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House of Commons Hansard #138 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

Freezing Assets of Corrupt Regimes ActRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Gordon O'Connor Conservative Carleton—Mississippi Mills, ON

Justice and Human RightsCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Ed Fast Conservative Abbotsford, BC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to present, in both official languages, the 14th report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

In accordance with the order of reference of Wednesday, February 9, 2011, the committee has considered Bill C-576, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (personating peace officer) and agreed on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, to report it without amendment.

Transport, Infrastructure and CommunitiesCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Merv Tweed Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to present, in both official languages, the ninth report of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in relation to Bill C-511, An Act respecting the reporting of motor vehicle information and to amend the Motor Vehicle Safety Act (improving public safety).

The committee has studied the bill and has decided to report the bill back to the House, with amendments.

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, there have been discussions amongst the parties and I believe that if you were to seek it, you would find unanimous consent for the following motion. I move:

That, notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practices of the House, at the conclusion of today's debate on the NDP opposition motion in the name of the member for Hamilton Centre, all questions necessary to dispose of the motion be deemed put and a recorded division deemed requested and deferred until Tuesday, March 8, 2011, at the expiry of the time provided for government orders.

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

Does the hon. member for Vancouver East have the unanimous consent of the House to propose this motion?

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

The House has heard the terms of the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Business of SupplyRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

(Motion agreed to)

Air CanadaPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

March 3rd, 2011 / 10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I bring forward a petition from constituents who have expressed a great deal of concern regarding Air Canada and the act that was to protect the overhaul maintenance bases, particularly in Winnipeg as well as Mississauga and Montreal.

To be very clear, it was the intent of the law, when it was passed, that these overhaul and maintenance facilities would be maintained by Air Canada and owned by Air Canada. It is the opinion of many, including those individuals who have signed this petition, that Air Canada needs to be held accountable to the law to protect these jobs.

These jobs are of good quality and play an important role in the aerospace industry in Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario. The petitioners ask that the Prime Minister hold Air Canada accountable to the law.

Low Income HousingPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Bloc

Paule Brunelle Bloc Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to present a petition signed by nearly 500 of my constituents from Trois-Rivières regarding the renovation of low income housing. We know that there are 65,000 low income households in Quebec who are waiting on renovations to improve their quality of life. We know that the housing stock is valued at $7 billion and that there has been a lack of investment in the maintenance of this housing, which was built in the early 1970s.

The petitioners are calling on the Government of Canada to make the required public investment to enable the Société d'habitation du Québec to complete its renovation plan for low income housing, which includes covering an accumulated maintenance deficit.

AfghanistanPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I have a petition signed by dozens of Canadians calling for an end to Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.

In May 2008 Parliament passed a resolution to withdraw Canadian Forces by July 2011. The Prime Minister, with the help of the Liberal Party, broke that promise to honour the parliamentary motion, and refuses to put it to a parliamentary vote in the House.

Committing 1,000 soldiers to a training mission still presents a danger to our troops and an unnecessary expense when our country is faced with a $56 billion deficit. The military mission has cost Canadians more than $18 billion, money that could have been used to improve health care and seniors pensions here in Canada.

Polls show that a clear majority of Canadians do not want Canada's military presence to continue after the scheduled removal date of July 2011. Therefore, the petitioners call upon the Prime Minister to honour the will of Parliament and bring the troops home now.

Low Income HousingPetitionsRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Marcel Proulx Liberal Hull—Aylmer, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to present a petition signed by the people of Hull-Aylmer, who are calling on the Government of Canada to make the required public investment to enable the Société d'habitation du Québec to complete its renovation plan for low income housing, which includes covering an accumulated maintenance deficit.

