Mr. Speaker, the bill the Conservative government has introduced is a travesty of democratic reform and an affront to Canadians’ intelligence.
If the bill is passed, our Senate will no longer be representative either of Canadians’ choice or of the cultural reality of Canada, and we will inherit a hybrid Senate devoid of the independence it needs if it is to be more credible in the public’s eyes.
If I may, I would like to explain why this reform is sloppy, incomplete and scandalous. I would then like to add a few thoughts about genuinely democratic reform of our parliamentary system.
Let us see. This reform would allow the provinces to hold elections in order to participate in the process of selecting senators. The bill proposes a framework for holding these “elections”, which could be held at the same time as municipal or provincial elections, for example. The public would be invited to go and vote for one of the candidates in the running. Citizens would do their civic duty and put their ballot in the box. And then what would happen? The province would submit the list of candidates selected to the prime minister of Canada, who would decide whether to take the recommendations into account. But the prime minister would retain the privilege of choosing the candidates. He would therefore not be at all obliged to take the voters’ choice into account.
Are we really going to ask Canadians to go and vote, and not be able to assure them that their choice will be honoured? And the government calls this a democratic reform? We already have a declining voter turnout for federal, provincial and municipal elections. Canadians are completely disillusioned about our political system, and they are being asked, with a straight face, to take part in a travesty of democracy. Is this a joke?
That is not all. These senators will be appointed or elected, as the case may be, for a maximum term of nine years, and will be allowed to serve only one term. These new senators will be sitting alongside colleagues who are senators appointed for life and will be telling them that since they were elected, they have more legitimacy than they do. This will create a two-tier Senate.
As well, once the senators are elected, they will never again have to account to Canadians. Because they will be unable to stand again, they will not have to face the public and keep their campaign promises. The provinces will be able to decide to hold elections without even knowing whether the voters' choice will be honoured. And who is going to foot the bill for those elections? The provinces, of course.
We might say that this has become a bad habit with Conservatives. This looks like the omnibus bill, Bill C-10, which provides for more prison terms and more prisons. Who will pay for that? The provinces will, again. It is easy to make reforms when you can pass the buck and the consequences on to someone else, but it is hard for the provinces to swallow, given, moreover, that they are not the ones who are making the decisions. This really looks like an ad hoc, sloppy bill. The fact is that this is the third time the Conservatives have proposed a bill relating to Senate elections, and my Liberal colleague has explained that very well. And yet they still have not managed to do any better than this. To me, this looks a lot like a manoeuvre to get us to swallow an ad hoc reform at top speed, in order to circumvent the constitutional rules of this country.
If the government truly wanted to respect democracy, it would follow the rules laid down in the supreme law of this country, our Constitution, which states that any reform relating to the selection and qualification of senators requires an amendment to the Constitution of Canada.
It is true that section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, authorizes Parliament to amend the Constitution without the agreement of the provinces in certain circumstances, however paragraphs 42(1)(b) and 42(1)(c) of the Constitution Act, 1982, set out four exceptions to this rule, and in these cases the agreement of the provinces is required. The exceptions are as follows: amending the powers of the Senate; the method of selecting senators; the number of members by which a province is entitled to be represented; and the residence qualifications of senators.
So what is the government doing in order to avoid consulting the provinces? It is trying to make people believe that senators will be elected while continuing to appoint them. It is trying to reform the Senate without asking the opinion of the provinces.
This trick, however, is perhaps not even constitutional. In fact, in a very important decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1980, the justices of the highest court in the land stated that Parliament alone cannot make substantive amendments to the “essential characteristics or fundamental features of the Senate”. Moreover, Quebec intends to challenge the constitutionality of this bill, if passed.
What can be made of a bill that is nothing but a parody of democracy and does not respect the Constitution of our country? What can be made of a government that says it supports democratic reforms in Libya and in other Arab nations, touts democracy in China, Burma and Vietnam, and is not even capable of following its own democracy’s rules? What can be made of a government that negotiates free trade agreements and security perimeters behind closed doors and Conservative members who shut down standing committees by systematically directing committees to go in camera and cut short debates in the House? This government is very poorly placed to talk about democracy.
Moreover, the purpose of the Senate must be kept in mind. The Senate was created by the Fathers of Confederation to ensure the independence of our democratic system, a long-term perspective, continuity and equality between the regions, all in keeping with the principle of federalism of our nation. If the government wanted true reform of the Senate—democratic reform—it would modify the upper house to reserve a special place for the first nations, women, francophones—especially francophones outside Quebec, who presently have no national voice in our system—a place to better respect the contemporary nature of our Canadian societies with seats for the cultural communities.
I am convinced that Canadians also have their thoughts on the matter. Why not give them a voice? A referendum on the reform or abolition of the Senate would provide us with a real democratic verdict. We should let Canadians have their opinion on such an important subject. We should give Canadians a real voice instead of having them participate in a mere semblance of democracy. Canadians deserve much better than this botched reform.