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House of Commons Hansard #36 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Daniel Paillé Bloc Hochelaga, QC

He'll be back.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

We can only hope he will come back, although I doubt the hon. member for Outremont feels the same. My point is that we have been waiting for this measure for nearly eight years. This also explains, in large part, the injustice of the current system, which was never completed. I will come back to this later.

We believe that this notion of safe country is discriminatory, because it means that the refugee claims of individuals from so-called safe countries will not have the right to appeal their cases before this appeal division and will have to take their cases to the Federal Court, as is the case right now. We have already seen all the problems and concerns associated with such a situation. We saw the example this week of the pregnant woman from Guinea who, just a few minutes before she was supposed to board a plane for her deportation, was granted a four-month stay of deportation by the Federal Court.

Since the Appeal Division has not been instituted, they will have to keep going to the Federal Court to make sure that the new evidence her lawyer has uncovered is taken into account and she can get refugee status. In this instance, the lady was more or less fooled by a consultant, who did a poor job of preparing her case. She cannot appeal because the Appeal Division will not come into force until two years after the bill passes.

I want to remind the House that a real appeal procedure for refugee claimants should have been instituted as soon as the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act took effect in June 2002. The Bloc Québécois also had a unanimous motion adopted by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on December 14, 2004 asking the Liberal government of the time to immediately institute the Appeal Division.

Despite the adoption of this unanimous motion, the Liberal government did not budge, no more than the ensuing Conservative government. We therefore introduced private member’s bills, including Bill C-280 instituting the Refugee Appeal Division, which was introduced in October 2006.

We were back at it in February 2009 with Bill C-291. It is very sad that the bill was defeated by a single vote, 142 to 143. If it had not been for the notable absence of several Liberals, the bill would have passed easily. I hope they are asking themselves some serious questions in the Liberal Party. Is there really any difference between the Conservative government and the opposition? For my part, I do not think so. I like to say they are like two peas in a pod, but it is not very funny.

If not for the cowardice of certain Liberal members, the Bloc bill would have passed. We are glad all the same to see in Bill C-11 that the Refugee Appeal Division is finally being implemented. Once again, though, we think it is appalling that some refugee claimants will be precluded from the Appeal Division because of the distinction the bill draws between safe and unsafe countries. I think this is discrimination. We will ensure, therefore, that the witnesses who appear before the committee do what they can to enlighten the government and the members of all parties so that this regrettable situation is corrected.

In addition, the minister is playing with words when he says that the claims from people from safe countries will be expedited. The procedure will certainly be accelerated, but only because these claimants will be precluded from any recourse to the Appeal Division. As soon as the immigration official makes his decision, these claimants will be accepted as refugees or will have to leave, unless they take their case to the Federal Court. We will certainly take issue with this.

What concerns me the most is the fact that the bill gives the minister the legal authority to designate safe countries of origin. According to the government, safe countries of origin generally do not produce refugees, have a good human rights record, and protect their citizens well.

Sometimes, even in countries that are relatively democratic, people can be harassed or have their lives threatened because of their sexual orientation, gender or religion.

For all these reasons, we will vote in favour of Bill C-11 at second reading in order to study it in committee. I remind the House once again that we want to see the regulations before proceeding to clause by clause study of the bill.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for his excellent speech. People have a lot to say about the provisions concerning so-called safe countries. Many lawyers have said that if their clients are denied the opportunity to appeal a decision before the Federal Court, they could argue in court that their clients were discriminated against because they were granted fewer rights based on their country of origin.

People may choose to appeal decisions before the Federal Court to avoid going through the refugee appeal division. But dealing with appeals in a simpler system would cost less and be more efficient than dealing with them in the Federal Court.

Is my colleague as concerned as I am that the minister will end up with a system that is just as costly and complex as the one in place now? It would be easier to forget about the safe countries provision.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Jeanne-Le Ber for his question as well as his work on this file. He is doing an extraordinary job and it shows in his comments and the results he gets.

He is absolutely right. By creating a distinction between so-called safe countries and other countries which, by definition, would not be designated as safe, we will create a bureaucratic maze in which the appeal division would only hear one type of refugee.

We obviously support the goals behind creating an appeal division. In fact, we have introduced a number of bills, the latest by the member for Jeanne-Le Ber, but the anticipated benefits of the reform will be lacking. We feel that a simpler solution would be to increase the number of board members and ensure that the appeal division hears all of the refugee status claims.

