moved that Bill C-7, An Act respecting the selection of senators and amending the Constitution Act, 1867 in respect of Senate term limits, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to begin debate today on the Senate reform act, Bill C-7. The bill has been a long time coming. Reform of the other place has been the subject of strong passions across the country that have crossed party lines for the better part of a quarter century. While the government's priorities are unchanged and the economy remains a top priority, we have an opportunity to take the first steps on this road.
Our government has always been clear about our commitment to bring reform to the Senate chamber. We pledged to do this in our most recent election platform and we repeated our promise in the Speech from the Throne. I am proud to present this legislation and to start the work in the House to fulfill our commitments to Canadians.
The Senate can play an important role in our parliamentary system. It reviews statutes and legislation, often from different perspectives than those found in this place. It serves to represent regional and minority interests in a different way than they are represented in the House. Many of its members and committees have demonstrated and provided appreciable research and investigative skills and thoughtful recommendations. It can be a place where a broader range of experience and expertise can be brought to bear on the issues facing our country.
Unfortunately, the contributions of the Senate are overshadowed by the fact that senators are selected and appointed through a process that is neither formal nor transparent, with no democratic mandate whatsoever from Canadians.
Moreover, there are no strict limits on the number of years an individual can sit in the Senate. Under the Constitution, an individual can be appointed to the Senate at the age of 30 and serve until the age of 75. That means a senator could serve for as long as 45 years.
Taken together, the Senate lacks any essential democratic characteristics. Its effectiveness and legitimacy suffers from the democratic deficit.
We must then ask ourselves the simple question. Is this good enough? Our answer and Canadians' answer is no. Our government does not believe that the current situation is acceptable in a modern, representative democracy, and neither do Canadians.
Our government has long believed that the status quo in the Senate is unacceptable and therefore it must change in order to reach its full potential as an accountable and democratic institution. The alternative is the continuation of a situation where senators are appointed to long terms without any democratic mandate. We say enough, and Canadians are with us in saying no to the status quo in the Senate.
In July of this year, polling found that seven out of ten Canadians reject the status quo in the Senate. Although striking, this is not shocking. The Senate and its reform has been the subject of numerous reports, proposals and studies over the past several decades.
While recommendations on how to reform the Senate have differed, and differ still, there is one consistent theme that runs throughout. Nearly all reports and studies agree that the Senate is an important democratic institution and that reform is needed to increase legitimacy in the context of a modern, democratic country. It is clear that while there may be different approaches to solving this problem, all parties agree that reform is necessary.
Senate reform of any kind has proven to be a complicated process. Under our Constitution, reforming fundamental aspects of the Senate, such as its powers or the representation of the provinces, requires the support of seven provinces representing 50% of the population of the provinces. Achieving the necessary level of provincial support for particular fundamental reforms is a complex and lengthy process with no guarantee of success.
Canadians do not want drawn out constitutional battles, battles that will detract from our government's focus on the top priority of Canadians, which is the economy. But a lack of agreement on large fundamental reform does not leave us with a lack of options if only we have the sufficient will to do so. If we are to begin the journey toward reform, we must do what we can within the scope of our authority in Parliament.
Our government believes that Senate reform is needed now, and we are committed to pursing a practical, reasonable approach to reform that we believe will help restore effectiveness and legitimacy in the Senate. That is why we are moving forward with the Senate reform act.
Through the bill, our government is taking immediate and concrete action to fulfill our commitment to Canadians to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of our upper chamber and to work co-operatively with the provinces and territories.
The Senate reform act includes two initiatives that would help bring the Senate into the 21st century.
First, the act provides a suggested framework to provinces and territories that wish to establish a democratic consultation process to give Canadians a say in who represents them in the Senate.
Second, it introduces term limits for senators appointed after October 2008, which would ensure that the Senate would be refreshed with new ideas on a regular basis.
While each of these initiatives can stand on their own merits, combining these measures allows our government to act quickly to implement our promise to Canadians to bring about reforms.
