Ms. Hébert goes on to say:
...but in the circumstances it’s really 120 minutes too many.
For many parliamentary scholars, fixing the Senate is one of the top 10 measures needed to address the democratic deficit.
But if the NDP seriously believed the Senate to be a major priority, it would advocate a return to the constitutional table rather than promote a referendum on its abolition.
The upper house cannot be abolished or substantially reformed without a constitutional amendment requiring the support of most and probably, all the provinces.
She also said:
[The] NDP Leader ...argues that a referendum would at least set the stage for a national discussion on the Senate but recent experiences have shown that election campaigns are at best rickety stages for such debates.
Yesterday, the Hill journalist, Dale Smith, also commented that it was disingenuous to go about proposing a referendum without acknowledging that this proposal would mean reopening the Constitution. He went on to say that he had even had some NDP MPs tell him that the Senate did good work, before they launched into a convoluted and unicorn-filled discussion about how they would supposedly replicate that good work in the Commons, reformed by proportional representation. He said that was a much longer story for another day.
However, because it is not an elected body, that somehow negates its usefulness. Never mind the fact that because senators are not electioneering is a big part of why they do their good work. The Supreme Court is not elected either, but vanishing few people dismiss it as an unelected body.
We believe there are many other proposals such as electing the Senate by proportional representation. There are many ways of going about this without having pure abolition. I think a lot of us do believe the Senate, and particularly its committees, has done good work.
In my years in Parliament, I think of the good work done by many of the senators themselves. It is almost like one-person commissioners going out and listening to Canadians on important things, like Senator Yves Morin on science and technology and health research, Senator Keon, Senator Dallaire, Senator Landon Pearson for children's rights, Lucie Pépin, reproductive rights and military families and Joyce Fairbairn on literacy and Paralympics. It was almost like they had a mandate. There are many reforms that could do that in a clear appointment system, which would allow us to fill the second chamber with people with expertise, non-existent in the House at the time.
The Liberal Party favours Senate reform that reflects sound public policy and respects the Constitution. By initiating what are likely to become broad constitutional negotiations with the provinces to deal with Senate reform now is simply not where the current priorities of Canadians are, either in terms of substantive democratic renewal, or the broader challenges on which the federal government should focus.
Right now the Conservatives are moving two bills through Parliament at a snail's pace, by their own design, which really amounts to a piecemeal approach to Senate reform. While we would not completely rule out some form of these proposals on Senate term limits and provincial and territorial Senate elections, the Conservatives have failed to properly consult with the provinces on these bills or with the Supreme Court of Canada on potential constitutional implications.
Abolishing the Senate would require a resolution of Parliament, together with the approval of at least seven provinces, representing at least 50% of the population of Canada. Some constitutional experts have even contended that unanimous consent of the provinces would be required.
As for electoral reform, the issue is in need of serious and comprehensive dialogue with Canadians about whether the current system is, for all its faults, working, and if not, what needs to be fixed or what is to replace it. We believe there is lots of support for various approaches to electoral reform.
Last week in Alberta it was very clear. Many Liberals in Alberta are very keen that their votes count in the House of Commons. Green Party members across the country care about this. I think the federalists in Quebec have been often worried that more people there can vote for a federalist party and they can end up with a separatist majority. This kind of distortion in result is worrying to people and although we welcome that dialogue, I believe it would be premature to start prescribing alternate systems at this time.
The NDP motion restricts the options for reform to a mixed form of proportional representation and direct district elections and this kind of change requires a broad consensus that does not currently exist.
I have to look at today's debate from a practical point of view. To abolish the Senate, as the NDP is proposing, we would have to amend the Canadian Constitution. Constitutional law prohibits the federal government from unilaterally making changes of this magnitude. It would require the support of at least seven provinces, and perhaps all 10 provinces. Constitutional experts do not agree on how to go about abolishing the Senate. It would surely require the approval of at least two-thirds of the provinces with a population totalling at least 50% of the total population of the provinces, or the 7/50 formula.
Four provinces—British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—have said that they are in favour of simply abolishing the Senate. However, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces have already indicated that they would be opposed because they see the Senate as a means of protecting minorities and regional interests in Parliament.
All this should be looked at in the context of a government report on democratic reform released in February 2007. Participants in focus groups were opposed to major constitutional changes requiring the consent of the provinces out of fear of opening a Pandora's box.
As for proportional representation, the first past the post system being used at the federal and provincial levels offers many advantages, but the results do not reflect the electorate's choices. That is why certain Canadian provinces have tried to change their electoral system.
The citizens’ assembly that was launched in British Columbia in 2003 recommended using the single transferable vote, or STV, system. British Columbia's version of the STV system had seats grouped into regional ridings with multiple MLAs, and the number of MLAs from each party would reflect its share of the votes received. Many women find the STV system hard to accept because it in no way guarantees more female members.