These petitioners are urging the government to meet this social housing objective, in order to improve the quality of life of a number of households.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:10 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

moved:

That: (a) the House recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada, specifically the unnecessary Senate and a House of Commons that does not accurately reflect the political preferences of Canadians;

(b) the House call on the government to (i) propose amendments to the Referendum Act in order to allow the holding of a special referendum at the same time as the next general election, (ii) put a simple question, as written by the Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, which would allow Canadians to vote to abolish the Senate;

(c) the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation, (ii) advise the government on the wording of a referendum question to abolish the Senate; and

(d) the Special Committee for Democratic Improvement shall consist of 12 members which shall include six members from the government party, three members from the Official Opposition, two members from the Bloc Québécois and one member from the New Democratic Party, provided that the Chair shall be from the government party, and

(1) that in addition to the Chair, there shall be one Vice-Chair elected by committee members, who shall be from an opposition party;

(2) that the members to serve on the said Committee be appointed by the Whip of each party depositing with the Clerk of the House a list of his or her party's members of the Committee no later than three days from the passage of this motion;

(3) that the quorum of the Special Committee be seven members for any proceedings;

(4) that membership substitutions be permitted to be made from time to time, if required, in the manner provided for in Standing Order 114(2);

(5) that the Committee have all of the powers of a standing committee as provided in the Standing Orders; and

(6) that the Committee shall report its recommendations to this House no later than one year from the passage of this motion.

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to not only move my motion but also to debate it.

New Democrats, and probably most members of the House if they were to admit it, accept the fact that Canadians believe that our Parliament is broken and that we need to do something about it rather than tinkering around the edges. We need to make profound changes that will actually bring modern, true democracy to Parliament Hill.

The current Prime Minister has quite a track record of commenting on the Senate. Prior to the current position he holds, it had been his position that the Senate is a relic of the 19th century. We agree with the Prime Minister on that.

However, it is a relic that was put in place for a very specific purpose. It was created to ensure that Canada's elite, the power brokers of the day, those that have, are protected from whatever the unwashed masses might do should we actually give them control of this country, control of the economy, and control over the laws that govern our day-to-day activities. The Senate was put there to keep this place in check. We believe it is time to remove that, get rid of the Senate, and focus on making this place as democratic as it can be. That is the solution as far as we are concerned.

Citizens in this country go from rage to laughter at the situation that we have in our current Senate. That is why it has been known for many years as the “taskless thanks”. Under our Constitution, the Senate is a body that is actually superior to this place. However, there is one little missing piece in that place, the absence of democracy.

I would like to say upfront that there is one exception to the comments that will be made, and that I will make, about unelected senators. In fact, there is one who was elected. Although I acknowledge the exception of the one senator who was elected, I do remind the House that that senator will never have the word “re-elected” appearing after the word “elected” because there is no requirement for that senator to go back to the people and ask, “Am I doing a good job? Am I doing the right thing? Are you happy with what I've done?” I accept that there is an exception there, but it only goes to a certain degree. The whole issue of accountability and reporting to the very people who provided the mandate to be there in the first place is missing.

I also want to say that there are independent senators in that place. Although not many, there are independent senators who go out of their way to maintain that independence and try to keep at arm's length from the partisan aspects. However, that is a very small minority.

An important comment I would make at the outset is that this is not about individual senators. There will be comments made about them. To some degree, they have to be accountable for their actions and what they are doing over there.

However, today is not about individual senators. In fact, I have the greatest admiration for most of the ones with whom I have worked. In particular, a certain senator from Saskatchewan who is a lawyer, a former judge and ambassador, and the co-chair of our Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association, does a magnificent job and is a great Canadian. I am very proud to represent Canada with her and the others on that team. That does not change the fact that this hon. senator still does not have the democratic mandate to be affecting our laws and deciding on whether or not this country will have laws that protect people or whether we have an economy that represents ordinary working people. Senators do not have that mandate. As good as that Canadian is that I am talking about, she still does not have that mandate.

There are some who would argue that by going to an elected Senate, we will solve that entire problem. However, we are arguing here today that if Canadians focused on this issue, we could convince them that the best thing to do is to abolish the Senate completely and focus on bringing proportional representation to the House of Commons to more accurately reflect the political will and decisions of the Canadian people. That is what this is all about.

The government has put forward some bills and it looks like its ideas are not going very far. People are asking why they are doing this now. The government is trying to do something and people can see that it is not getting anywhere, and so what is the point? Why are they wasting their time trying to do that? It is too complicated.