Once again, well done to the member for Jeanne-Le Ber.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen NDP Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, my colleague's comments are extremely enlightening.

The riding of Welland is very close to Fort Erie, which is one of the biggest entry points for folks who are claiming refugee and asylum status. We have some folks who do a great deal of work on behalf of those claimants. They do great work on the ground. They sent me a letter the other day expressing their concerns. My hon. colleague has already asked a question about country of safe origin, which they have also raised. However, they also talk about the hearings being expedited in such a fashion that is so fast. In cases of sexual orientation and women who face sexual assault, they need time to build trust. That is what they have seen on the ground.

The group from Welland has been dealing with cases of refugee and asylum seekers for more than 45 years. It understands the needs of those refugees and asylum seekers. What it is saying today is that we need to ensure there is enough time.

Could my colleague comment on the fact that, yes, we want a system that is appropriately quick enough, but it needs to be flexible enough for those folks who do not fit inside that really tight timeline? They need to have the ability to talk and get their position out so a decent decision can be made? People need to understand the hardship they might face if they are deported?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for this question because, in my 10 minutes, I was not able to talk about all of the problematic elements in Bill C-11.

I spoke about the distinction between safe countries and the other countries, but there is also the problem of timing. It is obvious that it would be unrealistic to hold an initial hearing eight days after a person claims refugee status.

The member gave the example of woman arriving in Canada who had been a victim of sexual assault. Her world will have been turned upside down. Eight days would not be enough time for her to find a lawyer and build her case. As well, like others claiming refugee status, she may have had to leave her country of origin without the necessary documentation, if she ever had it, to make her claim.

There is absolutely no way that this eight day timeline can stay in the bill. We intend to propose amendments to make this timeline more realistic. As the member said, this timeline would not be workable on the ground.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand in the House and speak to Bill C-11, known as the refugee reform bill.

I echo the message of my colleagues in the New Democratic Party and other colleagues in the House, who call for the bill to be returned to committee. Amendments need to be made to the bill to truly deal with the issue at hand. The NDP hopes that the legislation will create a fair and fast process when it comes to admitting refugees to our country and when it comes to upholding Canada's tradition of being known as a country of refuge for people who suffer a great deal in many parts of the world.

This is an important issue for me to discuss. I am the daughter of immigrants. My dad came from Britain and my mom came from Greece. They came to Canada, like so many others, for a better future for their children.

We recognize that the experience of people who come to Canada as refugees is one of even greater intensity in the sense that they have had to leave their home country, many of them in a hurry, to escape strife, whether due to war, famine, persecution, or whatever it might have been.

I grew up in Thompson, Manitoba, which was built by first nations as well as newcomers to Canada. Many of those newcomers came as refugees from countries around the world in order to help build my community and to build the diverse communities of which Canadians are so proud.

I would also like to note that this issue is of particular importance to me, given the upfront work that I did as part of Welcome Place. Years ago, while I was going to university, I had the chance to work with a very innovative organization in Winnipeg, Manitoba that provided services for refugees. It also facilitated bringing refugees over from the countries in which they were suffering. This organization connected them with their families and with faith groups that were willing to sponsor them. It truly provided that link.

I cannot tell members how many emotionally charged discussions I have had with family members and with people who had come over to Canada as refugees just recently. I had an upfront look at the challenges these individuals faced when they entered the system. I also saw the hope that they brought to Canada, a country that they know as being welcoming and open to diversity and aware of the role they can play in our country.

That is why I am so concerned about the bill before us.

We have talked a great deal over the years about the need to reform the refugee claimant system, the system by which they come to Canada. We are aware of the way the Liberal government hacked away at the system of supports, which contributed to the immense backlog of applicants.

We know more recently of the Conservative government's failure to appoint people to the Immigration and Refugee Board to deal with the backlog in a timely manner.

This legislation is an attempt to deal with a problem that is essentially built on the past neglect of the Liberal government. The NDP has many concerns about it.

One concern that has been made so clear is the reference to the judgment of safe countries, the idea that we would designate certain countries as being safer than others, looking at refugees on a group level rather than an individual level.

