Mr. Speaker, the review of the Senate budget should be done in a comprehensive way, not as an attempt to initiate an abolition of the Senate bit by bit, incrementally, as the NDP is trying to do today.
The Liberals strongly support any sound measures that increase frugality, openness and transparency in our parliamentary democracy. Our open Parliament plan specially called for a more detailed audit of the House of Commons by the Auditor General. It is our strong belief that House and Senate Boards of Internal Economy should work with the Auditor General to develop mandatory performance audits of the House of Commons and Senate administrations.
The Liberal leader and member for Papineau rightly said that parliamentarians had the privilege of serving Canadians, and Canadians rightly expected them to adhere to the highest ethical standards. This principle should guide all parliamentarians during a time when we really need to improve ethical standards in the House as well as in the Senate.
The Senate, in particular, needs to change. Not only is change needed to its rules around transparency and accountability processes, but the whole institution cannot stay the same. The status quo is unacceptable.
Three bold options to reform the Canadian Senate are on the table: abolish it, make it an elected body or make it more independent and less partisan.
Only the third option, proposed by Liberal leader, the member for Papineau, is the realistic option. The other two do not stand a chance. Why? Abolition or an elected Senate would both require constitutional amendments, as confirmed by the Supreme Court in its April 25, 2014, opinion. The court ruled that Parliament could not change the nature of the Senate unilaterally. Making it an elected chamber would require the agreement of Parliament and the concurrence of seven provinces representing 50% of the population of the provinces, the 7/50 rule. Abolishing the Senate would require the unanimous agreement of Parliament and the 10 provinces. Unanimity among provinces for abolition is out of reach. No more is there the majority concurrence required for making the Senate an elected chamber.
At least one province, Quebec, has declared that it will not enter into constitutional negotiations on the sole issue of Senate reform. There is an regional veto act that gives veto power over constitutional changes to the five regions of Canada. To abolish the Senate would require a referendum, constitutional negotiations and very likely a majority in every province of the country. Therefore, this will not happen.
That said, Canadians have had enough of the ethical and financial scandals created by the actions of certain senators. Canadians want no more of the favouritism and extreme partisanship that have tarnished the Senate’s reputation and reduced its usefulness, favouritism and partisanship pushed to unequalled and intolerable extremes by this Prime Minister.
We Liberals agree that reforms are needed to return the Senate to the role assigned to it: the chamber of sober second thought. We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that the Senate does the best it can to fulfil the responsibility entrusted to it by the Fathers of Confederation: to scrutinize bills carefully and to identify errors, flaws and inaccuracies, and on that basis, to propose useful amendments.
We Liberals will ensure that the Senate plays its constitutional role as an upper chamber that is attentive to the needs and aspirations of the regions and to minorities in our diverse country, including the first nations and the official language minority communities.
We Liberals will ensure that we have the Senate that is needed, an institution that is more serene and more independent and is composed of first class legislators who are competent, ethical and highly qualified, and are chosen through a non-partisan procedure.
A more independent Senate: this is the challenge that the Liberal leader is committed to undertaking.
The Liberal plan has two components. The first has already been realized; the second will be if Canadians elect a Liberal government in the next federal election in 2015.
The first component became a reality on January 29, 2014. Since that date, there have been no senators in the Liberal caucus; it consists of members of Parliament only.
The Liberal caucus and the Liberal Party of Canada no longer have a direct relationship with senators who, like any citizen, may belong to the political party of their choice.
Senators have thus been relieved of all partisan duties and are better able to devote themselves to their duties as parliamentarians and legislators. The Liberal leader did invite the Prime Minister to do the same in his own caucus. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Prime Minister refused.
We therefore now have a Liberal caucus with no senators, and senators with no partisan obligations. In a swift and decisive move, the Liberal leader accomplished the most important reform made to the Senate since Confederation. In a single morning, he did more to reform the Senate than the Prime Minister has done in nearly ten years in power, and the Liberal leader will go even further along the road to reform if Canadians elect him as their next prime minister.
The second component of Liberal reform of the Senate provides for the implementation of a non-partisan appointment process through which the upper chamber will at all times be composed of eminent, dedicated and highly qualified legislators. Some constitutional experts recommend setting up a senatorial advisory committee, somewhat like what has been put in place for the selection of certain members of the upper chamber in the United Kingdom.
The advisory committee would be responsible for providing the Prime Minister with informed and objective advice on potential candidates for the Senate. In my opinion, this model should be among those considered. In this model, the committee would base its recommendations on serious, objective, non-partisan criteria.
To be recommended, a candidate would have to show a long list of qualities: exceptional skill in his field; an indisputable connection to the province concerned; a record of exceptional service to his community; exceptional work habits; flawless honesty and integrity; open-mindedness; the wisdom and good judgment we expect from a legislator; and a thorough understanding of the role of a chamber of sober second thought. Senators would be expected to propose improvements to bills without challenging or usurping the legitimate and dominant role of the elected House within a democracy.
The committee would take care to ensure equal representation of women and minorities, including first nations and official language minority communities that have historic ties to the Senate.
How might the senator selection process take place? What I am describing is one possible way.
In accordance with constitutional conventions, the Prime Minister would make the final recommendation to the Governor General from a short list prepared by the advisory committee.
If the Prime Minister felt unable to appoint someone from the list, he would have to explain himself to Parliament and ask the advisory committee to come up with a new list.
An act of Parliament enacting such a selection process would be fully constitutional. It would not change the Senate's fundamental nature and role, a nature and role that, according to a 2014 Supreme Court opinion, section 52, Parliament has no right to alter unilaterally. In contrast, the court confirmed that making the Senate an elected chamber would fundamentally alter its nature and role, thus requiring that the 7/50 provincial approval threshold be met.
The court noted, in section 65 of its 2014 opinion, that the framers of the Constitution Act, 1982 extended the constitutional protection provided by the general amending procedure to the entire process by which senators were selected. This means that the entire process must be considered in order to assess if it changes the fundamental nature and role of the Senate.
If the entire process only aims to make the prime minister's choices less partisan and more objective, as the Liberal proposal does, it does nothing to change the fundamental nature of the institution. To the contrary, it reinforces the likelihood that the Senate will actually correspond with the court's definition of the upper house's fundamental nature.
The definition reads as follows, to provide “sober second thought” on the legislation adopted by the popular representatives in the House of Commons”, to be “a thoroughly independent body which could canvass dispassionately the measures of the House of Commons, and “a complementary legislative body, rather than a perennial rival of the House of Commons in the legislative process”. It would be removed “from a partisan political arena”.
I believe it would be wise to experiment with the new process before entrenching it in an act of Parliament in order to test its uptake.
In closing, I would just like to say that the commitment made by the Liberal leader, namely to give Canada a more effective, less partisan and more independent upper chamber, is entirely realistic and particularly necessary.
Without changing a single word of the Constitution, he will create a Senate made up of senators who have the competencies, knowledge and skills to carry out the task that the Fathers of Confederation entrusted to the institution: to scrutinize and improve the bills passed in the House of Commons. The Trudeau plan to reform the Senate—