Why do we not just go ahead and elect senators and keep the Senate there? It is because we all know that going to an elected Senate, first, would be just as complicated and just as difficult as abolishing it. We also know that it would create gridlock in this place. It was a real eye opener for the Canadian people, and certainly for this party, when Bill C-311 was unilaterally killed without debate, or at least not much if there was any, after being passed by the House twice.

We believe, rather than setting up a system that would complicate things even more by creating permanent gridlock, we ought to abolish that place completely.

How do we go about that, because it is so complex? We could stand up a fleet of constitutional lawyers who would tell us how difficult that would be to do. Agreed. Anything to do with the constitution and this place and that place is complicated. That is a given, but running away from the problem will not solve it.

We in the New Democratic Party are saying that if we have a big problem like this that is so important to the future of the country, why do we not go to the “bosses” and ask them what they think. The bosses in this case are the Canadian people.

We are suggesting that we put a referendum before the Canadian people, a simple question. We believe the first question that needs to be asked if we are to look at changing things is, “Do you still want a Senate, yes or no?” If the answer is yes, then we can move on and start talking about what that would look like and engage Canadians in that discussion. We believe that in an open and fair political battle, we could win that one, because the number of people in Canada who believe that it should be abolished is growing. However, if we put that question to the Canadian people and they said, “No, we do not want the Senate any more”, we believe we could move very quickly to implement the will of the Canadian people, because that is where all power derives from in this country, in the will of the Canadian people.

The Prime Minister said he would not appoint anybody who was not elected to the Senate. Let me just give a brief description of some of the people the Prime Minister has appointed, without mentioning names, as that is not my thing. I do not have much time, and so I will just list some of them: a Tory organizer was appointed to sit in cabinet as a Quebec representative, which we all remember; a former director of the PC fund and chair of Tory leadership and policy conventions was appointed senator; as were a Tory campaign director for 2006 and 2008; a former chair of the Conservative Party's fundraising; a former chief of staff to Preston Manning; and an unsuccessful candidate in 1993 and 1997.

That is one of the problems here. The Prime Minister said he would not appoint anyone and then turned around and only appointed, for the most part, with a couple of exceptions, good, loyal Conservatives. That may make the Conservative benches happy, but all it does is put the lie to the claim that the other place is non-partisan. That is not true.

To continue, a former Conservative MP, defeated in the 2008 election, and another unsuccessful Conservative candidate in the 2008 election were also appointed. What is it with the Conservatives who cannot get into Parliament through the front door, but as long as they are good buddies with the Prime Minister of the day, they get to come into Parliament through the back door? Of course, the nice thing about that is they never have to go back to anybody. One bended knee request, and it is over.

There are a few more. We have another unsuccessful Canadian Alliance candidate, and yet another. We have a former president of the Conservative Party, the Quebec co-chair of the Prime Minister's own 2004 leadership campaign, and the Prime Minister's former press secretary. We have a former Newfoundland Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, a New Brunswick Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, another unsuccessful Conservative candidate and yet another, and the list goes on and on.

The Liberals are no better. The Liberals right now, to the best of my knowledge, and if I am wrong I will correct it publicly, have their national campaign co-chair as a senator, their Nova Scotia campaign co-chair as a senator, their New Brunswick campaign co-chair as a senator, and their leader's Alberta and British Columbia outreach coordinators as senators too.

What is interesting about that is that it speaks to the leader's Alberta and British Columbia outreach, but if a senator is to provide a sober second independent thought, how can it be that a senator can also somehow be tied to the leader of the official opposition? There is no politics over there, though: they are all just good Canadians, reflecting soberly with sober second thoughts.

Why do they have a whip? When did we need to start whipping independents? They have a government House leader. We know that a government House leader's job is to shepherd government legislation through the Senate, yet government legislation is partisan. How can that be? There is the leader of the official opposition. How can that be? How can all of these things exist and yet at the same time we can have this independent sober second thought? How?

It is time to give the Canadian people their chance to kill that undemocratic chamber and make this place more democratic. That is what this is about.

