Madam Speaker, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak.
I recognize that it is a privilege to have the opportunity to address the House today. This is a privilege granted to me by the democratic principles of our country. Based on the supremacy of the rule of law, Canadian parliamentary institutions recognize this fact and often serve as an example throughout the world. Whether it be our Supreme Court, our Constitution or the House of Commons, the international news constantly reminds us that it would be very dangerous to take our democratic institutions for granted or to simply handle government business in a manner that is inconsistent with the most basic parliamentary rules.
This opportunity to speak about Bill C-7 is an opportunity to express my concern about the profound changes that this government wants to make to Canadian parliamentary institutions and, in particular, about the questionable manner in which it intends to go about doing so.
First, I would like to draw the House's attention to one thing, and that is the purely cosmetic nature of this bill. It is like a face lift that merely serves to superficially hide the signs of aging. This proposed Senate reform does not do much to hide the wrinkles. It is what I would call botched surgery. This bill does not address the real problems with the Senate.
First, this government is not above the laws, and certainly not above our Constitution. How does the Conservative government plan to justify the fact that it is blatantly thumbing its nose at the most basic rules of our state? In the preamble of the legislation, the government says it plans to use section 44, which, subject to sections 41 and 42, allows Parliament to make an ordinary law to change the way senators are appointed. This move would very clearly violate subsection 42(1) of our Constitution, which states:
An amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to the following matters may be made only in accordance with subsection 38(1)...
The Constitution unequivocally states that the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting senators cannot be changed without the consent of seven provinces representing at least 50% of the population of Canada.
This provision is in the Constitution in black and white. How does the minister justify ignoring it? If the government wants to reform the Senate, it must do so in accordance with the rules that have been established.
The government is saying that the scope of section 44 covers everything else, including, it says, what it is trying to do with this bill. This argument does not hold water, given the name of the bill: Bill C-7, An Act respecting the selection of senators and amending the Constitution Act, 1867 in respect of Senate term limits. That kind of language cannot go unnoticed. I urge the government to honour the procedure for amending the Constitution.
I would like to add something here. I took a look at the government's previous Senate reform bill, Bill C-20. It was very interesting. In the preamble, it states quite clearly that the reform based on consultative elections was to be a transition process that would lead to a more permanent constitutional reform of the Senate to provide for a means of direct election. This statement, which is quite significant, does not appear in Bill C-7. This is yet more proof of the superficial nature of this bill. This is all that the majority government plans to bring to Senate reform. It is amazing that this is being used for political games.
This government feels justified in using an undemocratic method to make an antiquated institution that is ill-suited to modern political realities more democratic. All I am seeing here is another attempt by this government to unilaterally move forward with institutional reform in the least collegial and transparent way possible. What is more, the government is saying that this is all there will be in the way of Senate reform. What a lost opportunity.
Flouting the process for amending the constitution would create a dangerous constitutional precedent. Is this the historic legacy this government wishes to leave? I would like to take this opportunity to say that the New Democratic Party will always defend the rule of law and stand up for healthy, friendly and constructive debate on the future of this country and the issues that directly affect Canadians. No government can avoid meeting this country's constitutional obligations. No government can do that.
I do not think it could be any clearer that the use of section 44 is a way to avoid debate and especially to avoid obtaining the consent of the provinces, which are also concerned about these changes. By proceeding in such a unilateral way, the bill sends an ambiguous and underhanded message to the provinces. Last I heard, they were an integral part of this country. Is this government afraid that this reform bill will not obtain the required consent? This kind of attitude tells me that the government is incapable of generating the support it needs to make these reforms. This bill, in its current form, is an excellent way of short-circuiting the provinces' opinions.
The provinces that had an upper chamber in their own legislature abolished it a long time ago. Furthermore, a number of provincial premiers have opposed this unilateral reform. It is blatantly obvious that the government is saying, “You do not agree with us? Oh well, too bad for you. Our mandate is too strong for us to worry about you. Here are the wonders of Canadian constitutional law, covered in Conservative sauce.” What a fabulous message to send to Canadian citizens. Does that really represent the actions of a responsible majority government that claims to work for all Canadians?
The role of the Senate has been controversial since the early days of Confederation. If I may, I remind the House that the Senate, as an institution, was meant to be a chamber of sober second thought, a chamber of wise people chosen to represent the territorial diversity of the country and act as a counterbalance to the decisions made in the House of Commons. Today, the makeup of cabinet reflects one of the requirements for regional representation, which was previously a responsibility of the Senate. The role of the Senate has increasingly weakened since it was created at the time of Confederation.