As has been raised in the House on many occasions by my colleagues, we need to recognize that kind of criteria overlooks some of the kinds of persecution some people seek to escape from around the world. Specifically, one example would be the gender based persecution. For example, a woman might come from a country that might overall be considered safe and we might overlook the fact that she has been a victim of tremendous gender based violence.

I go back to the idea that treating claimants differently based on their country of origin is essentially discriminatory. We have heard from many people, third parties, intricately involved in the refugee system. They say that the refugee determination process requires individual assessment of each case and not group judgments.

Another example of persecution that is overlooked as a result of these kinds of group judgments is persecution based on sexual orientation and the homophobia that exists in so many countries. We benefit from the laws and the rights that we fought for in our country. However, we know that while other countries around the world might adhere to certain human rights, in many cases there is great disrespect and in fact persecution of people based on their sexual identity. That would be overlooked in making these kind of group judgments.

A denial of these fair processes to claimants, looking at them on an individual basis, may lead to their forced return to persecution, which is in violation of human rights law. Not only would we be making these kinds of rules, but we would be returning people, who are seeking refuge in our country, to face the exact persecution that Canadians do not accept.

This area causes great concern for us. We would like to see amendments that would counteract these kinds of measures.

Another area in Bill C-11 that we feel is inadequate is it does little to address the problem of unscrupulous immigration consultants. Former Immigration and Refugee Board chair, Peter Showler, believes the expedited timelines will actually drive more refugees to these kinds of consultants.

Whether people are seeking immigration status or refugee status, which in many cases is the most urgent, some immigration consultants undertake the most unethical of jobs and prey on the vulnerability of those people who seek only to have a better life and seek only to come to Canada through the system. People are already frustrated with the existing timelines, but the bill does nothing to correct that. In fact, if anything, the timelines would be extended.

It is important to note that the bill has some merits in terms of establishing an appeal process for some refugee claimants, something for which we have been calling. We recognize that to be important.

We see more funding for the refugee board to clear the backlog. Much of the increased funding will be given to the CBSA to remove the failed claimants and to appoint judges. The NDP would prefer to see more funding given to hire permanent refugee protection officers to clear that backlog.

In my work with Immigration Canada, not in the refugee division but in more general immigration, it was clear the extent to which there was an increased burden on immigration officials. They were finding it difficult to deal with the demands made on the Canadian system. The solution is not to cut back. If anything, we do not need the quotas that we set for immigration. The solution is to look in part at hiring people who would do this kind of job to alleviate the work of those around them in the department and also to assist in this area more specifically.

New Democrats believe the refugee determination process again should be both fast and fair. We believe—

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

Questions and comments, the hon. member for Jeanne-Le Ber.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was so close to my colleague that I could hear the end of her speech even though her microphone had been turned off. That is the advantage of being in this corner of the House.

My colleague spoke at length about safe countries in terms of the problem of respecting rights. We wonder why some foreign nationals would have different rights than others based on their country of origin.

This issue of safe countries poses another problem. We are not convinced, or at least I am not, that this will save time. Instead of appealing to the refugee appeal division, lawyers may well appeal to the Federal Court, arguing that this measure is discriminatory and prevents them from properly defending the rights of their clients.

In my opinion, it will end up taking more money, time and energy to have a series of challenges before the Federal Court, which is very cumbersome and difficult to run. It would be more effective and more fair to allow appeals to be heard from the outset by the refugee appeal division being proposed in the bill.

I would like to know whether the hon. member shares my opinion on this.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, I want to acknowledge the hard work done by my Bloc Québécois colleague with respect to the admission of refugees and immigrants to Canada. I want to acknowledge the way he and hon. members from the opposition parties are trying to propose amendments. They are truly trying to come up with solutions and measures that will improve this type of bill.

Whether we are talking about safe countries or improving the system in terms of staffing, I hope that these fine amendments will be accepted by the minister and the Government of Canada.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

Is the House ready for the question?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

An hon. member

On division.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I declare the motion carried. Accordingly, the bill stands referred to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time and referred to a committee)

Use of House Resources for Commercial PurposesPoints of OrderGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Blaney Conservative Lévis—Bellechasse, QC

Mr. Speaker, regarding the point of order raised yesterday by the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, I would like to inform the House, through you, that I have removed the ad for a package tour to Ottawa from my personal Facebook page.