As for the other piece of this, it is not as sexy and will not get all the headlines. We knew that. However, in many ways, the proportional representation aspect of this is arguably even more important than the Senate, because the decision about what happens with the Senate will be taken here. We need to make sure that everywhere here is democratically elected and actually reflects the will of the people. This House does not do that right now.

We have a system, and we believe it is time to end it, where if a party goes into a general election and gets 40% of the vote, it gets 100% of the power. What kind of democracy says that 40% of the vote gives a party 100% of the power? Right now, ours does. Right now, that is the way that first past the post works.

Some people are saying that the reason we want proportional representation is that we are one of the smaller parties, that it is the only way we will get into power, et cetera, all of which may or may not be true. However, I would remind the government members who may want to use that argument that in Germany, where they have proportional representation, it is the right wing that has formed a coalition to reach a majority government. So if it is a plot, a secret conspiracy, to help the left and the NDP, we need to rethink our strategy here. That does not seem to be a guarantee with this system.

What is a guarantee, though, is having people's votes reflected. Right now there are hundreds of thousands of votes cast in a general election that virtually do not count. In my own riding, I hope that all of those who voted for me are happy but all of the people who voted against me are unhappy, and where is what they wanted reflected? Where is it? It is legitimate, too.

Just because one's favoured candidate does not win, does not mean that one's vote is worth less than somebody else's vote. Yet that is what our current system does.

If we had proportional representation, under one of the more prevalent models, here is how it would help the Conservatives. Granted, the Conservatives would have fewer seats. They would have 119. However, in terms of democracy and representing the will of the Canadian people, the 26% of the votes they received in Toronto would have elected members for them. The Conservative Party received 26% of the votes cast in Toronto but did not get one seat. That is not an accurate reflection of the entire electorate in Toronto.

The Liberals would have won 83 seats. They would have gained a few. However, more importantly, in the 2008 election, the Liberals had 28% of the votes in south central Ontario but did not get a single seat. That is not right.

The NDP would have won 56 seats. Granted, that would be an increase. Fair enough, but the important thing is that 25% of the vote that it got in Saskatchewan would have been reflected in a seat from Saskatchewan. How can a party get a quarter, a full 25%, of the votes cast and have nothing to show for it?

The Bloc would have had 31 seats. What is interesting is that in 2008 the Bloc received 38% of the Quebec vote but got 65% of the Quebec seats.

The Green Party I want to mention. Based on the last vote, the Greens would have had 17 seats, because they received 6.8% of the vote, and yet there is no Green voice here. Yet the Bloc got 10% of the national vote and got 49 seats. Think about it: the Green Party got 6.8% and no seats, and the Bloc got 10% and 49 seats.

The system just does not work. It does not work for Canadians. It certainly does not work for women, aboriginals and minorities.

People are somewhat concerned about how complicated the system might be. Well, it is certainly no more complicated than trying to figure out what is going on between here and that place over there. We know that Canadians are pretty good at dealing with strategic voting, so they are not going to have any problem, in the NDP's opinion, mastering proportional representation. It is in 74 other countries already.

When people vote, they will get two votes. One will be for their local candidate in their geographical riding. People will cast their votes for the person they want to be their MP for their area, just like now, except there is a way that we can polish the first past the post system. Then people will get a second vote, allowing them to pick their party preference. Then, at the end of the day, there will be a calculation made.

One of the models that has been looked at is the two-thirds/one-third system. Two-thirds of the seats would be like these, and one-third would come from the PR lists. Then the proportion of everybody's vote, as I have already said, would be reflected in the House. There would be the candidate of people's choice and a reflection of the party weight in the House, thereby giving people the democracy they are craving, demanding and looking for.

I urge my colleagues to look at adopting this motion. It is a bite-sized measure. It is saying that we should take one step at a time, that we should put the question about whether the Senate should exist to the Canadian people and that a committee should engage Canadians in modernizing our democracy and bringing proportional representation to this place we love.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:30 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeMinister of State (Democratic Reform)

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for his impassioned remarks and for bringing forward this important topic.

The government recognizes that the Senate needs to be reformed and we are taking steps to allow it to be reformed, including term limits and senatorial elections.

