Mr. Speaker, as this is my first speech in this Parliament since the May election, I will take this opportunity to thank all the voters of the great constituency of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, for putting their faith in me for a third consecutive term. I will commit to them that I will continue to put their interest first in all that I do as their member of Parliament and as their humble and faithful servant.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the volunteers who worked so hard on the last campaign, either in the office, at the door or putting up signs in the over 15,000 square kilometres that encompasses our riding, from Rolly View to Genasee, from Buck Creek to Strachan, from Alhambra to Alix and all points in between. The job is daunting, to say the least. I am proud of each of them for exercising, not only their democratic right but for taking their responsibility so seriously that they got involved and participated more than just the act of voting.
I just returned to Ottawa last night from my home in Lacombe, Alberta, after this past weekend. I have been away for a couple of weeks. I was so glad on Thursday to step off the airplane into the fresh, crisp Alberta evening air. Right away, my senses were overcome as I could smell the wheat and barley dust in the air. The harvest is still in full swing. It took my memory back to the times when I was a child growing up on a farm in central Alberta and the salt of the earth people with whom I grew up and was surrounded by.
My memory also went back to a time when I was a little bit younger than I am now. I am still fairly young, at least I like to think so. To brought me back to a time when one of those fields was used for more than just growing a crop in Alberta. It was one of those fields that one could see clearly from the air when landing an airplane in Calgary. Etched into that field all those years ago, some 20, if not more, years ago, were three large letters, EEE for a triple-E Senate, back when the movement in Alberta to elect our senators was in full swing. I believe that field, at that time, or still does belong to now-Senator Bert Brown. I cannot think of a better use of a field, other than growing some wheat or barley.
This is the crux of my speech today. I am so proud as an Albertan and as a Canadian that this Parliament is moving forward to reform and enhance our democracy. The change is but a small step in implementation but a leap forward in making our democracy more accountable to the people it represents.
The 2011 Speech from the Throne reaffirmed the government's Senate reform priority and that our government would reintroduce this legislation, encourage provinces and territories that have yet to do so to hold elections for Senate nominees, and to limit those term lengths that they now enjoy.
In keeping with that commitment in the throne speech, on June 21, 2011, earlier this spring, our government introduced the Senate reform act that we are debating today.
There has been some criticism that the reforms do not go far enough and do not meet all the pillars of the triple-E Senate, for example, that the reforms constitute a major change in the Senate structure, that it should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, or that the changes may be unconstitutional or may change the Senate for the worse in the long run. I do not believe any of those are true.
These reforms are consistent with the government's incremental approach to reform and are completely within the jurisdiction of Parliament. While the bill encourages provinces and territories to hold elections for Senate nominees, it does not change the method of selection for senators. Moreover, it does not bind the Prime Minister or the Governor General when making appointments to the Senate.
Our government is approaching Senate reform in a step-by-step fashion in order to avoid the all-or-nothing confrontational approaches that have failed in the past.
One of the important initiatives in this bill, when implemented, is that our government would be very willing to consider other worthwhile proposals. If anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.
The government has encouraged the provinces and territories to implement a democratic process for the selection of Senate nominees. The Senate reform act would provide a voluntary framework for provinces to implement a democratic process that enables voters to select nominees to represent them, their province and their region in the Senate.
The act would include a voluntary schedule based on Alberta's senatorial selection act, which would set out a basis for provinces to enact these democratic processes. As we said, Alberta already has established a democratic process for the selection of senators in which we have seen most recently the appointment of Senator Bert Brown in 2007.
However, it would require the Prime Minister to consider the recommended names from a list of elected Senate nominees when making or recommending Senate appointments. In Alberta, for example, there is some criticism. The Edmonton Journal has led the way in speaking out against our reforms by printing an op-ed by the hon. member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville and a negative editorial. On the other hand, our former premier, Don Getty, says that the reforms do not go far enough to bring democracy to the Senate.
Despite those criticisms, much of which is hypothetical and speculatory, the one thing that is standard across the board is that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Everyone agrees that it has to be reformed. We just simply may disagree right now on how to go about it.
Generally speaking, our reforms have been perceived to be balanced, moderate and reasonable. We are not going so far as to suggest that it should be abolished. I do not think the Conservatives like to tear down their house before seeing if they can fix it first. However, members of the New Democratic Party and the member for Hamilton Centre specifically, have been very vocal on that point.
