment, we would expect things would really change. Maybe we will apply proportional representation to the federal election and apply it to the House or maybe take those seats and put them here and have proportional representation as well as a mixture of first past the post, something that really addresses the issue and the deficiencies in our system
What did we get? We are going to limit the best free ride there is in the world, in my opinion, to eight years. I do not know what is so magical about eight. I know there are certain numbers in certain cultures that have great significance and I respect that, but I am not aware of what eight means to us.
I hear a member heckling that it is better than 25. It is not nearly better enough. When the government came to power, it said that it would change the Senate. Remember when it talked about that? Remember the Reform Party? That is how it got here. It said that it had to do something about the Senate, the triple E. Now the Conservatives have power and they will limit terms to only eight years. That is eight years of participating in the law-making of Canada with no accountability.
That is probably the thing that offends me the most. I want to know what senator will to step forward and say that he or she is the senator who represents Hamiltonians, that senator will be in Hamilton at all the public meetings so the people of Hamilton can tell that senator what they think. How many public meetings do senators hold? How many times does the media go to them and hold them to account in a scrum and ask them why they voted a certain way?
I will give a very small issue, but it is meaningful to my constituents. A bill was passed in the House when I first arrived here. Forgive me if it is mundane, but it matters if it concerns some people. The bill dealt with trains that idled. Measures were put forward about protecting residents so they did not live too close to trains that would idle all night long.
As a former city councillor, and for anyone else who has served on council, we are dealing with the issues that affect people where they live. I supported the bill, having had experience with railways, trying to get fences and silly things. The Senate was lobbied by the railways and it changed the law and took it out.
More than anything, I wanted to bring those senators, or at least one of them, to Hamilton to meet with my constituents and explain to them why they voted the way they did. That did not happen, and it will not happen.
Who holds them accountable? Who puts the microphone to their mouths and asks them why they did or did not do or say something? We are rightfully asked those questions because we are held accountable.
The bill proposes nothing to change any of that. This is all just window dressing so the government can get by when it is asked about what it did about the Senate when it made such lofty promises.
We would like to start at square one. Let us go to the Canadian people with a referendum and ask them straight up if they want a Senate, yes or no. If they say they want a Senate, do they want it reformed. If they do, then we have marching orders and we go about it. If they say they want to keep it the way it is, we have our marching orders.
There is no other word for this but nonsense. The government is pretending that it is making a big change when in fact there is nothing here. We have no real ability to get our arms around it. Senators are independent. They sit in the upper house. We are in the lower house. We are merely the elected people.
We should start at the beginning and get a mandate from the Canadian people about what they want to do with their Senate. There are options. Abolishing it is our first choice. However, if the Canadian people say they like it because it provides some offset for regional differences, where rep by pop is not doing the job completely because we do not have a pure rep by pop, that is quite legitimate.
There are good reasons to have representatives who get here through other means than the one we have. A lot of people believe proportional representation would give us a much better democratic system. They believe it would be more reflective and might increase voter turnout. They believe it would tell young people that their votes do matter. New Democrats believe that too.
I am the last one any member would probably expect to say this, but there ought to be a member of the Green Party in the House. That party cannot get here because of our system. It does not win in my riding, but it does get a respectable turnout. With all the votes the Green Party received across Canada, it seems reasonable to me that it would be entitled to a seat. Under our current system members of the Green Party cannot get here, never mind get into the Senate. I do not know how they would even begin that process.
Almost $100 million a year is being spent on a body that is unelected and unaccountable. All we are going to do with this legislation is limit a senator's term to eight years instead of a maximum of 30 or 40 or some other outrageous number. That is what is before us today.
We will go along with it because it would not seem to do any great harm. I am not aware of any great increase in costs, although if we were to hear that, we could change our mind. The bill would not really change anything.
Maybe if there were enough people going in and out and the revolving door was reported in the media more often, maybe people would begin to ask why we would allow this to go on, pretending there was independent sober second thought. It does not exist.
That is what frustrates us more than anything, particularly from a government that slammed the Senate in every way possible in its election platform. If I am right, that very same Prime Minister has appointed more senators than anybody else in the history of Canada. That is an Olympic flip-flop.
To try to make up some of that ground, the poor minister has been tasked with trying to make the Prime Minister look like he is honouring the pledges and promises he made. I know the minister on a personal basis. He is doing the best he can. However, let us not kid ourselves. He can only do what he is allowed to do. It is the same in every government. I am not putting him down for that. This bill is a loser. This dog will not hunt. I could use whatever cliché I wanted, but the bill does not mean much at all.
The government does itself a great disservice when it talks about laying the cornerstone to increase the democratic legitimacy. Let us try beginning with some legitimacy before we get to increasing something that is not even there.
I would like to see the media attempt to hold the senators to account. I would like to see a big deal made out of them standing on privilege, saying that they do not have to answer to the media. I would like to see senators go public, take the platform, hold a news conference and tell the country why they do not have to answer a single question, or be accountable for their voting or go into our ridings and talk to our constituents.
On the books, and to the best of knowledge it is still there, senators get to self-declare. They can declare as a partisan or not and they can declare what they represent. Are they from a province, a part of a province, a riding? We have a senator who designated himself a representative for Yonge and Bloor, one corner. That is pretty good. He receives $131,000 a year and he represents a corner and he does not even have to go there or be with people. It is beautiful. And I will not even get into the senator who was in Mexico forever and ever and nobody noticed for the longest time.
I would like to see that happen. That would certainly change the dynamics around here. Every time there is a vote in there and it is controversial, I would like to see a scrum waiting outside the Senate, the same way there is for us. I will not tell anyone accountability is fun. No one likes to be grilled, but we get grilled. We all answer.
I am not suggesting we are perfect, but we do live by a set of rules that truly are democratic. We really are accountable. We really do have to go to public meetings and talk to people. We really do have to meet with the media and tell it what we are doing, why we are doing it, how we voted, why we did not vote differently and what we did with our time. Senators do not have to do any of that. Why do we let them get away with it? Until we can change things at the very least on a personal level let us start making them accountable. I would like to see some bills like that.
The minister has a number of bills in the House and we will be on our feet. I will have great fun with the Senate because I will get to say all these things over and over again because it makes me crazy.