Speeches | Senatorial Selection Bill

02 November 2010

Honourable senators, I will speak about the election of senators. I have made a few of these comments here before, so I want to apologize to any of honourable senators who have already heard them, in case I am boring them. I think I probably did not finish, though, so it is worth another effort. Senators who have been appointed since I last spoke on this issue have not heard my comments, and I know they particularly will enjoy them.

I want to leave members of the government with this thought. They are accident prone on so many issues, for example, the budget deficit — who would have thought we would reach $56 billion? — and losing the seat on the United Nations Security Council. Who would have thought that they would bungle foreign relations so dramatically that we would lose something we never lost before?

Honourable senators, I am thinking about the United Arab Emirates, the loss of Camp Mirage and the millions of dollars that has cost. As I stood I thought, "At least I am trying to help this government not make a similar mess of Senate elections, because they are accident prone."

An Hon. Senator: Good for you!

Senator Mitchell: Thank you. I am doing my best here. I am not just helping the government. I am doing this, of course, on behalf of the people of Alberta and the people of Canada.

I want to raise a number of issues, not about the matter of electing senators — I think it is relatively difficult to argue against the concept of elections in a democratic state, although it has become less democratic over the last four years — but about the way that this bill would implement Senate elections. The thought that I had, when reviewing this bill over the number of times it has been presented, after delay by prorogation and by other manoeuvres of this government, was this: Be very careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

Two fundamental reasons that people, particularly in Alberta, argue for an elected Senate are: First, it would make the process more democratic; and, second, it would make Albertans' regional interests more effectively represented in the national governing centre. Let me address those two areas.

First, it will not make it more democratic. All of us in this house know — and I think the new senators are probably up to speed on this fact — that the Senate, on paper, has profound power. We can veto practically everything that the House of Commons passes. The flip side is that every piece of legislation — that is, every financial bill, every cent they want to spend — must be passed by the Senate. The Senate does not exercise that power as aggressively as it might, although in the past we have certainly amended many bills. The Senate did that quite regularly when we had governments that were open to suggestion, advice and other ideas. The Senate has not been able to do so with this government, of course, but we have done that in the past. We have actually turned down bills from the government. Generally speaking, the Senate does not exercise that power as aggressively as it might because we are not elected and they are, and we understand the difference.

Honourable senators, let us imagine for a minute that the Senate becomes an elected body. All of a sudden, senators will be inclined to vote as we want and we will vote against that government — or I would, on many occasions. Come to think of it, I am trying to imagine the number of times that I would vote with this government; it would not be many. Senators could absolutely hamstring the government if we began to vote against and veto what they are trying to do. We would have the obligation and the power to do that because we, too, would be elected.

Imagine if the Canadian people began to do, between the Senate and the House of Commons, what they have inherently done between provinces and the federal government; that is, they voted opposition. Let us compound the problem and vote opposition at the Senate level. All of a sudden, we hamstring government, we bog it down and we grind it to a halt. Tell me how that would make this process more democratic? It would not, unless you are of the ilk that hates government anyway and you wanted it to grind down and do nothing. You forget all the great things the government has done to make this country as great as it is, in partnership with the Canadian people, with businesses and with organizations. Maybe you would think twice about wanting it to grind down because we are elected without having to determine a way to break an impasse.

Australia has such a way to break an impasse. If their two houses disagree on the same issue twice, there is an automatic election. I have been an elected politician. I know how elections focus your attention. That would break impasses. However, there would be no way to break impasses once this bill is passed. This bill, therefore, is profoundly premature. If you want to see what happens when you cannot break impasses, go to the United States, where you will see a system of government that is all but dysfunctional. It cannot do the obvious or the right for much of the time. That is what happens.