I believe that it is my duty as a parliamentarian not only to comply with the rules of the Board of Internal Economy, but to encourage the people in my riding to come to Ottawa to see Parliament in action. I am sure that the member for Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord appreciates my efforts to tell the voters in Lévis—Bellechasse and Les Etchemins about the excellent work being done by the team of Conservative ministers, members and senators from Quebec, who are making a real effort to promote Quebec's interests in Ottawa.

I understand that the member might be embarrassed to bring his constituents to Ottawa, because they might see for themselves that it is hard, even impossible, for the Bloc members to do anything for Quebec.

While the ministers, senators and members from Quebec are getting results for their ridings and all regions of Quebec, I would ask you, Mr. Speaker—because the member was asking you a question—whether the Bloc members are twiddling their thumbs in Ottawa.

One thing I can say is that I will keep doing what I can so that the people of Lévis—Bellechasse can have access to the resources of Canadian federalism, and that includes Parliament.

Use of House Resources for Commercial PurposesPoints of OrderGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I thank the hon. member for providing additional information on this matter.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

April 29th, 2010 / 1 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeMinister of State (Democratic Reform)

moved that Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate term limits), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak today and bring forward this historic piece of legislation. Bill C-10 deals with the Constitution Act and 2010 Senate term limits. Term limits are an important component of our government's broader objective of modernizing Canada's Senate. As the throne speech stated, “We are a country founded on democracy”. However, our democratic institutions were established in the 19th century and reflect the prevailing democratic standards of the time.

Canadians' views of democracy have evolved since 1867, and we must ensure that our institutions keep pace with those changes. An obvious example of democratic evolution is in our voting rights. Today, we take the principle of universal suffrage for granted, but that has not always been the case. At the time of Confederation, qualifications based on property and income prevented large segments of the population from voting. Women did not have complete voting rights until 1918, and only recently did we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a law that recognized the unconditional right of first nations to vote.

I use the example of voting rights to demonstrate how our democratic institutions and practices have evolved to reflect the modern principles of democracy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Senate, which still reflects antiquated principles of the 19th century. Over the past 143 years, there has been only one change to the Senate. In 1965, mandatory retirement at age 75 was introduced for senators. Prior to that, senators had been appointed for life. There have been no meaningful Senate reforms in our country's history, bar that one.

Canadians overwhelmingly believe that reform is overdue. According to a recent Angus Reid poll, 73% of Canadians want a new approach to the Senate. Our government made Senate reform a priority in the March 3, 2010, Speech from the Throne. It said:

Our shared values and experiences must be reflected in our national institutions, starting with Parliament.... Our Government...remains committed to Senate reform and will continue to pursue measures to make the upper chamber more democratic, effective and accountable.

That eloquent comment articulates why this reform is so important. Our government has been clear. Fundamental change is required to transform the Senate into a democratic and accountable institution. However, we recognize that there is insufficient support for fundamental constitutional change today. Instead, we are pursuing a practical, step-by-step approach to reform in areas where reform is possible within the federal jurisdiction. We hope this will ultimately build support for fundamental changes in the future.

Bill C-10 seeks to amend section 29 of the Constitution Act, 1867, to provide that new senators would be limited to a single term of eight years. This is an important first step to moving forward in fulfilling our commitment to Canadians to strengthen our democratic institutions. Limiting the tenure of senators is a modest but important step to making the Senate worthy of a 21st century democracy.

Our government hopes that parliamentarians will embrace this initiative and the overall reforms that are needed to modernize the Senate. In the past 30 years, there have been reports calling for major reform in the Senate. However, I am not aware of a single major study of the Senate that concluded that everything is fine and that no change is required.

Quite the contrary. While each study offered a unique alternative to Senate reform, the consensus is that the Senate suffers from a lack of credibility because its members do not have a democratic mandate from Canadians.

The undemocratic nature of the Senate is exacerbated by the fact that senators can remain in office for up to 45 years. That is right, 45 years. As the Prime Minister has pointed out on several occasions, the fact that unelected senators can keep their seats for such a lengthy period of time is at odds with the democratic ideals of Canadians.

It is not surprising that many studies have recommended limiting Senate terms. While the recommended lengths of term have varied, the general range appears to be between six and ten years.

Our government believes that a term limit of eight years strikes the right balance between ensuring that the essential character of the Senate remains intact and, at the same time, guaranteeing that renewal takes place. Fixed terms of eight years would provide senators with enough time to gain the necessary experience to carry out their important parliamentary functions while, at the same time, rejuvenating the Senate with new perspectives and ideas on a regular basis.

