Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today in the House to debate and criticize Bill C-7.
The Liberal Party of Canada has always defended democracy and representation. Therefore we do not object to the democratic goal of Senate reform proposed by Bill C-7, but on the other hand we do object to the constitutional problems, conflicts and injustices which this reform would inevitably bring about. This reform would indeed add some democratic legitimacy to the Senate, but that very legitimacy would bring its own share of problems.
A number of new problems would be created, and basically, for what? To try to solve a democratic deficit problem which in fact has very few real consequences. In its current form, the Senate very rarely blocks bills from the House of Commons. Why? Simply because senators are not elected and the public does not see it as having the legitimacy to block the bills produced by democratically elected members of Parliament. Senate reform would give them that democratic legitimacy, and hence senators would be correct to affirm that they have a clear mandate from Canadians and would begin to block certain bills since they would represent the population on the same footing as MPs.
Let us be realistic: to get elected, senators will have to have ideas, make promises and take positions. So they will have a mandate to defend the positions for which they were elected to the Senate. That also brings with it other problems such as political party financing. It would then be necessary to increase taxpayers’ contributions, because the Senate would have to be included. It would not be just for MPs, but a whole new series of laws would be necessary to govern senators during their election campaigns.
Do we really need disputes between the two chambers? Since 1945, only very rarely has the Senate blocked bills from the House of Commons. With this reform, one can easily imagine an impasse being caused by a Senate most with a majority of members from a certain party as it faces a House of Commons with a majority from another party. In that sort of scenario, blockages would become frequent and do harm to the political dynamics of Canada that make change possible.
Do Canadians really want a political situation in which change is difficult, or do they want quick changes when problems arise? The answer to that question is obvious. With such a reform to the Senate, the political situation in Canada would, at best, become similar to that in the United States. Canadians deserve better. If the Conservatives were serious about this bill, they would propose mechanisms for avoiding blockages in the Senate. Unfortunately, this bill ushers in another problem, which is the current distribution of the Senate.
As I mentioned earlier, an elected Senate would have more power because it would have the legitimacy to be actively involved in debates. This raises a problem of current interest, namely, the distribution of senators across the entire country. For example, today, Alberta and British Columbia have only six senators each, while the province of Prince Edward Island has four and New Brunswick has ten. The demographic situation in Canada has changed a great deal since the time the distribution of Senate seats was established.
If senators had more power, do we really believe that Alberta and British Columbia would accept being seriously under-represented, the way they are now? Changing the allocation of Senate seats would not satisfy all provinces either. So what should we do? Should we take seats away from some provinces or add some more? The Conservatives will probably want to do the same thing they have suggested in Bill C-20, that is, add more senators so that each province feels it has gained something.
Do we really believe those provinces which would lose their relative representation in the Senate would be happy about it?
Let us look at the percentage mentioned in Bill C-20, which suggests adding 30 seats to the current 308. That would mean adding 10 seats in the Senate. However, as there has been no increase in the number of Senate seats since it was established, the Conservatives may want to increase that number from 105 to 500 or so, based on how the country has grown since then. I don't know what they have in mind, but I believe representation will need to change if senators are elected. I do not know whether they will be brave enough to change the allocation of seats in the House of Commons without adding any seats. If not, they will not have the guts to do it in the Senate, either.
Meddling with the Senate will lead to quarrels. Why would the Conservative government want to create more interprovincial conflicts? Although the current situation is unfair to the western provinces, it is not all that problematic since the Senate allows the House of Commons to legislate as it sees fit. As I said earlier, a democratically elected Senate would simply create more barriers. This bill will create interprovincial quarrels and political blockages.
So what would we do to avoid the Senate blocking bills from the House of Commons? We would have to create constitutional mechanisms for resolving disputes. It is highly likely that other elements of this bill will be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. For this bill to work, the government would therefore have to reopen the Constitution. We know how difficult a subject the Constitution is. It would be necessary to have the support of at least seven provinces, as has already been said today, representing at least 50% of the population. If we reopen the Constitution, it is highly likely that the provinces will also want something in return for their support.
Take the case of Quebec, for example. I remind you that Quebec has still not signed the 1982 Constitution. Do we seriously think it will be so easy to ask Quebec to close its eyes and sign? As a Quebecker, I would say no.
Would the maritime provinces be in favour of losing their weight in the Senate? I do not think so.
Is the Conservative government prepared to declare today that it will reopen the Constitution if necessary? I very much doubt it.
In short, this bill is probably unconstitutional and, if the government decides to move ahead with it, it will lead to constitutional confrontations.
As my colleagues can see, there are many “ifs” to this bill. It is precisely for that reason that we are opposed to it, for too many problems may arise. If the government were serious about this reform, it would respond to our concerns with amendments and would negotiate with the provinces. At present that is not the case. So there will be quarrels between the provinces, legal challenges and confrontations between the House of Commons and the Senate.
Finally, there is another problem to consider. What do we do if the Prime Minister refuses to recommend an elected senatorial candidate? In fact it is always the Governor General who appoints senators on the recommendation of the prime minister. The Prime Minister never appoints them directly. So a mere bill cannot force the Prime Minister to have a candidate appointed.
In spite of all the problems I have raised, this bill might well make no change apart from the problems I have mentioned. Let us be clear: this government does not even follow the rules when it comes to appointing an Auditor General. Can we believe that it will follow the rules for the Senate?
Like the rest of the Canadian population, we are in favour of democratic representation. But in this case, the reform will only create problems. At the moment the Senate is not democratic, but it lets the elected officials present their bills, and in so doing respects Canadian democracy. Furthermore, we believe that this reform is unconstitutional, and we know for a fact that the Conservative government does not want to reopen the Constitution.
The government must not do half the job: either let it commit to a total reform, including negotiations with the provinces and reopening the Constitution, or let it keep the status quo.
In closing, I want to emphasize the following point. We are not opposed to a democratic reform of the Senate but we are opposed to the way that the Conservatives want to do it.