Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak about Bill C-10, which was introduced by the Conservative government. This bill would amend the Constitution Act, 1867 by limiting Senate terms.
Earlier, I spoke about Bill C-12, which would reduce Quebec's political weight. The Bloc Québécois is in Ottawa to defend Quebec's interests, and issues related to its political weight here in Ottawa are important. We are fighting for the rights of francophones. As we will see, the people of Quebec and the National Assembly believe that Quebec should be consulted before any constitutional changes take place, especially because Bill C-10 would change the structure of the Senate and shift the political weight for strictly ideological purposes.
The minister's comments about Bloc Québécois members is another example of the Conservatives' preconceived notions. The consultations were sloppy and the introduction of this rushed legislation is not justified. Throughout history, many governments and legislatures have tried to change the Senate.
The public is beginning to seriously question the legitimacy of senators. Newspaper headlines demonstrate this every time there is a new appointment to the Senate. Senators are chosen by the Prime Minister. These are partisan appointments. Each province has a certain number of seats and many people have criticized how they are distributed. Could that chamber be much more effective? Could the measures proposed by the government improve how the Senate operates? I doubt it.
The Bloc Québécois opposes Bill C-10. We wonder about the real intentions of the Conservative government, which for the past few weeks has been introducing one bill after another that aim to change fundamental aspects of our democracy, without the provinces' consent and under false pretexts.
We believe that the Conservatives want to reform the Constitution on the sly by going over the heads of the provinces and Quebec. We have become accustomed to these ploys. Considering the number of times they have hidden obscure and discriminatory provisions in bills, no one can blame us for asking for clarification about their real objectives. Furthermore, why do they bother creating laws and regulations when they are the first to disobey laws and regulations in order to satisfy their partisan appetite?
Limiting Senate tenure is merely the beginning. In order to make any changes regarding the Senate, the Conservative government must consult Quebec and the other provinces.
The changes proposed by the Conservatives serve only to undermine Quebec and the Quebec nation. Our analysis of the concept of open federalism has been extremely disappointing for Quebeckers. There has been no concrete recognition of the Quebec nation and its attributes, and the Conservatives have missed a number of opportunities to restore the balance between the two nations, which only increases the level of scepticism among the people of Quebec.
The open federalism vaunted by the federal government has instead been restrictive for Quebec.
We simply have to look at the bills recently introduced by this government, such as Bill C-12, which reduces Quebec's political weight in the House of Commons, the various proposals for Senate reform or the fact that they have called political party financing into question.
Who is this government really targeting? In order to better understand the Bloc Québécois' position, one must analyze what the Conservative government is proposing, while keeping mind that this government is always trying to diminish Quebec's influence.
I must mention that any reform affecting the powers of the Senate, the method of selecting senators, the number of senators to which a province is entitled or the residency requirement of senators can only be made in consultation with Quebec, the provinces and the territories. Why did the government not think it necessary to seek consent from the key players on an issue that affects the Constitution Act, 1867?
Let us look at this together. What is the impetus to the bill and what does it offer to Quebec? Currently, a senator is appointed by the government, by the Prime Minister, and that appointment is effective until the maximum age of 75, at which point the senator must retire. A person appointed at age 30 would receive a term of over 45 years. The Conservative government is proposing to uphold the retirement age of 75 and, in addition, would impose an eight year term on senators. Despite being appointed for an eight year term, if the senator reaches age 75 during that term, he or she must retire from the Senate. There is another provision whereby no senator can request that their eight year term be renewed.
Although this seems like a good idea, what impact could an eight year term have on democratic life?
If this bill is passed in its current form, it would mean greater turnover of senators. And since senators would still be unelected, there would be an increase in partisan appointments.
It is not a stretch to think that a government could change the composition of the Senate by making partisan appointments, thereby taking control of the Senate and having every government bill passed or defeated according to the whim of that very same government.
It could change the parliamentary agenda of the House of Commons by systematically obstructing bills it did not like or that came from opposition party members.
When they are elected to power, Canada's old parties try to make changes that favour their base. They even contradict what they may have said when they were in opposition. I have an example. The Prime Minister, who questioned the Senate's partiality when he was first elected, is now introducing a bill that will boost partisan appointments. Obviously he has changed his tune, but why? In order to impose a regressive Conservative program and satisfy the Reform Party members of the Conservative Party.
When I read the wording of Bill C-10, I get a better grasp of the government's intentions and, more importantly, a better idea of how it wants to get its legislation passed.
The first paragraph in Bill C-10 provides that the Senate must evolve in accordance with the principles of democracy. That paragraph includes examples of institutions which, over time, have had their structure amended. The second paragraph seeks to explain how the Senate can better reflect the democratic values of Canadians. Finally, it is in the third paragraph that mention is made of the change to Senate terms.
What I find disturbing is that the government mentions too often that Parliament can amend the Constitution. It uses as an example what the government did in 1965, when it set the retirement age for senators.
It is in the fifth paragraph that the Conservative government confirms its intention to ignore Quebec and the other provinces to make changes to the Senate. The fifth paragraph of Bill C-10 reads, “Whereas Parliament, by virtue of section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, may make laws to amend the Constitution of Canada in relation to the Senate;”.