Our government believes that a renewed Senate would be a more effective Senate.

The vast majority of second chambers in other countries, both elected and appointed, have term limits. If Canada were to implement a Senate term of eight years, it would be the longest term of any country that currently has term limits in its second chamber.

I welcomed the recent comments of the Leader of the Opposition when he agreed that very lengthy terms are unacceptable and he favours term limits. While admitting that the Senate is “imperfect”, the Liberal leader stated he is “uncomfortable” with the idea of lengthy Senate terms. The Liberal leader has indicated he would support a 12-year limit for senators.

Let us reflect on that.

Clearly, the 15-year term recommended by the Liberal senators is too long. A 15-year term would not ensure that the Senate is refreshed with new ideas on a regular basis.

Whether a 12-year term would be sufficient is open to debate.

What is encouraging is the common belief that term limits are the right thing to do. I believe it is our duty as parliamentarians to listen to Canadians and move forward on this issue.

Now I would like to review other key aspects of the bill.

Bill C-10 makes specific reference to interrupted terms. An interrupted term could occur if a senator's seat became vacant by reason of resignation or disqualification, as set out in sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution Act, 1867, prior to the completion of an eight-year term.

The bill would provide that senators whose terms are interrupted may be summoned again to the Senate, but only for the remaining portion of their original eight-year term. For example, if a senator resigned from the Senate in order to be a candidate for the House of Commons, that senator could later be reappointed to the Senate, but only for the remaining portion of his or her term. This would eliminate any ambiguity about the length of term should such interruptions occur.

Unlike the previous version of the term limits bill, Bill C-10 contains a transitional provision, which would apply the eight-year term limit to all senators appointed after October 14, 2008. They would hold their seats for a period of eight years, once the bill received royal assent.

The transition clause demonstrates the commitment of our government and the commitment of our new senators to honour the principles of the Senate term limits once the legislation is passed. I would like to congratulate those newly appointed senators for putting the country's interests ahead of their own interests. That, I think, embodies the spirit of our Senate reform ideals.

The Senate term limits bill was first introduced in the spring of 2006. Members may recall that the Prime Minister became the first prime minister ever to appear before a Senate committee when he appeared before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, which was created to study the content of that bill. The Prime Minister's appearance before the Senate committee illustrated the importance of Senate term limits for our government.

One of the important messages the Prime Minister delivered in his testimony was that our government was willing to be flexible with regard to potential improvements to the bill so long as any changes did not diminish the principles of the bill. That flexibility is evident in our response to the issue of the renewability of the terms.

As members will recall, in 2006 the bill was silent on the issue of renewability. That bill left open the possibility that a senator could receive a further eight year term if summoned again by the Governor General.

Some commentators expressed the concern that the possibility of a renewable term could compromise the independence of the Senate, since senators might adjust their behaviour in order to have their appointments renewed. The government has demonstrated its willingness to compromise by amending the bill to provide for non-renewable terms.

We are willing to listen and work together to ensure that the Senate is reformed in a respectful fashion. Our government's willingness to listen has also been demonstrated by preserving the retirement age of 75 years for all senators, whether appointed before or after this bill comes into effect. The amendment was recommended by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee following the review of our previous bill.

Our government continues to be flexible in making improvements to the bill so long as its underlying principles remain intact.

I would like to conclude by briefly addressing the issue of the constitutionality of Bill C-10. There is no question that the bill is constitutional. Senate term limits can be enacted by Parliament pursuant to section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

This fact was confirmed by the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, which concluded that the bill was constitutional and no reference to the Supreme Court was required. This finding has been supported by Canada's leading constitutional experts, including Peter Hogg, Patrick Monahan and Stephen Scott.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the bill's constitutionality, the Senate defeated the bill by refusing to allow it to proceed to third reading unless it was first referred to the Supreme Court of Canada.

I trust that members of this House will judge the bill on its merits and not attempt to derail it with procedural tricks, frivolous or unsubstantiated charges about constitutionality.

Hon. members, it is time for parliamentarians to listen to Canadians and embrace reform of the Upper Chamber. Canadians understand the need for Senate reform. Every poll over the past two decades has confirmed that Canadians support Senate reform. Canadians particularly support limited terms for senators. Canadians recognize the importance of the Senate, but they do not believe it is fulfilling its full potential as a democratic institution.