My second point — and I know you want to hear this, Senator Duffy — is that Albertans and some other provinces feel that, somehow, all of our regional grievances will be redressed once we get an elected Senate. That is, we will be in regional balance nirvana. It will all be right again. Well, think twice about that. In fact, think three or four times about that, because, you know what? If you have a look at the number of seats in the House of Commons and in the Senate today, that will not be the case. If elected, we would be exercising our power based on seats that fundamentally will make the regional imbalances worse, certainly from the Albertan and the western points of view. In the House of Commons today, 9.3 per cent of the seats are from Alberta. That will go up to 11 per cent when we get the new seats. In the Senate today, 5.7 per cent of the seats are from Alberta. This bill would dilute Alberta's representation in this house, but we would be exercising power based on that diluted representation. With those numbers, how could that possibly improve regional representation? That is not a rhetorical question. That is an empirical question. The answer is that it will not; it cannot. It will damage that representation.

Let us compound that problem, honourable senators. Alberta has six seats. Do you know how many seats Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have? They each have 10 seats. I love Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They will get better regional representation. That is great, but it will not help the West and it will not redress regional imbalance. How many seats does the West have? They have 24. How many seats do Ontario and Quebec have? Well, they have 24 each. How many seats do the Atlantic Provinces have? They have 30 seats. I can see why the Maritimes would want to vote for it. It will not redress regional imbalance. Until we find a way to reallocate seats that is somehow more amenable to that issue, we are compounding the problem. It will not make regional representation better, it will exacerbate it. Albertans will be disadvantaged because of that imbalance. That is another reason why I will not support this bill.

Let us look at the restructuring of powers. Has anyone over there for one moment considered the restructuring of power that this bill will effect on the country? First, the Prime Minister will lose power. Many people hope that this Prime Minister would lose power. God knows, he has spent a lot of time and money increasing his budget so that he can have more power because that is what he wants. I happen to think we need a relatively powerful prime minister to govern this difficult country. I do not want to see the Prime Minister necessarily weakened in this way. However, if senators can stand up and vote against those government bills which come from a powerful prime minister, then all of a sudden the Prime Minister loses power. That makes me conclude one of two things: Either he is not aware that it will happen, which I doubt, because he knows he would lose power; or he knows that the bill will never be implemented, which I am pretty sure he understands as well. He is not doing this to redress regional imbalance and improve democracy. The Prime Minister is doing this strictly to earn political points. Otherwise, if he wanted to pass it fast, why did not he put it in the Budget bill? It would have got jammed through that way. Everything else was in it. If he really cared about it, why has he not talked to the 10 provinces and the 3 territories and got them to set up elections? We do not even have elections happening. In fact, the one election that was to happen, the one subsequent to Senator Brown's election, was just pushed aside by Mr. Stelmach. Why? Because he was afraid the Wildrose Alliance Party would win the seat and it would embarrass him. It had nothing to do with the higher ideal of reforming this great institution to make it more democratic and more regionally representative; absolutely not.

If the Prime Minister loses power for his or her bills, then the next level of power, members of Parliament, will not be as powerful. I love bumping into members of Parliament from Alberta, particularly on the plane or in the airport, and saying, "What do you think? Who will be more powerful after the Senate is elected: you or me?" They think a minute, and then I say, "It will be senators, because there are only six senators in Alberta. At worst, they represent one sixth of the province. More than that, they represent the whole province. We represent all three million Albertans, each one of us, and you represent one twenty eighth, soon to be one thirty third, of the province. Who do you think the press will come to? Who do you think the power brokers will come to? Who do you think will have influence? It will not be you."

I then ask them to list five members of the House of Representatives in the United States, who are their counterparts, and to name five American senators. Most people can come up with five, because the Senate is much more powerful than the House of Representatives. I then ask what this would do to the power relationship between the premiers and the Senate.

The Senate is responsible for representing regional interests, and most of us work very hard at that, but the most obvious and powerful spokespeople for regional representation are the premiers. However, once we are elected we can take that power from the premiers. Do you think the premiers will want to relinquish it?