Above all, the Senate must be absolutely devoid of partisanship. I am in no way questioning the wisdom of the current senators. However, it is clear that the Senate has never consistently attained the other objectives laid out for it. Territorial representation, a concern at a time when it took several days to reach the federal capital, is no longer relevant and does not protect remote regions. The Senate rarely opposes the decisions made by the House of Commons. When it does, it hinders the proper functioning of the democratic process. The perception of voters is not that the Senate is a chamber of sober second thought, but that it is the chamber where bills that are too controversial remain in limbo. Finally, and this is the key point, Senate partisanship is legendary. That is the greatest complaint about the Senate. Far from correcting the situation, Bill C-7 will only makes things worse.
To get an idea of its partisan nature, we need only watch the news. My colleague from Winnipeg Centre recently gave an interview in which he criticized the involvement of a Conservative senator who was serving as the election campaign co-chair and leading spokesperson for the Manitoba Conservative Party. It is clearly unacceptable for a member of the Senate, who is paid by taxpayers, to use his time for that purpose. If he wishes to get involved in the Manitoba election campaign, he should never do so at the expense of Canadian taxpayers. This example highlights how the Senate, in its current form, is poisoned by partisanship.
Canadians expect the Senate to act as independently as possible. Can the minister clearly tell this chamber that reforming the way senators are selected—by adding an election process—will make the Senate less partisan? No, I do not think he can, unless the minister outright contradicts a Progressive Conservative senator who told the Hill Times last June that Bill C-7 could be a threat to the Canadian parliamentary system. He maintained that the proposed reforms could politicize the Senate even further instead of making it free of partisanship. He also stated that a senator is more effective when there is no partisanship.
What more is there to say? This bill would clearly exacerbate the partisanship that is already all too prominent in the Senate. How can this bill possibly be described as an improvement to the democratic legitimacy of the Senate? The proposed nature of the method of selecting senators would poison the Senate's mandate, which is supposed to be as independent as possible. If we look closely at the government's line of thinking, there would be a huge divide among senators appointed before October 14, 2008, and those appointed after. How will these new, elected senators with fixed terms serve alongside senators who were appointed without any fixed terms? How will Canadians perceive this dual reality?
On that topic, I have a few questions I would like to raise. Approximately 60% of the current senators were appointed before October 14, 2008. This means that they would be able to fulfill their senatorial duty and enjoy the generous privileges of their position until the age of 75. The coexistence of the former kind of senators with the new kind of senators would go on for several years, perhaps even decades. Consider the example of a senator who still has 35 years of service ahead of him. How would the legitimacy of the former kind of appointed senator compare to that of the new senators with a fresh mandate from the electorate? The legislative process and the reputation of the Senate would definitely be undermined. This simply does not fit in with the vision of an independent Senate whose mandate is to remain as impartial as possible.
The Hill Times tried to contact the 37 senators currently serving who were appointed by the Prime Minister after October 14, 2008, and they received very few responses.
Most of them declined commenting or simply did not respond. There is not even a semblance of unity on this bill from Conservative senators. If their own senators do not support it, it is the ultimate insult to present it to this House. How can this government claim that its Senate reforms are based on increasing its democratic legitimacy? This same government did not hesitate a single second to appoint three candidates from its own party who were defeated in the last election. That is an insult to the intelligence of Canadians who clearly expressed their free and democratic choice.
If this government truly had the intention of reforming the upper chamber, as it has been claiming for a long time now, it would have avoided this unacceptable and irresponsible behaviour. This is yet more evidence of a consistently applied double standard: one policy for friends of the Conservatives, another policy for other Canadians. That is the reality of this government's policy. I doubt that the public takes this lack of respect for their democratic choices lightly. There are strong mandates, and then there are brutal mandates.
There are some aspects of this bill that are worth special attention. Unless they are declared as independents, provincial candidates for the Senate will be free to associate themselves with a political party during their election campaign. If the minister is hoping to cut down on the politicization of the work of the upper chamber through this initiative, I think he has misunderstood the role of the Senate, which is to protect regional, provincial and minority interests, while acting as a chamber of sober second thought to examine legislation in greater detail.
It all comes down to the same thing. How can this government say that greater politicization of the Senate could help deliver this mandate? And how does it reconcile overstepping the opinions of the provinces on this, when the mandate of the Senate is partially entrusted to them in order to balance representation within Confederation? Political party affiliation has a major influence on the work of the Senate. Through this bill the minister is proposing to increase the number of partisan battles by renewing the contingent of senators from each province every nine years.
By introducing a non-renewable term, the reform also denies Canadians an opportunity to reward the work of an elected Senator. If the senator is doing good work, he or she will not be able to continue and the voters will not have a chance to show their appreciation through a re-election. If, on the other hand, the senator is doing mediocre work, voters will not be able to punish his or her incompetence and the senator will leave when the nine-year term is up. Either way, citizens are denied their say in the matter. One of the fundamental principles of democracy currently seriously lacking in the Senate is accountability and this reform is devoid of it as well. This principle is working quite well in the House of Commons and it forces us to give the best of ourselves.
