Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity tonight to speak to the proposal by the member for Winnipeg Centre to oppose Vote No. 1—Parliament, to provide the program expenditures to the Senate in the amount of $57,532,359 in the main estimates.
My remarks, I should say off the top, should in no way be confused as a ringing endorsement of the status quo in the Senate. Our government has consistently tried to reform the Senate while always recognizing the important role the Senate plays in our parliamentary system. That recognition is in direct opposition to the views of the sponsor of this motion, whose party would like to summarily abolish the institution. That is what the motion of the member for Winnipeg Centre would effectively do by depriving the Senate of the resources it needs to function.
Our government has always believed that while the Senate plays an important role in our parliamentary system, it needs to be improved to better serve Canadians in the way it was originally conceived.
A review of our government's record since taking office in 2006 demonstrates not only our government's commitment to Senate reform but also our flexibility in accommodating different views about Senate reform.
Legislation was first introduced in the 39th Parliament in April 2006 to limit Senate tenure to a period of eight years. Bill S-4 at the time proposed to amend section 29 of the Constitution Act of 1867 to limit Senate tenure to a renewable term of eight years and to remove mandatory retirement at 75 years for new senators coming in.
Also in the 39th Parliament in 2006, our government introduced Bill C-43, the Senate appointment consultations act. That was a bill that would have provided for a national consultation process through which Canadians would be consulted on their choice of candidates for appointment to the Senate. That was obviously modelled after efforts made in my home province of Alberta, where we had undertaken any number of these consultations in the past and where we had senators who were essentially elected by the people of Alberta. It was modelled after that particular idea, the innovative approach taken by my home province of Alberta. Unfortunately, as with the term limits bill, the opposition parties refused to support these important reforms.
In the second session of the 39th Parliament in 2007, our government introduced Bill C-19, an act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate tenure), here in the House of Commons. Bill C-19 proposed to limit Senate tenure to a period of eight years, the same as the bill we introduced in the Senate a year earlier. However, there were a couple of important modifications.
First, while Bill S-4 did not expressly forbid the possibility of renewable terms, Bill C-19 did in fact expressly provide for a non-renewable term.
Second, Bill C-19 contained the provision to permit a Senate term to be completed after an interruption. An example would be a term interrupted by a resignation. Despite these changes and our government's determined effort to bring change to an institution that had remained largely unchanged since 1867, the time of our Confederation, the opposition parties steadfastly refused to support our legislation.
Then, of course, our government was re-elected in 2008 with a mandate to reform the Senate, and we went to work on that. In the 40th parliament in 2009, our government introduced Bill S-7, an act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Senate term limits). It was introduced in the Senate, and it included two key changes.
The first was the idea of eight-year term limits. That limit would apply to all senators appointed after October 14, 2008, with the eight-year terms beginning from the time that the bill received royal assent. Then, of course, the retirement age of 75 years would be maintained for all senators. Once again, even this modest but important reform was opposed by the opposition parties.
In 2010, our government introduced Bill S-8, the senatorial selection act. It was a bill to encourage the provinces and territories to implement their own democratic processes for the selection of Senate nominees. It would have democratized the Senate and provided an opportunity for the provinces and territories to implement the processes to enable that to happen. This act included a voluntary framework that set out a basis for provinces to consult with voters on appointments to the Senate going forward.
We all know what happened there: the opposition parties refused to support that reform too. Is anyone sensing any kind of pattern here?
That year our government also reintroduced the Senate term limits bill, Bill C-10. That bill died on the order paper upon the dissolution of Parliament. Can we guess why? It was due to a lack of will for reform from the opposition parties once again. They refused to support any idea of reform in the Senate.
Canadians gave another mandate to our government in the election of May 2011 to again make changes to the Senate. A month and a half later, on June 21, 2011, our government introduced Bill C-7, the Senate reform act. Members can probably imagine where this is going. Bill C-7 would have implemented a nine-year non-renewable term for senators. That goes back to the point I raised earlier about being flexible and accommodating. Some concerns had been raised about the eight years, so we went for a nine-year non-renewable term.
As well, that bill would have once again enabled a voluntary framework for the provinces to implement Senate appointment consultations. Processes were put in place for that. As with all the other times, the opposition parties still would not change their minds. They refused to support meaningful Senate reform.
Throughout all of those debates on the Senate, time and time again our commitment to reform was crystal clear, as was our recognition of the value of the Senate in our parliamentary system.
Our commitment to reform was also demonstrated by a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada on Senate reform that our government launched in an effort to clarify questions about the constitutionality of legislation that we brought forward. While we were obviously disappointed by the court's decision, it is unfortunately one that all governments will have to respect going forward.
However, the court's opinion does not in any way change our view that improvements to the Senate are needed, nor does it change our view about the value the Senate can play in our bicameral legislative system. My hope certainly remains that reform will be accomplished at some point in the future.
In the meantime, there are other ways of improving the operation of the Senate, as demonstrated by the measures that the Senate itself has initiated to improve transparency and accountability with regard to its expenses.
The Senate plays a key role in the review of legislation. My Liberal colleague across the way can debate what sober second thought means, but he was right that this idea of sober second thought is a learned opinion of second thought. That is something the Senate provides, and it has resulted in improvements to legislation in the past.