I wonder if the member would agree that abolishing the Senate, which is what the NDP is proposing, is not possible in the current political context where vast agreement among the provinces would be needed and huge constitutional discussions would need to be held, which is just not realistic.

With respect to PR, I wonder if the member would be open to having a discussion on senatorial selection, which is Bill S-8 in the other chamber, if we suggest a framework. It does not need to be a first past the post election in the upper House if that moves forward. It could be some sort of PR system. I wonder if the member would be open to the government and the provinces engaging in discussions on how senatorial elections could happen.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:30 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for staying here and listening to our comments. The minister and I have worked closely together. While we have a huge gap in terms of what we believe Parliament should look like moving forward, I have the greatest respect for him as an individual. In my experience with him so far, he is a man of his word and I am very pleased to work with someone of his calibre.

Having said that, I will jump into the gap between the minister and I.

I will answer the minister's last question first. I hear what the minister is saying and I fully understand why he asked that question. Notwithstanding that we could make the Senate better, our party policy is, and has been forever, that we do not need it. We do not need the kind of gridlock that will happen. Let us make no mistake that people from this House will run for that House and when they get there they will utilize every constitutional power they have, and that is the upper House. The only reason it works right now is that it dare not use all the power it has or this would be Egypt.

We want to go with our first preference, which is to improve the House of Commons so that it has proportional representation. We want to eliminate the second House. When the minister says that it is not possible, it reminds me of the old joke that one cannot get there from here. Everything is possible. The Constitution is there to serve the people, not the other way around.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, the NDP has been in government in the province of Manitoba since 1999. A couple of years ago, it put together a committee made up of seven members of the New Democratic Party, four members of the Conservative Party and I happened to be the Liberal representative at the time to deal with Senate reform We held consultations in every corner of the province of Manitoba. The general consensus was that a reformed Senate would be better than an abolished Senate. For provinces like Manitoba, there is a vested interest in ensuring there is representation in Ottawa based on regions. There is a great deal of value to that.

I presented a minority report in which I argued for proportional representation. The biggest stumbling block was the NDP which wanted first past the post.

We need to be realistic. We need to do what is in the best interests of all regions. Provinces like Manitoba could have a valued Senate if it were reformed in the proper way.

There is an alternative and the alternative is not to abolish the Senate. We need to listen to the people who took the time to express their opinions to the all party committee in Manitoba. Does my colleague think we should be listening to what the people in Manitoba said?

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, since the main thread through the member's question was about consulting the people, I would assume that he would be very supportive of at least the second part of our motion, which is to strike a committee to engage with Canadians in terms of how we can modernize this place.

I respect everything the member said but I also want to respect what the people in the other nine provinces and three territories have to say. I would also like to know what the expressed national will of Canada is.

This is not at all to give the back of the hand to the work in Manitoba, which is a positive contribution, but we cannot do it province by province. Part of the problem is that the government is trying to do it piecemeal. What we are saying is that we need to ask Canadians one fundamental question, which is whether there should even be a Senate, and then we can take our marching orders from there.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

NDP

Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Hamilton Centre for such a great overview of this issue and a very passionate speech on why we need to engage in democratic improvement.

He did mention that proportional representation is a real benefit for electing women. I think he said that 74 countries already have proportional representation and that in those elected assemblies we have seen an increase in representation from women. In this House of Commons, it has been an ongoing struggle. We are still at about only 20% representation in this House.

I wonder if the member could explain why a system of proportional representation actually increases the diversity of elected bodies, such as the House of Commons, and ensures that women are getting elected, as well as other members of Canadian society who right now are completely under-represented in this place.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:40 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it has been shown in a number of examples that the first thing that happens is that there are more women, more aboriginals and more minorities in Parliament to reflect the population of our country.

The reason that happens is that when Canadians have that second vote for the party, the names of the candidates on the lists of each of the parties are there for them to see. We would hope that we would build in federal laws that would dictate the governance of electing people to those lists so that we would all have the basic fundamental tenet of democracy and that it would not just be the whim of party leaders to put their buddies on the lists. All that would do is replicate what we are doing in the Senate.