I then ask people to name five governors of the United States of America. They can usually name Arnold Schwarzenegger, then they make a couple of incorrect guesses. They do not know five governors. They do, however, know five premiers.

Let us look at what this does to the power structure, which no one over there has thought about. Think about the implications of that restructuring of power for this country and then tell me if this legislation, which is nothing but political spin, is worth the risk to which it exposes this country. I do not think it is. In fact, I think it is very dangerous.

I wish to address a few practicalities. Imagine that there are 52 Liberals and 52 Conservatives in here, that there is an election for the one hundred and fifth member and that a Liberal wins the election. Does anyone in this house think for one minute that prime minister of the day would appoint a Liberal and give the Liberals a majority in the Senate? Of course not. Therefore, it means nothing. It does not mean more democracy; it simply gives the prime minister another chance to be capricious.

Speaking of capriciousness, Alberta was the only province to fulfil its commitment to hold Senate elections, and now it has wiped that out. Has the Prime Minister been asking these premiers for help in building democracy? Did he offer them money to run the elections? Why would they do it? This is a federal institution. Is he downloading that responsibility on them, which they will not spend anyway? Of course not. It will not happen.

Another capricious issue is rural-urban power. Let us imagine that the ex-mayor of Edmonton runs to become a senator as does the ex-mayor of Lloydminster, a fine town of 8,000 to 10,000 people. Who do you think will win? The ex-mayor of Edmonton will win because there are 1 million people in the Edmonton area. That ex-mayor will be well-known and will have an overwhelming chance to win the election. That will create a rural-urban problem.

Has anyone thought about the money? Each MP can spend about $85,000 for an election. If we have the equivalent of 28 seats in Alberta, can each senator, running in the whole province, spend $2.5 million? If so, how will they raise that money? Are there any rules on that? If six are running, that amounts to $14 million. If that is the case, the rich and the connected will win. How will that represent minority rights and regional interests?

Why would we limit the terms of senators if they are elected? Are we going to limit the terms of MPs, MLAs, mayors and others? If we are electing them, the Canadian people get to limit their terms if they want to. If one never has to run again, how does that enhance accountability? They will never have to have their accountability questioned. This makes no sense; it is without any consistency.

Finally, with eight-year terms, one prime minister can appoint the whole house. There are three people on this side who are younger than I am. If this were to happen, which it will not because we will change the government, the four of us would be sitting all by ourselves because, unlike Paul Martin, I do not foresee this Prime Minister ever appointing a Liberal to the Senate.

It is dangerous to proceed in this way without having worked out these factors. All members of the Senate and the House Commons know in their heart of hearts that this will not happen because the Prime Minister will not get the support of the provinces and will probably not get the support of the courts to do it.

Let us think about reforms that we could implement here with which we have no problem. One is televising and podcasting this place so that people all across the country can see what we are doing. That would impose a bit of accountability. The Prime Minister keeps talking about transparency with regard to things like the G8 and the G20. Let us give the Canadian people some transparency right here.

Another thing that we could do is to give Senate committees more power to do their jobs. We could allow them to hire their own staff. I have never known a body that provides two bosses, one who hires them and one for whom they work, to function particularly well. It does not work. Everyone across the way who has ever run a business or managed people knows that. We need to be able to hire our own communications, research and writing staff and our own advisers of all kinds. In that way we would have the power to do even better the jobs that we are now doing very well. That would be an easy thing for us to do. We could do it ourselves.

We might want to implement the kind of review process about which Senator Eggleton spoke. As well, we could do more work in Committee of the Whole. Once we are televised, working in Committee of the Whole could open this place up more to the people of Canada as well as giving more of us a chance to have more input into more committee proceedings.

If you think that the deficit was bad, that losing the seat on the Security Council was bad, that losing Camp Mirage was bad — and I could go on — you wait to see what would happen if this bill is passed. It could make this place inoperable. You may want that, but Canadians do not.

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