Mr. Speaker, I listened closely to the speeches by my two colleagues, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform and my NDP colleague, who made this proposal.
I would like to express, as respectfully and rationally as possible, the reasons why I disagree. Let us start with the NDP proposal, which consists in preventing the Senate from doing its job.
The Constitution requires that the Senate approve legislation. We could not have any legislation in this country if we prevented the Senate from doing its job. My colleague's proposal is absurd. I have no other word for it.
I know that we are opposition members and that the government wants nothing to do with the opposition and does not accept any proposals from the opposition. However, that is no excuse to come up with any old thing. Members of Parliament have a responsibility to submit meaningful proposals to this House.
Whether we like it or not, Canada is a bicameral federation. In other words, we have two chambers. Both chambers have to approve legislation. We have to allow both chambers to do their jobs.
Our NDP colleague's proposal makes no sense.
It does not make sense. I would like to understand the NDP's position now. I thought it was to abolish the Senate after a referendum. Is it the New Democrats' view now that they want to abolish the Senate before or without a referendum? Is it their point of view that we should switch from a referendum to disbanding the Senate and that we should do it unilaterally? Then the question is: In which provision of the Constitution does the House of Commons have the power to disband the Senate?
I do not know if my colleague is listening to me. I am asking the question because I am completely puzzled. If there is no provision in the Constitution for this House to unilaterally disband the Senate, why is he coming in with this proposition today? Of course there is no mention in the Constitution about that.
In no federation of the world that I know may one of the two chambers unilaterally abolish the other chamber. In fact, in Canada, even if the Senate wanted to abolish itself, it cannot do that because it needs the unanimous support of the provinces. It is not only seven out of ten, as the minister said, it is unanimity because Prince Edward Island made sure it would be unanimity when it accepted the 1982 Constitution, and the Constitution gives it the certainty that it will always have as many senators as MPs. If the Senate ceases to exist, the protection for P.E.I. would not exist anymore. Therefore, we would need to have the support of P.E.I. and the nine other provinces to abolish the Senate, which leads me to another problem I have with the NDP proposition.
Let us assume that the NDP members stick to their former proposition, which is not to disband the Senate unilaterally but to hold a referendum. What would be the exact question? If the question were, “Do you want to abolish the Senate?” The majority of Canadians who prefer to reform the Senate will be squeezed between a yes and a no that would not reflect what they would like to do, which is to improve the Senate through reform. I think it would be completely unfair to come with only two possibilities, a yes or a no, to abolish it.
What would be a clear majority? Would it be 50% plus one nationally? No, because we need the unanimity of the provinces to abolish the Senate. A premier, who had received a majority of voters asking to keep the Senate, could say, “I am accountable to my voters and my voters want to keep the Senate”. I guess the NDP proposition would be a referendum with a majority in every province of our great country. I guess it is that. It is for them to say. We do not know. Any time we ask questions, they do not answer. I guess they do not know the answer. They never think about that or try to give us the answer.
If there is something in what I have said that is wrong, I would ask NDP members to please tell me where I am wrong. I think it is time for my colleagues in the NDP to be adult about this issue and be serious about the question I asked. If it is referendum, what would be the question and would the question be fair and clear? What would be the majority? Is the majority in every province as the Constitution requests? This is, I think, a very good question.
Will the NDP members withdraw what they are proposing today, which is completely absurd? I will not say that it is a political stunt because I do not like the expression. It is not my style and I am not sure what “stunt” means in English anyway. However, I will say that it is complete nonsense, or in French, c'est du n'importe quoi.
What the NDP may say is not very important because the government will never listen to what the NDP has to propose. However, I hope the minister will listen to what I have been telling him for months.
There is a basic law in political science that the problems of tomorrow may be the result of the ill-considered reforms of today. I think that many of the bills we get in this House are very bad. However, I sincerely believe that this bill is the most dangerous for Canada. It is not because I am against the idea of an elected Senate. All my life I have argued that it would be a good idea. However, the main reason we cannot have an elected Senate would not be solved with the bill. On the contrary, the bill would make it much worse.