As I have already noted, our government has long been committed to Senate reform. Our commitment to reform remains as strong as ever, and we are now in a position to act on our commitment. We have consistently encouraged provinces and territories to implement a democratic process for the selection of Senate nominees. The Senate reform act will give clarity to our flexible approach.
The act would require the Prime Minister to consider the names of individuals selected from the holding of democratic processes with Canadians when making recommendations on appointments to the Governor General. The act would not bind the Prime Minister or the Governor General when making Senate appointments. Nor would it change the method of selecting senators.
Therefore, Parliament is able to enact this provision through its authority under section 44 of our Constitution. Under section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, Parliament has the legislative authority to amend the Constitution in relation to the Senate.
The act also contains a voluntary framework, attached as a schedule to the act, for provinces and territories to use as a basis for developing democratic selection process to consult voters on the preference of their Senate nominees. The framework is based on Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act. The framework is meant to provide enough details to facilitate the development of provincial or territorial legislation, without limiting provinces and territories in the establishment of a consultation process or in the precise details of such a process, which may differ between jurisdictions as local needs may demand.
This is, after all, a co-operative venture. Provinces and territories would not be required to implement the framework precisely as written. Rather, they would be encouraged to adapt the framework to best suit the needs of their unique circumstances.
It is our hope that this built-in flexibility will further encourage provinces to provide a democratic consultation process to give greater voice to their citizens and their provinces in the Senate.
Before moving on to explain other aspects of the bill, I would like to note that the approach proposed in the Senate reform act has already been successful and this type of reform has already gained a toehold in the Senate.
In 2007 the Prime Minister recommended the appointment of Bert Brown to the Senate. Senator Brown was chosen as a senator in waiting by Alberta voters in 2004 in a selection process held under the authority of Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act, which was introduced in 1989.
Senator Brown's tireless work on reform both inside and outside the Senate is greatly appreciated, not only by me and our government but also by the many Canadians who want Senate reform and who have campaigned for it for many years.
Alberta may have been the first province to pass this type of legislation and to see its nominees appointed, but it is not the only province that has taken steps to facilitate reform.
In 2009 Saskatchewan passed the Senate Nominee Election Act, which enables a provincial government to hold a consultation process on Senate nominees. Saskatchewan has not yet held a consultation process, but I encourage it to do so at the earliest opportunity. Our government continues to be welcoming toward discussion and co-operation wherever possible.
In British Columbia, the previous parliamentary secretary has introduced a bill that would provide the provincial government with the authority to hold consultation processes. I will be following the progress of the bill closely and would encourage my provincial colleagues in the British Columbia Legislative Assembly to support the passage of the bill.
More broadly, I would encourage our colleagues in all provincial and territorial legislatures and assemblies to consider supporting and moving forward with similar initiatives.
Let us move on to the other major initiatives of Bill C-7.
In addition to encouraging the implementation of democratic selection processes for Senate nominees, the act would also limit Senate terms, which can span several decades under the current rules. Polls have consistently shown that over 70% of Canadians support limiting the terms of senators. When we began to talk about specific reforms, that amount of support for one particular provision is impressive and encouraging.
Under the Senate reform act, senators appointed, after the bill receives royal assent, will be subject to a single nine-year non-renewable term. The nine-year term will also apply to all senators appointed after October 2008, up to royal assent. The nine-year clock for those senators will start upon royal assent.
As with the earlier provisions, limiting the terms of senators would amend the Constitution, but, again, it is a reform that can be accomplished by Parliament, through section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Similarly, in 1965, Parliament acted alone to introduce mandatory retirement at age 75 for senators. Prior to that, senators were appointed for life.
As I have outlined, the Senate reform act presents practical, reasonable and achievable reforms within Parliament's authority. In order to do all that we can to ensure these reforms will be supported, our government has also consistently demonstrated our willingness to be flexible. We believe that we must work with our colleagues to ensure that change is achieved. Let me outline just a few examples.
Concerning the selection of Senate nominees, we have given discretion to the provinces and territories to develop their own consultation processes. As I noted, the Senate reform act includes a voluntary framework that is meant to provide a basis for the development of consultation processes. However, we have been clear that provinces and territories are not bound to the rules proposed in the framework.