Our government has listened to Canadians. We have made Senate reform one of our key democratic priorities. We can no longer tolerate an institution that has remained unchanged since Confederation and that is neither democratic nor accountable to the people of Canada.

A Senate based on 19th century norms cannot possibly meet the needs of a modern 21st century democracy. Our government is committed to the pursuit of practical and achievable reforms that will lay the basis for more fundamental reform in the future.

Bill C-10 is an important step forward in the reform of our institutions. I would encourage all members to embrace this important bill.

Senators who have been appointed since the 2008 election have demonstrated their commitment to Senate reform by agreeing to term limits, supporting legislation from the elected chamber, and supporting the overall reforms we are trying to institute in the Senate. These senators, as I said earlier, personify what it means to be in public office. They are putting the country's interests ahead of their own.

Together, I hope we can make Parliament more accountable to Canadians. Senate reform is a critical aspect of that. Canadians support Senate term limits and this government is moving forward with that reform. I look forward to all parties supporting this historic legislation to make for a better Canada and a better Parliament.

God keep our land glorious and free.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the debate on Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate term limits). As the Minister of State for Democratic Reform has said, this limits the tenure of senators appointed after the bill becomes law to one non-renewable eight year term, preserves the existing retirement age of 75 for current senators, and allows a senator whose term has been interrupted to return to the Senate and complete his or her term.

It is a privilege to speak to this because the Senate is an essential component of Canada's constitutional democracy and of course it is of interest to all members both in the House and the Senate. We are here because we have a commitment to improving our country and improving the lives of the people through the democratic institutions of which we are privileged to be a part.

I would like to also say that this issue is of great interest to constituents of my riding in Vancouver Quadra. I have the privilege to represent an area with a highly educated public and the great institution of UBC, so there are many people who are lawyers, constitutional lawyers, professors of public policy, and professors of political science who have a great deal of interest in our democratic institutions.

One of the town halls I hosted that was the most popular was called the “town hall on prorogation and democracy” where Doctors Resnick and Young came and talked about prorogation and the negative impact on democracy that they believed that the government's use of prorogation has had.

The Liberal Party has a deep, and long interest and commitment in democracy, engaging people and having an openness where people of Canada can have their say and be part of our democratic process. Winston Churchill has been know to say that “--democracy is the worst form of government - except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Plato has a different view. His is that “Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike”.

The Liberals have found over the last four years that it is the justice to the unequals that has been the most problematic under the current government and its undermining of democracy. But on a positive note, we just had a very good day for democracy recently. I want to refer to the minister of state's note that eight year term limits are needed to refresh and bring new ideas.

I would like to point out that I have a colleague from Scarborough—Rouge River who has been in this chamber for over 20 years and here is the result of his recent fresh new idea. It was a historic ruling by the Speaker that the Prime Minister was accountable to Parliament and not the other way around. The Speaker affirmed that Parliament has a fundamental and unlimited right to ask for Afghan records, that the Conservative Party appeared to be in breach of parliamentary privilege by failing to comply when opposition MPs, a majority in the House, voted to demand uncensored copies of the documents last September.

So we see that our democracy is alive and well; however, I think it should be an embarrassment for all the Conservative members that the opposition members had to go to so much trouble to have the basic tenets of democracy respected by the Prime Minister.

I want to talk about the important role the Senate plays in our democracy. It is an institution with a very proud history and an institution in which the members have done much good work over the years. For example, Senator Eggleton reporting on poverty, homelessness and housing, the work done by the standing committee; Senator Carstairs, the Senate report on Canada's aging population, very important work on understanding the demographics facing us and how to respond to them; Senator Fraser on children, the silent citizens; Hon. Mobina Jaffer and the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights on issues such as Canada's human rights record and reports on equitable pay. The Senate serves a very important function.

The Liberals are committed to a Senate in which the members can make the maximum possible contribution to public life and the public good in Canada. The Liberals do support Senate reform but it needs to be Senate reform that constitutes sound public policy and respect for the institution. It needs to be a holistic and not a piecemeal approach. There needs to be consultation with the provinces and, above all, respect for the Constitution. Those are things we have not been seeing with the current government.

The Liberals will be sending the bill to committee where public consultation with the provinces, which the government has consistently failed to do, can finally take place.