We want to ensure there is a level playing field in the hope that, and this is what actually happens and we hope it would happen here, parties wanting to appeal to the electorate, of course, are putting on women, minorities and aboriginals and electing them to their list, and then, from there, they would find their way here. The reason for that is that the current system, as has been shown in study after study and is plain common sense, is stacked against women. There are so many challenges, and I know there are some who will argue that. Nonetheless, the responsibilities for families still fall mostly on women. Women still make less money, so there is less disposable income to invest in a political career. There is a whole host of real challenges and blockages that have prevented women from getting here. What gives? Over 50% of the population is women but there are less than 20% in the House. That is a major deficiency.

One of the benefits of proportional representation is that it would, if we take the example in other countries, increase the number of women, aboriginals and minorities in this House, and that can only make it stronger.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

10:40 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeMinister of State (Democratic Reform)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to the opposition day motion on electoral reform and Senate abolition that was moved by the hon. member for Hamilton Centre.

The motion that we are considering calls on the House to recognize the undemocratic nature of the current form of representation in the Parliament of Canada. It asks that the government propose amendments to the Referendum Act in order to allow the holding of a referendum on the Senate abolition at the same time as the next general election. It also calls for the establishment of a special committee on democratic improvement whose mandate would be to engage with Canadians and make recommendations to the House on how to implement a new electoral system that would combine direct elections with electoral districts and proportional representation.

I would like to thank the hon. member for moving this motion. As Minister of State for Democratic Reform, I am always pleased to have a robust discussion about democratic reform issues and I look forward to today's debate.

While I am grateful that today will bring attention to democratic reform issues, I am disappointed that we will be spending time debating the reforms proposed in this motion, rather than working together to achieve real and attainable goals that this government has already set out on this topic.

For example, I point to the premise that representation in the Parliament in Canada is somehow undemocratic. Canada has a long history of democracy and Canadians are lucky to enjoy the very healthy system for which we all can be very proud. For example, all Canadians over the age of 18 hold the right to vote, there are free and fair elections and the administration of such elections is overseen by the independent Elections Canada. Elections are held on a regular basis, which allows citizens to hold government to account.

Therefore, the comment that this place is undemocratic just does not hold water, especially comparing Canada to other countries. Canada was compared to Egypt earlier. That is just not fair to Canadians or even to the people of Egypt because they are really fighting for even the seeds of democracy.

I would also like to talk about the electoral boundaries. These boundaries are redrawn on a regular basis by an independent commission that ensures ridings are designed in a fair , non-partisan way.

Finally, we have Elections Canada that provides for secret ballots, regulates political financing and ensures the integrity of the entire electoral machine.

Despite all the positive aspects of a democratic system, I do agree that there are fundamental elements that can be improved, and that is the principle of representation by population. The government introduced the democratic representation act to ensure that representation in the House of Commons would be fair and that Canadian votes, to the greatest extent possible, would carry equal weight.

The House of Commons no longer reflects fair representation of all provinces. This is particularly the case in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The democratic representation act would amend the constitutional formula for the re-adjustment of seats in the House of Commons so that future adjustments would better reflect the democratic representation of faster growing provinces while protecting the seat counts of other provinces.

For example, the province of Ontario would receive approximately 18 more seats, Alberta would receive 5 and British Columbia would receive 7, which, of course, depends on the census results. However, it is a step forward and I hope the NDP will support this government's legislation on representation by population.

On the issue of the unnecessary Senate, our government believes that the Senate does play an important role in our parliamentary system, particularly with respect to the reviewing of legislation and the representation of regions and minority interests. We also believe that members of the Senate perform valuable work.

It is no secret that our government believes that the upper chamber, in its current form, does not reflect the ideals of the 21st century democracy in Canada. Furthermore, we believe the Senate has a legitimacy problem that is directly linked to the method of selection of senators.

Rather than simply doing away with a parliamentary institution, we have advocated for its reform. We believe the Senate should be reformed to become a more modern, accountable and effective chamber that Canadians deserve. In order to move forward with such a reform, we have introduced the senatorial selection act which encourages provinces and territories to establish a democratic process to consult voters on candidates they want for Senate appointments. Provinces, such as Manitoba, have looked into this and have suggested senatorial districts.