The main problem is that our provinces do not agree among themselves on the number of senators for each province. This has been the reason that, for decades upon decades, attempts to reform the Senate have failed. However, the member proposes that we ignore this problem and proceed anyway, despite whatever circumstances might arise. The consequence of implementing such a bill would be a huge constitutional fight in this country. Canada does not need that. We never need that kind of thing, but certainly not now with the difficult economic situation we have. Why would there be a huge constitutional fight? It is because no province would want to surrender any seats after a reform that was unilaterally decided by the federal government without the proper consultation and acceptance process that the Constitution requires.
The provinces would feel shortchanged if the bill were enacted. After a while, it would be completely unacceptable for Albertans to have only six senators out of 105 as the powerful elected Senate would be able to veto any bill in this House, and it would do so at a very high speed. Once senators were elected, they would have a mandate and commitments to their voters that they would want to respect.
Therefore, the practice we have today where senators almost always give the last word to the House because they are not elected, would disappear. These elected senators would try and try again to have the last word because that is what they were elected for.
At the moment, the member may find that his own province of Alberta and the province of British Columbia would be so under-represented that it would be unfair to the Canadians living in those provinces and would not be tolerable. Therefore, they would, of course, request that be addressed. But why would Atlantic Canadians agree to give some of their senators to Alberta and British Columbia when they see that the weight of Atlantic Canada in this House is decreasing census after census?
The premier of New Brunswick said that he wants to elect senators in New Brunswick in order to have a stronger voice for New Brunswick. That is fair for him, being the premier of New Brunswick, but we are here to think about the whole of Canada.
It is clear that people of Alberta and British Columbia would say that it is unacceptable that they are so under-represented in the elected Senate. They may not be saying that now because few Albertans are aware that they have only six senators.
In every democracy, citizens' understanding of their institutions is usually very low. That is why I caution the hon. minister on the poll he just cited that 70% of Canadians are willing to have an elected Senate.
How many Canadians know the number of seats their province has in the Senate today? If they knew that, then maybe they would agree with the overwhelming majority of constitutional experts who say that the bill the minister is proposing is wrong for Canada. These are experts who understand the Constitution and that it is very dangerous to have some provinces under-represented in an elected Senate.
The second problem that the minister never answered, no matter how many times I told him about it, is that if the Senate is elected, there will be two elected chambers competing with each other, able to stop each other, to create a stalemate between themselves.
We could count on my fingers the number of times the Senate vetoed a bill of the House in the last two decades. It happens very rarely. Why? The senators, not being elected, give the last word to the House. The very moment they are elected, they would veto a lot of bills whether it is 20%, 25%, 40% or 50%. We would like to know if the minister has any idea about that. I do not think he does because it is impossible to predict.
When we look at what has happened in other countries, we know it has happened. In some countries, it is creating a big stalemate, a big gridlock, like in the United States and in Mexico. I understand the rules in the United States are a bit complex, and sometimes it is 60% and not 50%.
We would create a new federation with this bill, bit by bit, over the years, as elected senators replace non-elected senators. Then, we would discover that we do not have any dispute resolution mechanism for how to solve disagreements between the two chambers. Except for a few exceptions, the Senate, according to the Constitution, has the same powers as the House.
The House would not be able to overrule or veto the Senate. The Senate would not be able to do that to the House. In other countries, they have decided to have dispute resolution mechanisms, like in Germany with the Bundesrat and the Bundestag. The Bundesrat cannot veto bills from the Bundestag unless it is linked to Länder jurisdiction, something that cannot work in Canada because we do not have the power to rule on provincial jurisdiction. By definition, the German model would not work in Canada.
We will need to think of something else, maybe something like the model in Australia, where the prime minister has the power to dissolve the two chambers at the same time and to send everybody to an election when there is a stalemate.
We may think it would be good for Canada, but can Canada decide that by asking Parliament? That is something that all the partners of the Constitution must decide together.
He is proposing to elect the Senate without any dispute resolution mechanism. I am asking the member if there is a federation that has this kind of situation, a parliamentary federation? We do not have a president who can decide a lot of things, independently of the two chambers.
All of us are sitting in these two chambers. In parliamentary systems, they made sure that the rep by pop chamber, the chamber where the government is responsible, is more powerful than the other chamber. That is what has been done in other parliamentary democracies of the world. Why not in Canada?
We cannot do that alone, though. We need to have the provinces at the table. So the minister is creating two problems. The first one is he will create a huge sense of unfairness in the federation without any idea of how we will solve it. I think he was right when he asked NDP colleagues what the next step would be to stop the funding of the Senate. They cannot answer.