With respect to Bill C-10, with the stated intention of enabling the Senate to better reflect the democratic values of Canadians, it is important to talk about the government's objective and its credibility with that objective, and to talk about the process that has been behind the bill coming forward. I will then say some words on the content of the bill as well.

The credibility of the government is essential in trusting the intentions of this legislation. For example, in a conflict zone, if an organization were to come forward with an idea for peace, one would want to know its record of promoting peace or perhaps of undermining peace in the past, and that would be germane to taking what it has to offer at face value.

We should listen for a moment to what the Prime Minister had to say about the Senate. In 1996, he said, “We do not support any Senate appointments. Stephen Harper will cease patronage appointments to the Senate. Only candidates--”.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

Order, please. The hon. member might not be aware but even if we are reading quotes she should refer to members by their titles or ridings. I would appreciate that.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

“Only candidates elected by the people will be named to the upper house”, said the Prime Minister in 2004. “The upper house remains a dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the prime minister”, complained the current Prime Minister in 2004. “A Conservative government will not appoint to the Senate anyone who does not have a mandate from the people”, again from the Conservative Party.

Those are some of the claims that the Prime Minister has made, along with many other statements about the Senate that, unfortunately, have undermined the credibility of the Senate in the minds of the public.

What has the Prime Minister actually done, given those very clear assertions over many years that he would not be appointing senators and that there would not be partisan appointments? The Prime Minister appointed more senators in a single year than any prime minister in history. He appointed 27 senators. He is the Senate patronage king, and these have been some of the most blatant, partisan appointments in history.

We have seen well-connected party partisans throughout the Senate appointments, including fundraising chairs, national fundraising chairs, top strategists, Conservative staffers, Conservative communications advisers, failed candidates, Conservative-leaning journalists and so on. Essentially, we have an entire national election team for the Conservatives now on the Senate payroll. That is not even speaking to some of the questionable histories of senators, such as the one who is facing a sexual harassment complaint before a Human Rights Tribunal and who was president of an organization under investigation for financial impropriety.

How does this speak to the credibility of the Prime Minister's claims about improving democracy through his changes to the Senate? Not well, I would contend.

The objective claimed is to modernize democracy, which is a laudable objective.

I would like to talk a bit about some of the context that the government has on its record in terms of democracy. If we are to take improving democracy at face value, we would expect to see that as having been an objective with the government and the Prime Minister. I would contend that the facts do not suggest that is the case.

What about the fundamental underpinnings of democracy, such as openness, accountability and integrity? How has the Prime Minister fared?

In terms of openness, is the Prime Minister willing to hear from Canadians? I think a number of organizations would contest that willingness. In fact, organizations that disagree with the government are finding themselves punished. A member of one organization in civil society told me yesterday that there was a chill right across civil society because many organizations, such as the Canadian Council on Learning, KAIROS and Rights & Democracy, are seeing their funding cut for ideological reasons or because they are speaking up, which is what their organizations are designed to do.

In terms of openness, we have an Information Commissioner calling the government the most secretive in history. I have an example of that in a freedom of information request that I put forward around the disaster in a Canadian pavilion at the Olympics. I received two blanked out pages. Maybe that information was a state secret or a military secret but I do not think so.

In terms of openness, the government is preventing debate on critical issues by slipping key public policy changes into budget implementation bills, so that it does not have to debate on their merit. These are key issues, such as pay equity, the Canada Environmental Assessment Act and the protection of our environment. One must conclude that openness, that fundamental tenet of democracy, is not something that the government has promoted. In fact, it has seriously undermined it.

The same argument, unfortunately, needs to be made for accountability. The ruling by the Speaker the other day was an example. There are numerous other examples of accountability breaches by the Conservative government.

One of the key democratic mechanisms that we have as parliamentarians is the oversight officers of Parliament. The list of those oversight officers, or independent officers, whose job it is to ensure the integrity of government, who have been fired, sidelined, “resigned” early in their term or not reappointed, is very long. It includes the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Linda Keen; the environment commissioner, the president of the Law Commission of Canada, the head of the Canada Emission Reduction Incentives Agency, the Military Police Complaints Commissioner, the RCMP Public Complaints Commissioner; and the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

The Liberal Party of Canada hosted a round table on that very issue during prorogation here in Ottawa. We heard from a range of constitutional experts and others as to the weakening of the fabric of democracy that takes place when the oversight officers are not able to speak their minds and are not able to speak the truth without fear of retribution. How does that illustrate the government's commitment to democracy? It actually illustrates the opposite.