On October 23, 2003, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the creation of the Democratic Renewal Secretariat, which mandated a citizens’ assembly to examine the electoral system. In May 2007, the citizens' assembly recommended a mixed member proportional system. Under this system, a person votes for a local member and for a party, which is elected by means of the first past the post system. The local member represents an electoral riding, while the votes for the parties, in conjunction with the number of local members elected from each party, determine how many list members each party will receive in addition to its local members. In October 2007, this reform received only 36.9% of the vote, far less than the 60% required to make the referendum result binding.
Commentators said that the result reflected the electorate's skepticism about political parties. The lack of transparency and democracy in every political party deterred people from voting in favour of the referendum question.
It is upsetting today that we are spending the time of this chamber rehashing the NDP platform from 2008, and many commentators have commented that we cannot possibly do justice to either of these and they both require a serious conversation with Canadians, not a top down prescription.
It is also interesting at this time of the electoral fraud accusations from the public prosecutor that we actually look back to the Gomery Commission and ask the NDP and the government of the day, what are they doing about these recommendations that Lawrence Martin reminded us of in his September column? Where is the Appointments Commissioner? Where is the reduction of the size of the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office? Where is the re-establishment of the integrity of the access to information process, or the vetting system that sees Ottawa officialdom gagged unless given approval by PMO–PCO? Where is some semblance of power to the cabinet or the prime ministerial pledge not to make pivotal decisions, such as income trusts and Québécois nation status, without prior consultation with that body?
What about opening up the executive branch of government to media scrutiny that could include the daily briefings in Langevin Block? What about re-empowering the increasingly cheapened committee system, starting with having government members understand that they must represent the public good, not just their party's talking points? What about reforming question period and the antiquated convention that shrouds the decisions taken by the Governor General in total secrecy?
I have been across the country convening round tables on democratic renewal from Moncton to Vancouver, and not once did any of the participants ask to open up the Constitution. It is the third rail right now in our conversation on democratic renewal. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time low voter turnout. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time high cynicism in the population. There is serious concern about negative advertising and the way that the party in power seems to be employing the Republican voter suppression techniques, that all government is bad, all politicians are bad, and it does not matter if we vote. The real voter suppression that attempts to drive down voter turnout actually ends up being good for the Conservative base.
It seems a bit astounding that the bill on increasing advance polls, brought forward by the government last April, has stagnated since April 26 last year. We have seen nothing about trying to increase voter turnout. We think that the youth of Canada need to know that the government would prefer they did not vote, that tenants did not vote, and that we need to be putting in place things that can rectify that.
Across this country, it was very clear that Canadians were reminding us of the Prime Minister's previous comments in the Reform Party foundational document that said that they believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.
On all four topic areas of parliamentary reform, citizen engagement, electoral reform, and party reform, there is no question that Canadians understand there is a lot to be done. The very definition of “good governance”, according to my hero Ursula Franklin, is that government must be fair and transparent, and that it take people seriously. That needs to apply not only here in government and in Parliament but in our riding associations. People will not believe that we will govern that way if we do not conduct ourselves in a better way. That includes abiding by the Elections Act.
The three guiding principles of best possible representation, best possible transparency, and best possible information with which to make decisions, really have been promoted, in each of the places I have been, by terrific round tables on representation, openness, transparency, and information. People came forward with all kinds of ideas about improving Parliament's ability to hold government to account: the idea of democracy between elections, gender balance, aboriginal-provincial-territorial relations, electoral reform, and Senate reform.
The lack of openness and transparency of this government is of huge concern to the people of Canada, as is its refusal to move forward on whistleblower protection and indeed the scandal of the person put in charge of so-called whistleblowers within the government. The role of the media is of huge concern also. The long form census, the ability of officers of Parliament to have their budgets and the legislation to support them, the independence of advisers, the firing of those who do not agree with the government, and the muzzling of civil society are issues I have heard raised at almost every round table.
We know that the government has blurred the roles between government and Parliament with government ads being confused with partisan ads, two prorogations, and the blurring of confidence votes. There is also the fact that the U.K. cabinet office, before the U.K. election, said not to do what Canada had done in terms of threatening an election every time what was asked was not received. It is a travesty.
If we look at the index page of the Conservative Party platform for 2006, the government has done nothing in terms of making qualified government appointments and cleaning up government polling, advertising, and procurement contracts. It is a litany of not.
I believe that we need to work together with all of the parties to actually figure out what we can do together. As the leader of the official opposition has said, “We must be able to put limits on the power of the Prime Minister of this country”.
As Jim Travers has said, “It has taken 500 years to wrestle power from the king and 50 years to get it back into one man's office”.
It has to stop right now The country is appalled at such things as electoral reform, inserting “nots”, the long form census, detainee documents, costs of prisons, and oaths to secrecy. We need to open this up. The democratic deficit is in allowing citizens, MPs and cabinet ministers in.
I am sorry that the debate today is on something not as important as the things that I have just discussed.