The Senate also plays an important role in its committees in the investigation of issues of importance to Canadians. Certainly, the committees, as has been mentioned already in the debate this evening, have produced comprehensive reports. They have produced many, in fact, that have proven to be of tremendous value to the debate and to learning and understanding here in Parliament and throughout Canada. The Kirby report on mental health was an example of that. There was a study done by the national finance committee in the Senate on the price gap between Canada and the U.S. Again, the national finance committee looked studied the elimination of the penny. I could go on and on, citing reports that have been helpful and that have come from the Senate.
There is no doubt that, while the Senate is one of our key institutions here in Parliament, it has been hampered in its role by the lack of accountability that we have seen. There is no question. This lack of accountability has, in turn, been created by the lack of a democratic basis to the system of appointments. Despite the best efforts of most senators and the good work that does get done, some have questioned the legitimacy of the Senate because it lacks that democratic basis.
As I said earlier, I personally do not question the work of the Senate. However, clearly the events of the past year or so have fairly resulted in some damage to its reputation. While we agree about the need for improved accountability, and there is no question that it is needed, we do not believe that the solution is to remove the Senate altogether from our parliamentary system. Rather than destroy the institution and the valuable role it does and can play, we continue to believe that it can be improved and that it can continue to function as one of our key institutions.
Clearly, the recent decision by the Supreme Court on the Senate reform reference has changed the outlook considerably on the reform front. However, improvements can still occur, and the Senate itself has been a leader in that regard over the past year. The Senate has an important role to play in making the improvements. That it has the responsibility to regulate its own affairs is the prime reason for that.
I would draw to members' attention section 33 of the Constitution Act of 1867, which says:
If any Question arises respecting the Qualification of a Senator or a Vacancy in the Senate the same shall be heard...by the Senate.
The Senate has made some progress in dealing with the issues it has faced in this area of financial accountability and transparency. Much of the progress has been the result of the investigations carried out by the Senate Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration. As a result of that committee's recommendations, the Senate has adopted new administrative rules to render the reporting system more transparent and to tighten the requirements that senators must meet in filing their expense claims. Some senators have been required to reimburse the Senate for expenses that were considered to be improperly claimed.
The Senate has also asked the Auditor General to conduct an audit of Senate expenses, which will take place in the months ahead. The Senate has also acted by suspending several senators without pay or without access to Senate resources. It seems as if the Senate is taking these matters into its own hands, as it should. Our government has encouraged the Senate to address these issues, and it supports the progress that has already been made.
Since 2006, our government has made a number of attempts to reform the Senate, as I have outlined throughout my remarks here this evening, and as I have indicated, the opposition parties have continued to stand in our way every single time. We as a government continue to believe that providing a democratic basis for the Senate would be a vast improvement and that it would in turn improve accountability.
Our reform efforts, of course, culminated with the introduction of Bill C-7, the Senate reform act, in the last Parliament. Bill C-7 would have introduced non-renewable terms of nine years and provided for a voluntary framework, which provinces and territories could use as a basis to consult their populations on their preferences for Senate nominees, again, as I have indicated, much like what has been done in my home province of Alberta many times. It has produced some great senators, some senators with democratic legitimacy and accountability. The ideas in Bill C-7 were real and concrete measures to reform the Senate.
Unfortunately, our efforts to move those important reforms forward came to an end with the release of the Supreme Court's decision on the Senate reform reference. The fact that in that reference we included a question on abolition was not in any way an indication that our government favoured abolition as an instrument. Our first choice has always been the introduction of reforms that would enhance the Senate's democratic legitimacy.
The Senate certainly has an important role to play in our system. I believe that abolition would remove an important player in the parliamentary system and would leave a huge hole in the legislative process, and for no good reason. Those who know even a little about our system of government, just a bit, know that the Senate has an important role to play in our system, despite what opposition parties may have tried to claim. The Senate's role in the legislative review process is invaluable to our system. We need to continue to provide the Senate with the resources it needs to function effectively.
Of course, we expect the Senate to treat those funds with respect. There have been a number of rule changes designed to ensure that is what is happening. However, we cannot simply remove the entire allocation to the Senate. As I said, we have brought forward a number of suggestions and bills, both in the Senate and in this place, seeking to provide the reform, to create the democratic legitimacy, and to create the accountability that we believe is necessary in the Senate. As I have said, every single time, time and time again, those measures and those attempts to make the reform were blocked by the opposition parties. They would not support anything we tried to do in terms of reform. We brought forward a number of different proposals. We were willing to be flexible, we were willing to be accommodating, we tried different approaches, and we did everything we could to see that reform come to fruition, but the opposition parties refused to allow reform to happen, every single time.
As I have indicated, we understand that there have been some issues with regard to expenses and whatnot in the Senate over the last year or so. There is a need to address those issues and create better accountability. As I have said tonight, there have certainly been efforts undertaken in the Senate itself to try to accomplish those things, and we continue to encourage and support that. We know that reform is something that needs to happen some time in the future. Hopefully, we will get some recognition of that from the opposition parties at some point in time. We can keep trying and hoping, but what we cannot do is simply remove the entire allocation from the Senate and pretend it never existed, and that is what is being proposed here tonight.
I cannot support the proposal by the member for Winnipeg Centre to oppose this allocation of the resources to the Senate, which is clearly a thinly disguised attempt to abolish an institution that fills an important function in our legislative process.