Can the minister answer my question, what is the next step after this bill? What is the next step once the senators are elected? They would try to use their full powers against the House, without any dispute resolution mechanism, and with two provinces terribly shortchanged in the federation. It would be completely unfair and unacceptable.
The minister is telling me that what I am proposing, which is to work with the provinces to find a way for them to agree on the distribution of senators, may take too long. It has been tried in the past. I know it is difficult.
Canada is a difficult country. In order to solve problems, we cannot ignore problems. We cannot pretend to solve a problem and take for granted that the problem does not exist. The problem of the unfairness of the current representation of senators by provinces in Canada exists. It is tolerable because the Senate is playing a minor role facing the House. The moment the Senate has the same role, then the problem will not be tolerable anymore. It will be a huge crisis in this country.
That fact that we do not have any dispute resolution mechanism between the two chambers would be intolerable in a country that is so decentralized like Canada. We need to be sure that the common institutions of the country work for the country.
If we paralyze these two chambers, it will be at a cost to every Canadian and at the cost of Canada's ability to play its role in the world, a Conservative role according to the minister, a Liberal role according to us. It is democratically decided whether it will be Liberal, Conservative or NDP, but at least it should be something, not nothing, not paralysis, not stalemate, not gridlock, not unfairness for Alberta and British Columbia.
I was speaking in English because I wanted to make sure that my colleague understood. Now he will listen to the translation. What I said in English is just as valid in French. At any rate, he will have to defend his bill in French before the Quebec Court of Appeal.
He accused me of wanting to start a dispute between the provinces and the federal government on the issue of the Senate. The opposite is true. This side of the House wants to work with the provinces and not bully them or make changes that fall outside our jurisdiction.
The minister assures me that he will win in the Quebec Court of Appeal. He claims that his bill is constitutional. He says that his bill does not change the method for selecting senators, which cannot be done by Parliament alone, but which must be done by at least seven provinces representing 50% of the population.
The minister says that he is not changing the method but rather the selection framework. But what is the difference between a framework and a method? What court will say that they are two different things? How can we change the framework without changing the method—in English, in French and in Latin?
What the minister is saying does not make any sense. Of course he is changing the method. I would like to remind him that the Constitution refers to the selection of senators, not their appointment. The minister is saying that of course he will not change the appointment process and that it will still be the Governor General who appoints senators. How lovely. Thank you so much. I am sorry. The minister is not going to touch the Governor General's authority and, on that very narrow ground, he believes that he is respecting the Constitution.
However, if constitutional experts had wanted only to talk about the Governor General's authority to accept the Prime Minister's recommendations and appoint senators, they would have spoken about the framework for appointment rather than the framework for selection. All constitutional experts make this basic distinction. Selection is the framework.
The court clearly stated that Parliament alone could not change the unelected Senate into an elected chamber. We do not have that authority. We may wish we did. Personally, as a democrat, I would prefer it, but we do not have that power. In the meantime, we have a Senate.
Can I suggest that the Prime Minister review his way of appointing senators and that he appoint more competent senators who are more prestigious in the eyes of Canadians?
The appointment of Senator Dallaire is a decision that reflects on the Prime Minister who appointed him. It is possible to appoint people with experience of whom all Canadians approve and who make excellent parliamentarians. They can be partisan. Appointing Don Boudria would not have been bad for Canadians because he was an excellent parliamentarian. Senators can be partisan. It is good for them to have been a member of a party and to have worked within a party. These people must be respected. We should be able to say that they will be great parliamentarians because of the experience they bring to the table.
It is important to realize that this chamber, the House of Commons of Canada, has one of the highest rates of turnover.
In one of the shortest turnovers of the whole democracy of this House, when we have a wave like the last time, the orange wave, we can see a lot of good MPs disappearing, zap, overnight, and new rookie MPs coming with no experience. Except in the other House, we have a lot of valuable parliamentarians with a lot of experience and with more diversity than in this House. When prime ministers are clever and responsible, they will appoint more women, more aboriginals, more francophones from the other provinces and Anglo-Quebeckers. They will do that. It is what they have done, especially the great former prime minister, Jean Chrétien. He ensured that we would have a Senate that would be a complement to the House through its experience in the choices he made.
To conclude, this bill is unconstitutional, unfair for Alberta and British Columbia and dangerous for the whole of Canada. The proposition of the NDP is complete nonsense.