The member who moved the motion is very keen on proportional representation. Perhaps that is a method that could be used in the upper chamber.

The upper chamber, I will reflect, is quite different than the lower chamber. In the lower chamber, votes of confidence occur and the first past the post system is much more appropriate. In the upper chamber, perhaps there are other methods and we are open to discussing this with Canadians and other parties. Certainly Bill S-8 reflects our willingness to look at other ways of selecting senators.

The Prime Minister has always been clear that he is committed to appointing elected Senators, and has done so at his only opportunity.

The Prime Minister would appoint senators who are directly selected by the people of the provinces. It is very significant that the Prime Minister is willing to give that power to the people, in effect.

Our government has also introduced legislation that would limit senators to eight years in a non-renewable term. This would allow enough time for senators to gain experience while ensuring that the upper chamber would be refreshed with new ideas on a regular basis.

Despite our government's willingness to be flexible on reforms and to work with stakeholders to find common ground, we have not been able to count on the co-operation that is needed from the opposition parties to make Senate reform a reality. Today's motion proposes a referendum on the Senate abolition. I have concerns about this. Specifically, I have concerns about referendums in general and particularly on the issue at hand.

When we talk about referendums, I would note that national referendums have been held only occasionally in Canada. There was the 1992 Charlottetown accord process, there was a referendum in 1942 regarding conscription and in 1898 on prohibition. It is a rarely used vehicle. While referendums can be used and be useful in engaging Canadians on questions of fundamental importance to the country, we have seen from previous experience that they can also be very divisive along regional and linguistic lines.

The motion also proposes to hold referendums at the next general election. As the motion acknowledges, the Referendum Act does not currently permit a referendum to be held at the same time as a general election, an issue that is divisive in itself. Referendums held during general elections can be done more cost effectively but, on the other hand, issues of a referendum can dominate the election period at the expense of the general electoral campaign.

I would also note that the opposition coalition has been threatening a general election within weeks. It would obviously be impossible to implement this motion before the next general election, which could happen within weeks. I hope the opposition does not call an election because it is not in the interests of Canadians and certainly not in the interests of the economy. The government wishes to work with other parties to ensure that the next general election does not happen for a long time.

In 1992, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing found that in jurisdictions where referendums had been held with general elections, voter turnout tends to be lower and those who vote represent a small cross-section of the general population. In fact, in its 1992 report the royal commission found that having referendums at the same time as general elections was not a good idea.

More recently, in November 2009, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs began its review on the Referendum Act. Among other things, the committee was considering this very question. It has not yet completed its study and perhaps it would be more prudent to wait for the recommendations before making a decision on this issue.

On the issue of a referendum on the abolition of the Senate, I must say that I find the idea simplistic. Polls have continuously shown that Canadians support Senate reform. A recent poll on Senate reform found that two-thirds of Canadians would like to directly elect the Senate while only 30% support the abolition of the Senate. As the Prime Minister has said, abolition should be the last resort and all members of Parliament should be focused on making our government's reasonable Senate reform agenda a reality.

Participation in the political process by exercising one's right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. Of all forms of civic engagement, voting is perhaps the simplest and most important. That is why the idea of reforming Canada's voting system cannot be treated lightly.

At the outset, I would like say that I find the portion of the motion concerning electoral reform perplexing. The proposal is to create a special committee on democratic improvement that, among other things, would be responsible to engage Canadians, “on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation”. However, the committee would not be mandated to ask Canadians what voting system they would like to have.

The motion presumes that Canadians are dissatisfied with our current system and eliminates the possibility for voters to propose another system, such as a preferential system which the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on this spring. However, it strongly suggests that the first past the post system will be preferred there as well.

Moreover, while the intent of the motion may be to obtain the views of voters on electoral reform, it did not propose a referendum on electoral reform, even though it prescribes abolishing the Senate. So there is obviously a contradiction in the logic.

Like Senate reform, electoral reform has received much attention in recent years. However, while there seems to be general consensus that the majority of Canadians support some form of Senate reform, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to changing our electoral system.