I would remind all members of the words of Aristotle:

If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.

That is not what we have been seeing under the Conservative government. unfortunately.

This is relevant to Bill C-10 because there is a claim here that the government is trying to strengthen democracy.

The process by which Bill C-10 has come about is one that raises great questions. I will just provide a quick summary of the timeline.

Bill C-10 has several predecessors. In May 2006, Bill C-4 was introduced. It was recommended by the Senate to go to the Supreme Court of Canada on the constitutionality issues. The bill died when Parliament was prorogued in September 2007. This was followed by Bill C-19, which was tabled but never brought back for debate. It died in 2008 when an election was called just after the government passed a fixed election date law.

In May 2009, Bill S-7 came back to the House with the same eight year term limits. It was debated for three days only and then it died when the Prime Minister prorogued the House in January 2010 to avoid accountability with respect to questions on the Afghan detainee issue.

The bill has come back a fourth time as Bill C-10, with some minor modifications. One must question whether this is actually a serious attempt to improve democracy or whether it is posturing by the government. Whatever it might be, one must conclude that this process does not create confidence in the government's intentions with respect to this bill.

Let us look at the content of the bill itself. The Minister of State for Democratic Reform spoke to this issue briefly. A key legal issue to this is whether it is constitutional. The minister of state claims that there is a consensus that it is. The reading that I have done shows that the very serious question of constitutionality has not been resolved and unilateral action by Parliament to amend the Senate in this type of case should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The legal issue is around the upper house reference case of 1980 in which the Supreme Court of Canada decided that amendments affecting the essential characteristics or fundamental features of the Senate must have provincial involvement. Despite the amending procedures in the Constitution Act of 1982, this judgment continues to have relevance, according to many constitutional authorities.

Then the question is, does this bill affect the essential characteristics or fundamental features of the Senate. Of the two principles, one is experienced oversight, that is, both of legislation and complex societal issues, and two, independence. Let us consider how this bill might affect these essential characteristics.

I ask members to think back to eight years ago in their own lives and ask themselves whether they have mastered something to the point where they would be capable of sober, credible oversight for all Canadians on the issue. Eight years may seem like a long time, but it does not enable a person to provide the kind of input that our senators, whom I am very proud of, are able to provide. Aboriginal elders, for example, are the wisdom of their communities. Are they cut off after eight years as no longer being relevant? No.

Independence is clearly impacted by an eight-year term because in two terms a prime minister can turn over the entire membership of the Senate, which would clearly impact its independence. We could have a Senate consisting of one party or another. As Benjamin Franklin said, democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. That seems to be what Mr. Harper is aiming for in the Senate with this bill.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I would once again remind the hon. member that we do not use proper names, only titles or ridings. As it is, the time allotted for her speech has expired, so we will move on to questions and comments.

The hon. member for Elgin—Middlesex—London.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

Joe Preston Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Mr. Speaker, in the hon. member's dissertation, she asked a question of us, so I will try to provide an answer. She asked if we could look back some years ago, whether it is eight, six, five or nine years, and say that we were able to master something in that period of time. I am here to say yes, through life experiences we come prepared to take on new roles and handle new pieces of information. Quality people are appointed to the Senate.

She would agree the average length of time served by senators since 1965 when we last changed the tenure of senators is about 9.25 years. This bill asks for it to be eight years. I do not see a significant difference between the two. I would ask her to tell me how that extra year and a quarter would magically add an infinite amount of wisdom to the Senate when people go to the Senate with the ability to do the job properly and can learn the job as they go along in that eight-year period of time.

I would like her opinion as to what difference the year and a quarter would make.

Constitution Act, 2010 (Senate Term Limits)Government Orders

1:40 p.m.

Liberal

Joyce Murray Liberal Vancouver Quadra, BC

Mr. Speaker, the issue is not my opinion. The issue is that it is a time period that risks making the Senate more partisan. This has not been referred to the Supreme Court of Canada. There are many who believe it is unconstitutional. There have been no consultations with the provinces, which is not surprising in light of the fact that at least five provinces and territories came out squarely against this proposal in one of its earlier iterations.