For example, the framework proposes that consultations use an electoral system known as plurality at large, which is a version of our first-past-the-post electoral system applied to multi-member districts. Despite this, the Prime Minister has indicated that he is willing to consider the names of any nominee that is selected by voters in a democratic process. This means that provinces and territories are free to choose an electoral system that will ensure effective representation for their citizens and that will account for local or regional considerations as may be determined necessary.
Turning to term limits, our government has made a number of amendments to respond to comments made during previous examinations of this proposal.
One change was to increase the term limit from an eight-year term to a nine-year term. From the beginning, the Prime Minister was clear that he was willing to be flexible on the length of the term, as long as the principle of the bill, a truly limited term, was respected.
Our government decided to increase the term limit by one year in response to concerns that in the future, eight-year term limits could allow a two-term prime minister to appoint the entire Senate. In modifying the term limits, we are demonstrating our flexibility and desire to work with colleagues in order to ensure that this important reform is adopted.
I would note that this is not the only change we have made with respect to term limits. When the bill to first limit the terms of senators was first introduced in 2006, the bill allowed for senators to be reappointed for further terms and proposed elimination of the mandatory retirement age for senators. Following study of the bill, a number of concerns were raised that renewable terms could compromise the independence of the Senate, since senators might modify their behaviour to attempt to have their terms renewed by the government of the day. Therefore, our government responded to this concern and all subsequent versions of the bill have proposed a single term.
During its study of the bill, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended that the mandatory retirement age of 75 be maintained. When the bill was reintroduced in the last Parliament, the mandatory retirement age for senators was retained, illustrating our willingness to listen to our Senate colleagues. The Senate reform act would keep the mandatory retirement age for senators.
I raise these points because I want to be clear about our commitment to both change and flexibility. Our goal is to begin the reform process and we want to be as constructive as we can while ensuring we move forward.
I believe it is fair to say that, while many in this House agree that changes to the Senate are necessary, we sometimes disagree on the way forward.
In contrast to the position of the other parties, it is clear that our government's approach is the practical and reasonable way forward. It is the approach that can truly achieve results. In fact, the stated positions of the opposition parties are essentially arguments in favour of the status quo. Their proposals have such a low chance of success that they might as well not even propose them at all.
For example, the official opposition would try to abolish the Senate. This position is untenable for a number of reasons.
First, there is no consensus among the provinces to abolish the Senate. To take away the Senate, without significant other reforms, would be to seriously damage the effective representation of large sections of our country in our Parliament.
A second reason why this approach is undesirable is simply because Canadians do not support this idea. Polls have consistently shown that this proposal does not garner popular support. Our second chamber, though flawed, can serve valuable democratic functions if we can reform it to make it more effective and legitimate.
We should have enough respect for institutions and our democracy toward the implementation of an institution in need of repair.
The position of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, has been to advocate for a process, not a result. The Liberals do not support the reform of the Senate. Their 13-year record of inaction demonstrates their opposition. They have been clear about this. Yet their suggestion is to open the Constitution and begin a process that we know would end in a bitter, drawn-out national conflict, without Senate reforms being achieved. Their approach is a recipe for accomplishing nothing.
I reject Liberal obstructionism and encourage the them to join us in implementing constructive reforms that are reasonable and achievable.
Let us be clear. Our reforms are reasonable and achievable. They are absolutely within Parliament's authority to enact.
Our government is dedicated to reforming the Senate so that it better reflects the values of hard-working Canadians across the country. My constituents tell me that they want change. I believe that the time for change in the Senate has come.
With the Senate reform act, our government is presenting modest but important and attainable changes that would improve the Senate by providing it with greater legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians. I consider the enhancement of our democratic institutions a significant responsibility and I am privileged to be working with my hon. colleagues to meet this common objective.
I encourage all my colleagues to work toward achieving these reforms, giving Canadians a stronger voice in determining who represents them in the Senate.