Motion No. 1
That Vote 1, in the amount of $57,933,343, under PARLIAMENT — The Senate — Program expenditures, in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, be concurred in.
Madam Speaker, I stand in the House this evening to join debate on the main estimates' allocation of funding to the Senate of Canada.
While I am always happy to discuss the ways in which our government is taking action to bring greater effectiveness and democracy to the Senate, it is disappointing to be discussing such issues as a result of partisan manoeuvring by the NDP. Rather than discuss real and achievable Senate reform measures such as term limits and getting provinces to hold a Senate nominee selection process, the NDP would rather pull procedural stunts in order to call for constitutional battles with the provinces. We know what calls for Senate abolition really are: they are calls for long-drawn-out constitutional clashes with the provinces.
At a time when the global economy is still fragile and Canadians are rightly worried about their savings, their retirement and their financial future, long-drawn-out constitutional clashes with the provinces would be a recipe for sideshows, distracting the government's attention away from the economy.
It is not surprising that the NDP would be advocating for bombastic constitutional sideshows, because it would need a sideshow in order to distract from the misinformed economic statements of a leader who shows such little regard for critical components of Canada's economy. In fact, we could say the NDP is doing that right now. Instead of talking about ways in which we can ensure jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for Canadians, the NDP is forcing a debate tonight to create a sideshow in order to distract from the leader's gaffes in calling key sectors of the economy a disease.
Frankly, if the NDP was so concerned about the state of the Senate, it would not stall the Senate reform act, yet it resorts to procedural tactics, including filibustering the Senate reform bill and creating this sideshow tonight, because it is afraid that our reforms will work. Once senators are selected by Canadians, the case for creating long-drawn-out constitutional sideshows diminishes greatly.
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. While our government's top priority remains the economy, we have to do something about the status quo in the Senate. The Senate makes, reviews and passes laws that affect Canadians every day. It is not right that senators have no democratic mandate from the people they represent, nor that they can sit in the other place for decades at a time.
I believe that the Senate can play an important role in our parliamentary system. It reviews statutes and legislation, often from different perspectives than those found here on this side. It serves to represent regional and minority interests in a way different from the way 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, I believe that 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 at the age of 30 and serve until the age of 75. That means that senators can serve for as long as 45 years. Taken together, the Senate lacks any essential democratic characteristics. Its effectiveness and legitimacy suffer from its democratic deficit.
We must then ask ourselves this simple question: is this good enough? Our answer on this side of the House 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 Senate status quo is unacceptable, and therefore it must change in order to reach its full potential as an effective and democratic institution.
One, we can have a long-drawn-out constitutional Senate reform showdown with the provinces, which the NDP advocates; two, we can keep the status quo in the Senate; or three, we can have reasonable reform that can be done through Parliament.
In July of last year, public opinion research found that seven out of 10 Canadians reject the status quo in the Senate. Although striking, this is not shocking. The Senate and its reform have 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 the problem, 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. Abolishing the Senate, for example, at the very minimum requires the consent of at least seven out of ten provinces.
Canadians do not want drawn-out constitutional battles that would detract from our government's focus on Canada's top priority, the economy. Added to this is the fact that there is not consensus among provinces to pursue large wholesale reform.
It must be said, though, that the lack of agreement on large fundamental reform does not leave us with a lack of options, if only we have sufficient will to act. If we are to begin the journey towards reform, we must do what we can within the scope of Parliament's authority.
Our government believes that Senate reform is needed now, and we are committed to pursuing a practical, reasonable approach to reform that we believe will restore effectiveness and legitimacy in the Senate. That is why we are moving forward with the Senate reform act.
Through this bill, our government is taking immediate and concrete action to fulfill our commitment to Canadians to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of our upper House, and to work cooperatively with the provinces and territories.
The Senate reform act includes two initiatives that will help bring the Senate into the 21st century.
First, the act provides a suggested framework to provinces and territories that wish to establish democratic consultation processes to give Canadians a say in who represents them in the Senate.
Second, it introduces term limits for senators appointed after October 2008, which will ensure the Senate is refreshed with new ideas on a more frequent basis and allow Canadians to select their Senate representatives at regular intervals.
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 Senate reform.
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 would 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 selection for 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 a democratic selection process to consult voters on their preferences for 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 the precise details of such a process, which may differ between jurisdictions as local needs may demand. This is, after all, a cooperative 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, as we have seen recently with the legislation introduced in New Brunswick. It is our hope that this built-in flexibility would further encourage provinces to provide a democratic process to give greater voice to their citizens and their province 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. 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. A selection process was held under the authority of Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act, which was introduced in 1989. Senator Brown's tireless work for 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 the 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 cooperation, wherever possible.
In British Columbia, the premier's parliamentary secretary has introduced a bill that would provide the provincial government with the authority to hold consultation processes. Last week, a bill was introduced in the New Brunswick legislature to hold a Senate nominee process by 2016.
I will be following the progress of this legislation closely, and I would encourage my provincial colleagues in their legislative assemblies to support the passage of both bills. More broadly, I would encourage all colleagues, in all provincial and territorial legislatures and assemblies, to consider supporting and moving with similar initiatives.
I will move on to the other major initiative of our Bill C-7. In addition to encouraging the implementation of a democratic selection process for Senate nominees, the act would also limit Senate terms, which can span several decades under the current rules. Public opinion research has consistently shown that over 70% of Canadians support limiting the terms of senators. When we begin 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 would be subject to a single nine-year, non-renewable term. The nine-year term would also apply to all senators appointed after October 2008. The nine-year clock for those senators would start upon royal assent.
As with the earlier provision, 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, acting alone, introduced a mandatory retirement age of 75 for senators. Prior to that, senators were appointed for life.
I believe it is far to say that while many in this House agree that changes to the Senate are necessary, we sometimes disagree on the way forward. Our goal is to begin the reform process, and we want to be as constructive as we can while ensuring we are moving forward.
In contrast to the position of the other parties, it is clear that our government's approach is a 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 in the Senate. 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. Aside from the very obvious sideshow that the NDP is attempting to create using procedural tactics this evening, the position on abolishment is unattainable, for a number of reasons. First, there is no consensus among the provinces to abolish the Senate. Second, to take away the Senate without significant other reforms would be to seriously damage the effective representation of large sections of our country and our Parliament.
Our upper chamber, though flawed in some ways, can serve valuable democratic functions if we can reform it to make it more effective and legitimate. We should have enough respect for our institutions and our democracy to work towards the improvement of an institution in need of repair. We should not throw our hands up in the air in defeat without first attempting reform.
The position of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, has been to advocate for a process, not a result. Liberals do not support reform of the Senate, and 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 we know will end in bitter drawn-out national conflict without Senate reform being achieved. Their approach is a recipe for accomplishing nothing.
I reject the opposition's obstructionism and encourage 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 they want change. I believe it is time for change in the Senate, and that time has come.
With the Senate reform act, our government is presenting modest but important and attainable changes that will improve the Senate by providing it with greater legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.
I consider the enhancement of our democratic institutions to be a significant responsibility, and I am privileged to be working with my hon. colleagues to meet this common objective. I encourage all of my colleagues to work toward achieving these reforms and giving Canadians a stronger voice in determining who represents them in the Senate.