May I remind hon. members that Quebec did not sign the 1982 Constitution? I also remind them that the patriation of the Constitution was done unilaterally, without Quebec's agreement. Lastly, let us not forget that the minimum condition set by successive governments in Quebec on Senate reform has always been clear: there will be no Senate reform without first settling the issue of Quebec's status.
That is why the Bloc Québécois is opposed to Bill C-10. It is very clear that the Conservative government wants to ignore Quebec and the other provinces. Need I remind the House of the reasons why the Bloc Québécois was founded?
It was because of the record of failure in constitutional negotiations that the Bloc Québécois was established. In order to avoid discussing the Constitution with Quebec, the Conservative government claims to have the power, under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, to unilaterally change the provisions dealing with the Senate.
This is yet another attempt by Ottawa to work against the interests of Quebec, and even those of the other Canadian provinces and territories.
In November 2006, the Conservative government tabled a motion recognizing the Quebec nation. Since then, no action has been taken by the government to follow up on that recognition. It looks as though the Conservative government does not want to accept that Quebec is a society that developed by itself and that applies its laws based on its specificity and its own attributes.
I invite parliamentarians to read certain documents to better understand Quebec's claims. I also invite my colleagues to be prudent and vigilant, because by changing the length of senators' terms of office through this bill, the Conservative government is opening the door to various changes to the Senate without obtaining the consent of Quebec, the provinces and the territories.
In the brief submitted by the Government of Quebec in 2007 on federal Senate bills, the Government of Quebec stated that:
...the Senate is an institution whose basic composition forms the very basis of the compromise that created the federation. The Senate is not simply a federal institution in the strictest sense. It is an integral part of the Canadian federal system. The Senate is an institution whose future is of interest to all constitutional players within the federation.
In a press release dated November 7, 2007, the former Quebec minister of Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, Mr. Benoît Pelletier, a Liberal Quebec minister, reiterated the position of the Quebec government:
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, ... the Senate can be neither reformed nor abolished without Quebec's consent.
The Government of Quebec is not opposed to modernizing the Senate. However, if an attempt is made to alter the basic characteristics of this institution, the only avenue is engaging in a coordinated federal-provincial constitutional process that will fully engage all constitutional players, including Quebec, the provinces and the territories.
Senate Bill S-8 proposes the appointment of senators by the Prime Minister after elections held by the provinces. This bill is called An Act respecting the selection of senators.
The government claims that it could fundamentally alter the process for appointing senators without necessarily requiring a round of constitutional negotiations.
Although this type of appointment was carried out once in 1990 and there was no challenge, does it justify not consulting Quebec and the provinces?
As I mentioned earlier, the people of Quebec are questioning the usefulness and effectiveness of the Senate in particular. There are certainly many ways to reform the Senate. In March 2010, Quebeckers were polled about the Senate. The results are very interesting and indicative of how they feel about the Senate in its current form.
In looking at the data, we can see that the majority of Quebeckers do not see a value in the Senate as it is currently configured, and 43% of Quebeckers agree with abolishing it. I should point out that only 8% of respondents believe that the Senate plays an important role and that the system for appointing senators works. Only 8%.
Let us talk about the place of francophones in the Senate. Considering the number of francophone senators, the government could consider making changes that would ensure francophones are fairly represented in the Senate. Elections could end up decreasing their representation in the Senate and could create an imbalance for francophone rights in the Senate. This is something that concerns us as well, which is why it is important not to ignore Quebec and the provinces. The bill before us does not take that into account.
If we are going to change the fundamental role of the Senate, why not abolish it altogether? The Bloc Québécois believes that any Senate reforms must be the result of constitutional negotiations.
I have many reasons for believing that the Senate should be abolished. Historically, many upper chambers have been abolished and the operations of these institutions were not affected. The main motivation for provinces to abolish their upper chamber was financial. Second chambers were extremely expensive for the provinces.
That logic should lead us to consider studying this aspect of the Senate. Is the $50 million we spend on Senate operations essential and justified? As with any major reform, abolishing the Senate also requires amendments to the Constitution.
To have a constitutional change approved, the government needs to obtain consent from seven provinces representing at least 50% of Canada's population or the unanimous consent of all the provinces.
Until proven otherwise, Canada is a confederation. Provinces have to be consulted before any amendment to the Constitution, which means that in order to pass Bill C-10, an act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 by limiting Senate terms, the federal government would have to enter into constitutional negotiations. It is obvious from reading the bill that the Conservative government wants to ignore Quebec. It ignores francophones.
The sixth paragraph in the bill tries to legitimize the Conservative government's position that senators' terms can be amended by regulation.
In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada examined parliament's ability to unilaterally amend constitutional provisions relating to the Senate.
According to its ruling, decisions pertaining to major changes to the essential characteristics of the Senate cannot be made unilaterally. In view of the fact that senators would not be able to renew their terms, we assume that there would be even more partisan appointments and, more importantly, that this change would alter an essential characteristic of the Senate. For that reason, the Bloc Québécois is not in favour of Bill C-10.
It is sad to see that this government is governing according to a Conservative ideology that does not correspond to the values of Quebeckers. I have now been sitting in this House for six years and have seen that the Conservative government is using every means to diminish the influence of Quebec. We need not look too far to find examples. Bill C-12 will reduce Quebec's political weight.