We are acting on what I think everyone agrees must happen but we need to change things up. We need to make it more democratic and accountable and that the status quo simply cannot continue. Our government received a strong mandate from Canadians to reform the Senate and to implement our Senate reform commitments. We were very clear, not only in this past election campaign but in every election campaign in which I have been involved as a Conservative candidate, that we would bring democratic reform to the Senate.
The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Senate suffers because senators have no democratic mandate from Canadians and can serve terms as long as 45 years. I have been here for almost six years and have served as an executive member of the NATO parliamentary assembly. I am an executive member of the interparliamentary union of 144 countries that get together to discuss how to enhance their parliaments and democratic processes and I am continuously amazed when parliamentarians from places like Mexico, Indonesia, Poland and even Australia are amazed that Canada does not have an elected Senate.
The Senate reform act would change that. It also would change how long senators can sit in the upper chamber. We have specifically chosen terms that are long enough to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate as a chamber of sober second thought while still providing regular renewal in Senate membership. Limiting Senate tenure is within Parliament's exclusive constitutional authority under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and is similar to an amendment passed by the Pearson government in 1965, which also reduced the tenure of senators.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that our government is prepared to be flexible in the consideration of amendments to Senate term lengths so long as any amendment does not undermine the principle of the bill. By proposing a nine year term, our government has already demonstrated that it can be flexible in the details of the bill. However, we would not accept a length of term that was so long that it would defeat the purpose of the bill, which is to ensure that the Senate is refreshed with new ideas and perspectives on a regular and ongoing basis.
As the Prime Minister stated when he appeared before the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform, the fact that senators can be and occasionally are appointed for terms of 15, 30 or even 45 years is just not acceptable today to the broad mainstream of the Canadian community.
Our position has been supported by many of Canada's leading constitutional authorities, as well as the Senate Special Committee on Senate Reform, but that is not what the opposition would like Canadians to believe.
Our minister has met with opposition critics in the House and discussed Senate reform broadly. The NDP's former leader and the member for Hamilton Centre always maintained a strict Senate abolitionist position as their preferred and ultimate goal. While they have stated publicly that some reform is better than no reform, I fully expect that the NDP will oppose the bill.
The Liberal critic, the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, is highly knowledgeable on the file and has expressed specific concerns, all of which have been publicly dealt with. The Liberals are concerned that a dispute resolution mechanism between the two chambers does not exist. They claim that other conventional and constitutional tools necessary to deal with changed circumstances with Senate reform would cause numerous problems. They oppose incremental reform and argue that the provinces must be consulted and that this legislation should be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada before proceeding. They have argued and prefer longer term limits than those proposed by the government, if and when they support term limits at all.
We expect Liberal senators to oppose and obstruct the legislation and to encourage Conservative senators with reservations about the bill to speak publicly and to oppose it. Furthermore, we expect the Liberals to profess support for wholesale Senate reform in general, but opposition to incremental reform through legislation such as this bill.
We have heard the opposition ask questions about these reforms affecting people representation within the Senate chamber. However, under the current appointment system, there is no guarantee that minority groups will be properly represented in the Senate. Our government is hopeful that women and minority candidates will participate fully in any selection process by putting their names forward as candidates.
Provincial political parties could play a role in the nomination of potential Senate nominees, as they do in the nomination process for members of the legislative assembly. The government hopes that parties will encourage the participation of groups that have been traditionally under-represented in our political institutions.
The Prime Minister's prerogative to recommend qualified individuals for appointment to the Senate would not be affected by any consultation process that may be implemented. Should the Prime Minister feel that it is necessary to take steps to address an imbalance in the representation of women or minority groups in the Senate, he or she would retain the power to do so.
I will now discuss what Senate reform has done in my home province of Alberta, but I will first talk about a very interesting thing that happened in my province this past weekend.
I congratulate Alison Redford, the premier-elect and now the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. She will be one of three women leading various provinces across our country in the very near future. I convey to her my congratulations and offer her goodwill as she takes on the task of taking over the helm of our province.
I also thank outgoing premier, Ed Stelmach, and his wife, Marie, for the decades of service they have given to Albertans. I wish them well as they move on to the next phase of their lives after the next provincial election.
