Madam Speaker, I am happy to rise today to speak about Bill C-7, the Senate reform act. I have two major concerns about this bill. One concerns the process by which the bill was derived, and the second is the substance of the bill. Once I have gone through those two points, I will also bring up a proposition of how we can move forward on this topic.
In terms of process, I find the way in which this bill was developed is cynical. I think it was really developed in the backroom by the Conservatives with very little consultation with the public, the academic communities or the provinces. In fact, I do not think there was a single robocall made through this whole process. Perhaps the Conservatives might want to change not only their position on how they develop bills or their approach to developing bills, but also how they consult the public in general.
The Senate is an outdated but important institution. It requires serious debate and public input. I think we learned from the Meech Lake accord that Canadians are no longer willing to develop important positions on the Constitution, institutions of Parliament or democracy by having a bunch of guys in the backroom make a decision and then kind of foist it on the public.
We need to involve the public and all the expertise that we have across the country in order to come forward with a position that all Canadians can accept.
The Senate is a key institution of government. Its origins date back to the 11th century in England. Yet, despite the long-standing presence of this institution, both in other countries and in Canada, no public input has been sought on these changes. There is little consultation with the provinces. There is little academic input. This is unfortunate. For example, Tom Flanagan, a chief advisor to the Conservatives, said this legislation “scares me”. He opposes this legislation because he thinks it would further entrench all that is wrong with the Senate.
As I mentioned, this cynical approach to democratic reform really died with Meech Lake. Members of this House will remember that the Charlottetown accord, although it did not go forward, set a new way for major reforms in this country. This way is to bring the public in and to make sure that they are consulted. If the public does not want the change, then it is not made.
I am going to return to the idea of process at the end of my speech, but I am going to move on with substance. I have to say I agree with Professor Flanagan that this legislation is scary, not only in the way it was developed but also the substance of it. At best, this bill is frivolous and at worst it is damaging to Canadian democracy.
For example, the Prime Minister would only be required to consider these elections. A province could go through all the trouble of electing and selecting a new senator, to bring his or her name forward to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister could reject it.
We are already in a democratic crisis here in Canada. We have voter turnouts at the lowest levels in history. Citizens do not participate between elections. I am sure we will get into that debate later today with a perhaps purposeful, fraudulent attempt on the other side to suppress public input which was brought to light over the weekend.
Again, this could only deepen the cynicism about our democratic institutions. The effect of this bill could also be no effect at all. Provinces have already indicated that they are going to take this to court if this goes ahead.
I would like to draw attention to clauses 38 to 50, which link Senate reform not only to the provinces conducting these elections for senators but municipalities. This part of the bill says that if the provinces do not want to conduct these elections, they could devolve them to municipal institutions. I think this would be very dangerous.
Three colleagues and I have just finished a book on the topic of local government institutions across Canada. I have to report that I think clauses 38 to 50 would be a very dangerous precedent to set. As we report in our book, municipal election processes in many provinces are in really dire shape.
The provincial government in British Columbia found it could not conduct referendums during municipal elections because the administration of these municipal elections is unreliable. There is improper record keeping and there are irregularities. There is not sufficient oversight to guarantee that these elections are fit for anything other than local issues.
Worse still is the influence of foreign money in municipal elections. This has come to light in the province of British Columbia. It would be important to consider if we were to move ahead with Senate elections conducted on the back of these municipal elections.
For example, the head of CSIS reported last year that foreign funds were coming to the municipal elections in British Columbia and they were having a negative influence on municipal politicians. Premier Gordon Campbell was so concerned about the charges made by the head of CSIS that he convened a task force on this very topic. I am pleased to say that Premier Campbell invited me to testify at the task force. I was able to report on an investigation that I had conducted about the amount of foreign money coming into B.C. local elections. This would be especially worrying if Senate elections were to be conducted during these same municipal elections.
One councillor in the city of Vancouver received a lump sum donation of $75,000 from a Taiwanese businessperson. This money was routed through various companies in Canada in order to land in his municipal election fund. This is one example of a large amount of money that came to one single councillor that could have the effect of influencing decisions made by councillors. If Senate elections were connected to municipal elections that in turn could influence who sits in our Senate. That is very worrying.
We reported to the provincial task force that donations from U.S. sources are common. Thousands of dollars are coming into B.C. municipal elections. This could have an influence on senatorial elections if this legislation were passed.
As additional information, there is currently no spending limit in B.C. municipal elections. In the last Vancouver municipal election over $5 million was spent by candidates of different political parties. Some of this money has already been traced to foreign sources. The task force has investigated this and continues to investigate. Both the former premier and the current premier have expressed deep concerns and are moving forward with legislation to change this. This is an investigation only in one province. Before we move ahead with anything like clauses 38 to 50 we definitely have to make sure that this is not the case in other municipal elections across Canada.
It is our position that the Senate should be abolished. However, we do not think we should rush forward with this without talking to Canadians. We should learn from the mistakes of the other side. We should engage Canadians in the discussion of what is an important democratic institution in this country.
We have a four step proposal. Most of it has already been covered in my colleagues' speeches to the House, but it is good to remind the House of our proposal.
First, we are proposing to convene a number of experts who could give us a non-partisan overview of what is possible in terms of Senate reform, that is, the constitutionality in relation to the overall Constitution and how it affects the provinces. We have brilliant academic minds in this country who could come together and bring us this information.
Second, we would need to publicize this information through a mechanism to spur debate on this issue.
Third, we would have to move to a referendum on this topic. I was an academic advisor to the B.C. citizens' assembly. With a few tweaks we could have something like a citizens' assembly that could help set the question to be asked of Canadians at large and perhaps answer some of my colleague's questions about what threshold would be appropriate. I would think 50% plus one would be fine. Again, this is a personal opinion.
Fourth, a referendum is binding. After this referendum, we would abide by the will of the people and move ahead with whatever is acceptable.
If the majority government moves ahead with the bill against our advice, I suggest that the government consult with the Province of British Columbia on foreign funding in municipal elections and take a very good look at clauses 38 to 50.
I am happy to provide the government with the briefing I gave to the Campbell task force. I am also working on a private member's motion on this matter, which I will raise at a later time.