Madam Speaker, the Liberal Party does not oppose Senate reform, but it must be done right and in accordance with the Constitution.
There are three reasons the Liberal opposition cannot support the bill.
First, it is the conviction of the Liberal opposition that such an act would be unconstitutional. The fundamental changes it proposes cannot be implemented by Parliament alone. These changes would require the support of at least seven provinces, representing 50% of the Canadian population, notably because appointing senators through a patchwork of voluntary provincial senatorial elections is clearly a fundamental change; limiting the senators' tenure to nine years is a significant change; and giving the Prime Minister the power to name the totality of senators at the end of two mandates of four and a half years would strengthen his power considerably, another significant change.
Second, such an act would be against the interests of two of our provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Here is why: practically speaking, an elected upper chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. The problem is that both western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate, and both provinces have only six senators, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller.
Third, such an act could provoke frequent blockages in Parliament in the absence of a constitutional mechanism to resolve any conflicts that might arise between an elected House of Commons and an elected Senate.
For those three reasons, we propose that the government abandon this bill, or at least refer it to the Supreme Court to verify its constitutionality.
I would like to elaborate on each of these three objections, which have led the Liberal opposition to determine that this bill is not in the interest of Canadians. One issue is that if this bill becomes law, we will have to expect arguments that would pit one elected chamber against the other elected chamber, creating delays and roadblocks in Parliament. Just think of the frequent intercameral paralysis experienced by our neighbours to the south.
In fact, the situation could be even worse here than in the United States, because Canada does not have a constitutional mechanism to bridge the gaps between two elected chambers. Both could claim the same legitimacy and claim to speak for the people.
What is the government thinking? What does the minister have in mind? Does he really want to bring the same paralysis we see in the United States or in Mexico here to Canada? Do we not have enough challenges here in Canada without thoughtlessly burdening our decision-making process?
This seems like a very bad idea, especially when we consider that Canada is a decentralized federation with 11 governments—14 including the territories—that have important powers and responsibilities. In such a decentralized federation, it is important that federal institutions, common to all citizens, work well and quickly, before drafting legislation or making decisions that may or may not be popular, but that at least are not constrained by the ritual opposition of two elected chambers, an opposition that would be exacerbated by the absence of a constitutional dispute resolution mechanism.
It is important to realize that the government's muddled plan would have senators appointed through a patchwork system of optional provincial elections. Funding for these federal elections would come from the provinces, and even though they would be federal elections, the federal parties would be excluded from the electoral process. The provincial parties would control these federal elections. What a mess.
It is not surprising that a number of provincial governments have said they are not planning to put up funds for these federal elections. This bill is the antithesis of common sense and it is unconstitutional to boot. If this bill passes, the resulting legislation would be declared unconstitutional because the fundamental changes it would cause could not be implemented by Parliament alone. These changes could only be made with the support of at least seven provinces representing 50% of the Canadian population. This unilateral initiative is another manifestation of the Prime Minister's style of government: controlling and centralizing. This attitude shows disrespect for the provinces and a lack of understanding of what Canadian federalism is.
Indeed, many of the provinces have said that they believe this proposal is not something that can be done unilaterally. They believe they should be involved, and they want to be involved in these proposed Senate reforms. In other words, it is not just we who are saying the federal government cannot do this alone: the provinces say that, and they want a voice.
Wrong for the whole of Canada, this bill is especially ill-conceived for the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. We are far from being alone in saying that. Both British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and former Alberta Premier Don Getty rightly point out that this version of Senate reform would be bad for their respective provinces. As the Edmonton Journal wrote, “second thoughts” must be given to this plan.
Let us look at the numbers. Alberta has 9.1% of the total number of members of Parliament, but only 5.7% of the senators. The gap is even larger for British Columbia, with 11.7% of the members in the House of Commons and only 5.7% of the members of the Senate. Let us compare these provinces with New Brunswick, which counts 10 senators for a population 4.8 times smaller than Alberta's and 6.1 times smaller than British Columbia's.
This unbalanced distribution of Senate seats, an historical artifact, is a problem for the two western provinces and an anomaly for our federation. The government's reform would make the situation much worse.
In the existing unelected Senate, this problem is mitigated by the fact that our senators play the constitutional role with moderation, letting the elected House of Commons have the final word most of the time. However, in an elected Senate, with members able to invoke as much democratic legitimacy as their House counterparts--if not more, since they would represent provinces rather than ridings--the under-representation of British Columbia and Alberta would take on its full scope and significance.
Of course, elected senators from the other provinces would not be hostile to the interests of Alberta and British Columbia, their duty being to address the interests of the whole country, but these senators would be more familiar with, and closer to, the interests of the voters of the province where they were elected.
Premier Charest has already announced that his government will challenge the constitutionality of this unilateral Senate reform in the courts. Premiers Stelmach and Clark will serve the interests of their provinces well if they join their Quebec colleague in this court action.
Do Canadians need and want the waste of time, effort, money and goodwill that the government's initiative would cause? I think not. It is time for the Prime Minister, a Calgarian, and the Minister of Democratic Reform, an Edmontonian, to give this issue a second sober thought and abandon this ill-advised and ill-conceived Senate reform plan, an ill-advised and problem-fraught plan for Alberta, British Columbia and the whole of Canada in English et en français.