Alberta has been ahead of the game for quite some time. We passed the senatorial selection act in 1989, an act that allows voters to select nominees through a democratic process. Under that act, the Government of Alberta submits the names of elected nominees to the federal government. The act does not require the prime minister or the governor general to appoint the individuals selected as nominees through the process.
We have had Senate selections in 1989, 1998 and 2004. Two senators have been appointed as a result of these processes: Stan Waters in 1990 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Bert Brown in 2007 by our current Prime Minister.
In Alberta, candidates for Senate nominees can run as independents or as candidates of a registered provincial political party. Recently, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives have nominated candidates in each of these selection processes. The Liberal Party of Alberta has not had and did not have any candidates in either the 1998 or the 2004 process. The New Democratic Party of Alberta, which has stated its preference for Senate abolition, has yet to endorse a candidate for a selection process.
In past processes, candidates have also been nominated under provincial parties formed specifically to contest Senate elections. For example, the Reform Party of Alberta supported candidates in the 1989 and 1998 selections but did not run in the 2004 selection process. Stan Waters was a Reform Party of Alberta candidate in 1989 and sat as a Reform Senator when he was appointed in 1990.
In other cases, candidates have run under provincial party banners that have no federal equivalent. In 2004, three candidates ran under the Alberta Alliance Party. The Alberta Alliance Party changed its name to the Wildrose Alliance when it merged with the Wildrose Party in 2008. Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith has indicated the party's plan to run full slate of candidates in the next senatorial selection process and has noted that the selections are one of the ways our regional issues can be most fairly represented.
The Canada West Foundation estimates that voter turnout for the 1998 process was about 30% overall. On average, voter turnout for the Senate vote was about 10% lower than ballots cast in municipal races.
In 2004 Alberta held its senatorial selection process in conjunction with the provincial general election. Previously, in 1998 and in 1989, these processes were held at the same time as general municipal elections.
Voter turnout for the 2004 senatorial selection process was nearly 44.2%. However, once rejected and spoiled ballots were considered, voter turnout for the senatorial process was closer to 35%. In comparison, voter turnout for the 2004 provincial general election was just over 44%.
I know what some rural Canadians are thinking. If Senate nominees are selected from provincial-wide constituencies, would candidates from urban centres not have an advantage over Canadians from rural areas?
I want to be very clear here. Our legislation improves the current consultation process in terms of Senate selections. Under the current method of selection, there is no guarantee that all regions in a province can be represented at the same time. However, the proposed bill empowers the provinces to implement a consultation process that will best meet the needs of its citizens. It will be up to each province to decide upon a process to ensure that all citizens in the provinces are properly represented.
The role of the Senate and the individual senators would not change as a result of this legislation. Senators will continue to play an important function in legislative review and their status will not be affected by whether they have been appointed directly or selected on the basis of popular consultation.
Similarly, the status of senators will not be affected by the type of electoral system that is used to select them. Over time, as more senators are appointed on the basis of a consultation process, it is our hope that the democratic legitimacy of the Senate as a whole will improve and that this would lay the basis for longer term future reform.
The bill does not provide funding for provincial or territorial consultation processes. Our government believes that provincial or territorial processes should be funded by provincial or territorial governments. For example, Alberta has held three consultation processes and the Government of Canada has never contributed funding. Alberta estimated that the cost of the most recent consultation process held in 2004 was approximately $1.6 million.
Our preference is Senate reform, not Senate abolition, like some of the opposition would suggest. That is why we acted quickly in reintroducing Senate reform legislation so the Senate would better reflect the values of Canada and Canadians in the 21st century.
On the equal part of the triple-E, we need more seats for the west. Across the country, there may be varying viewpoints, opinions and ideas on what to do with the Senate. These are all things for legitimate debate, but most important is the status quo. What we are doing today is simply no longer palatable to the Canadian public.
That is why we are proceeding with Senate reform that is reasonable and within the constitutional authority of Parliament. The federal government has to take a look at the processes that have worked for our provincial colleagues.
Alberta is firmly committed to an elected Senate and to Senate reform. Not only that, but Alberta has proven that democratic processes are feasible and possible, holding its first selections more than 20 years ago.
We in this party encourage all provinces to follow Alberta's lead and start electing their Senate representatives.