Again, this government does not know what it wants. It is trying to achieve a number of objectives without any real focus. This bill would give us a partially elected Senate that, according to the government, is more democratic by virtue of repeated partisan elections for a non-renewable and non-punishable term. Where I come from, we call that hogwash.
These things cannot be reconciled with the mandate of the Senate, as I was saying earlier. Allow me again to read part of the preamble to Bill C-7, which states that “Parliament wishes to maintain the essential characteristics of the Senate within Canada’s parliamentary democracy as a chamber of independent, sober second thought”. I do not think partisanship will create a climate for independent, sober second thought within the Senate. Just look at the climate in this House to see what I mean by that.
The objective of the bill contradicts its actual effects. The government must decide whether it wants to respect the historical mandate of the Senate or whether it wants to make the Senate more democratically legitimate through partisan elections. Regardless, it is inconceivable that the government would introduce this bill to the Canadian public and insist that these two goals are compatible. Frankly, such vague legislation should not be introduced. But perhaps the government is sacrificing finesse for strength.
I was also distressed to notice that the bill, vaguely and without explanation, shifts the responsibility for holding elections to select Senate candidates. Under the bill, Senate candidates would be elected during provincial elections, on a date to be determined by the lieutenant governor, or during municipal elections. Dumping this responsibility seems like a disorganized and very imprecise way of improving the Senate's democratic legitimacy. The government could have taken the time to draft a clear, detailed and intelligible bill, but instead, Bill C-7 is terribly unclear and illogical. For example, when Canadians choose their candidates during an election, they will not even be certain that the one they choose will sit in the Senate. The final choice will remain in the hands of the Prime Minister since the bill imposes no obligation.
I mentioned that this reform seems to be purely cosmetic and here is the evidence. Parliamentary institutions deserve a little more respect and rigour. Unfortunately, when I look at this bill, the public's cynicism about politicians seems justified to me. Nothing now guarantees that this government will take its reform of the Senate any further.
In addition to this important point, we must also consider the costs of this reform. However, Bill C-7 does not make any mention of these costs. As further proof of how vague this legislation is, the bill does not clearly set out which level of government will have to assume the new costs. In these uncertain economic times, the government is adding new costs without having analyzed the proposed reforms to determine how useful they actually are.
Senate elections would thus become a federal, provincial, or municipal matter. Nothing is clear because the bill allows for all three scenarios. How will expenses be shared in these even more complex elections? Moreover, this new use of public money will contribute nothing to democracy. Canadians have long questioned the usefulness of the Senate. I doubt that the public will find the Senate more attractive if it becomes more expensive. In other words, we do not know “when?” or “how?”, and especially not “how much?”. Would it not be preferable to reform the Senate by passing bills that have more substance than grey areas? Is that asking too much of the government?
These are the indicators of a sloppy bill that takes too simplistic an approach to the parliamentary institutions of this country. I am disappointed if this is all that this government can add to the debate on Senate reform. The regions, provinces and minorities of Canada are again left hanging and will continue to be represented by an upper chamber that is completely disconnected from contemporary reality.
This bill, in addition to moving ahead in a manner that is, at a minimum, constitutionally suspect, only masks the problem of the democratic legitimacy of the Senate, without undertaking the mandatory and necessary consultation of the provinces of this country and, above all, without considering what mandate Canadians realistically want an upper chamber to have. The message to the provinces is as follows: this government does not need to consult you to proceed unilaterally with constitutional amendments. The message to Canadians is that this government is not listening to them. Its mandate is too strong for it to worry about them, especially when they indicate their preferences in a general election.
My colleagues are certainly aware of all the attempts made to reform the Senate since its inception. These attempts all have one thing in common: they failed. In the past 100 years, 13 attempts have failed and, today, given the lack of provincial interest and the absence of a consensus on the nature of the reform, there is every indication that this bill will be added to that historic list of failed attempts.
The reality is that the Senate is a problem that no one has been able to fix. So, as our party is suggesting, it is time to consider another option that has yet to be explored—abolishing the Senate. That is why are proposing that we consult people about this, to see if they believe that the upper chamber still has a place in our democratic institutions. We want to ask them if they feel this legacy from the 19th century still has a place in a 21st century democracy. The provinces that abolished their senates did not stop functioning. Countries like Denmark and New Zealand abolished their senates and continue to operate without any problem.
Yes, I am critical of this bill, but the official opposition will not be content with simply criticizing in a stubborn and narrow-minded fashion. The opposition will do everything it can to propose well-thought-out and reasonable solutions for the good of Canadians. Our parliamentary institutions deserve more of our time and intellectual rigour. That is why I insist that when difficult issues such as Senate reform are brought before the House for debate, we should be discussing the option of abolishing the Senate and presenting that to the Canadian public as well. That is the spirit of what I consider to be constructive and respectful debate.