Voting system reform has been put to voters in three different provinces, British Columbia twice, Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and it has been rejected every single time. After significant citizen engagement efforts in these provinces, particularly British Columbia which included citizen assemblies, voters in each province were given the opportunity to vote in referendums on changes to the electoral system. In each case, they favoured the existing system.

In 2007, the Conservative government completed a series of cross-country consultations as well as a national poll in order to consult Canadians on democratic reform issues, including our electoral system.

The participants, who were broadly representative of Canadians at large, expressed satisfaction with the first past the post system and were disinclined to fundamental change. In particular, they valued the electoral system that produces clear winners, such as single party, majority governments that are more common under first past the post, than other forms of PR. This first past the post system also allows voters to hold governments accountable for their performance.

Although a system of proportional representation is not appropriate for the House of Commons, if the senatorial selection act is passed, provinces would be free to use proportional representation or any other democratic system for selecting Senate nominees that directly consults with the members and citizens of the province. This should be a reason why the NDP should support our Senate reform agenda. I would be interested to hear from them on why they would not.

Not every voting system is perfect, but we have a very good system here in Canada. I agree that there needs to be democratic reform and we are moving forward with democratic reform. We have taken big money out of politics by limiting campaign finances. We are trying to ensure that the House of Commons better reflects the population of the people of Canada and where they live.

This is what Bill C-12 does. It is representation by population, a principle that the vast majority of Canadians support. The Senate is designed to reflect the will of the regions. This is important in a federated model such as Canada where we have 10 provinces and three territories. It is important to have that balance.

We have proposed eight year term limits in the Senate in Bill C-10.

Bill C-10 would allow for the reduction of 45-year terms, which the NDP member correctly suggested there was an accountability and legitimacy issue. This bill would help to address that. Also, Bill S-8 would allow for the people of the provinces to select their senators.

This is a much more practical way to move forward on Senate reform. It is constitutional. It is a step-by-step approach that is easily understood. In fact, one could argue that what the NDP has suggested, which would require a huge constitutional change, is a statement of support for the status quo. All reasonable commentators, including in recent editorials in the Toronto Star, National Post and throughout the media, know there is no political appetite for these types of huge constitutional negotiations, like what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. People want us to focus on the economy and other priorities of Canadians. They do not want use to get involved with deep constitutional quagmires.

I ask NDP members to take their energy, focus it on moving forward with the government's reform agenda, support Senate reform, support Senate term limits, support Senate elections, support representation by population, support our Bill C-12 and support our other initiatives to increase voter participation and campaign finance reform.

Again, I thank the hon. member for Hamilton Centre for raising this very important issue, and may God keep our land glorious and free.

Opposition Motion--Representation in ParliamentBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

11 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for taking the time to be part of this and to respond to the motion. I also want to thank him for the tone of the remarks. I hope he feels mine matched the same respect that I have for him as he showed in his remarks to me.

First, in the member's province, and this was raised by another member, the Manitoba government report on the Senate said that it preferred abolition, but if abolition was not possible, then it would move forward with Senate reform. I just want to keep the record straight.

The minister spoke earlier in his remarks about how much democracy we already had here. In addition to everything else we know in terms of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, I do not know how many Canadians are aware that the hon. member for Churchill does not qualify to be a senator. She qualifies to run and get elected with a mandate of the people of her riding because they chose her. However, because we have an artificial age limit that one must be 30 years old, she cannot sit in the Senate. Where is the democracy in that?

When the minister referenced Egypt, and I want to be very clear on this, I was talking about what would happen if the Senate started using all the powers that it had. What I meant was a peaceful revolution. I do not want to suggest or minimize anything.

I also want to mention that we support increase in the seats that are being proposed in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, but that is not really reform; it is just an update.

You keep telling me to respond and wrap up, Mr. Speaker, but the minister covered an awful lot of territory. I have about eight more comments to make, but I will mention this one.

The minister made reference to Britain. Let us be very clear about what is going in Britain. That is not proportional representation. That is a method of polishing up and perfecting first past the post, but it is not proportional representation.