17 March 2010
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
March 17, 2010
Honourable senators, thank you for the opportunity to speak to this
item on the Order Paper. I applaud Senator Cowan for raising the matter
of realistic and effective parliamentary reform. Clearly the issue of
Parliamentary reform is current and important. Heaven only knows that
one feature of it seems to be a priority of this government. I would
like to address that particular feature, which is Senate reform. I have
a few points I would like to make.
An interesting poll recently suggested that Canadians are
considerably more concerned about reforming the Prime Minister's Office
than they are about reforming the Senate. Many of us can understand
Speaking of the Prime Minister, I would like to respond to Senator
Segal's points the other day. It was striking to me that he would
elevate the Prime Minister to the level of a paragon of democratic
virtue for any number of reasons, but the one that he chose — which was
even more striking — was that this Prime Minister was the first ever to
appear before a Senate committee. I thought that was tremendous. He
appeared once on an issue of tremendous importance to him with which he
is trying to make significant political gain at the expense of this
remarkable, wonderful and beautiful institution.
If the Prime Minister was truly a paragon of democratic virtue —
based on that kind of observation — I would ask Senator Segal perhaps
to invite him to appear before the Nation Security and Defence
Committee to discuss Afghan detainees or perhaps he could appear before
the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to discuss prorogation
or fixed elections. I could continue. My point is that we should put
that particular argument of Senator Segal's in perspective.
I would like to talk specifically about two proposals that seem to
be current and central to the government's efforts to reform the
Senate. First is fixed terms. Senator Cowan made the most devastating
criticism of the eight year, fixed-term proposal, which is that a
single Prime Minister could appoint every single senator having been
elected only twice. Eight years in power would add up to appointing all
senators. While that may be appealing to the current government members
in the Senate, that situation can change. Hopefully, it will change
sooner rather than later.
There are other arguments as well. Eight-year appointments are not,
perhaps, sufficiently long. The average length of time in the House of
Commons for a member of Parliament in recent history, according to a
statistic I saw, is about six to seven years. The average length of
time for a senator has been about 11 years. If we specified eight
years, we would never get to eight years because some people would not
sit that long and some would sit no longer. We would average less than
That would damage the Senate's ability to provide two things. First
is to provide institutional memory. It takes a while to learn with is
happening in the chamber and to see what takes place in Ottawa and in
governments. In my experience with longer standing senators, I have
seen tremendous value in what those senators bring to discussion and
debate because of that experience.
Second is that senators — and there are many examples of this — have
been able to take issues that do not necessarily have a particular
political urgency, making them less appealing in the other place, and
develop those issues over long periods of time with great success and
significant impact. For example, we all are aware of Senator Michael
Kirby's work with his committee on mental health. We are aware of
Senator Lucie Pépin's work on family centres for the support military
families; Senator Sharon Carstairs' work on palliative care; and
Senator Joyce Fairbairn's work on literacy.
These are issues that perhaps would not otherwise be picked up by a
politician driven by an election that can happen next week. There is no
certainty of how long they will be in the House and the issues do not
have political immediacy.
I do not believe eight years is sufficient time given that the term
will not be eight years since the average sitting time for senators
will probably end up at five years or six years and could possibly be
even less time than the average sitting term for a member of
Parliament. Therefore, we must look at a longer term for sure.
Another issue of term limits is compounded by the fact that there
will be, or was last time at least, no provision for reappointment or
re-election. If we are not to be concerned with the Prime Minister
being able to appoint every senator within two elections, then
re-election becomes very important to the accountability process.
Much of the talk about Senate reform is to make it more accountable.
It is absolutely not accountable if its members never have to seek
re-election or have the chance to be reappointed. That would not be an
improvement over what we have now, if people truly are concerned about
The process of electing is fraught with difficulty and it is hard to
argue against electing a Senate in the 21st century, although there are
some who do that with credibility. However, we have to be careful about
electing and causing a problem that is worse than the problem we are
trying to solve without having figured out some of these issues first.
As all honourable senators know, and many Canadians do not know, the
Senate has profound power over the House of Commons. The Senate can
veto literally everything that the House of Commons does because
budgets, bills, et cetera, require the approval of the Senate. This
place has not tended to exercise that generally because senators know
they are not elected. More specifically, at this time, there is fear
that the Prime Minister would simply call an election if the Senate
were to do anything remotely resistant to the Prime Minister, who likes
to control, of course.
However, if senators were elected, this place would begin to see
senators stand up and veto what the government proposes to do. It is
not impossible that with the right mix of senators, the Senate could
hamstring government entirely. Look at what happens in the U.S. where
there is no way to break an impasse of any consequence at all. It is
all in the negotiations. Their system is bogged down such that they
cannot find leadership and they cannot perform difficult tasks. They
cannot even put in a health care plan, even though it will not cost the
public purse any money, because some people are afraid that it might.
We have the advantage of not having that problem at this time, but
we could have such a problem if we elect Canada's senators without
first figuring out how to break an impasse. In Australia, when the two
houses disagree twice on the same issue, they go to an election. Many
honourable senators who have been actively involved in politics know
that an election focuses people's attention.
We then have to wonder if the Prime Minister would follow these ad
hoc elections. Let us say there were 52 Conservatives and 52 Liberals
in the Senate, and that the senator elected to the next position was a
Liberal. Would this Prime Minister appoint that Liberal senator to make
it 52 and 53 with a Liberal majority? Well, he did not even adhere to
his fixed-term elections. We would want something to direct him to do
that before we could have any confidence in this Prime Minister.
The other problem is specific to the West, in particular Alberta.
There is a sense that if we begin to elect senators, we will have
regional imbalance redressed. This is a big issue in Alberta where we
have felt alienated and wronged from time to time. Ironically, if we
elected senators, we would start to exercise our power in a much more
rigorous way based on current seat allocations. Here are the numbers
for the Conservatives, who love numbers. Alberta has 5.3 per cent of
the seats in the Senate, where purportedly we would have regional
representation, and 9.7 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.
Electing would not help Alberta, but make it worse. We would have less
representation in the Senate than we would have in the House of
Commons. As well — and I am not begrudging this — the historical fact
is that Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each has 10 seats. Alberta and
each of the Western provinces has 6 seats. Taken as a region, the West
has 24 seats, while the Atlantic provinces have 30 seats. Do not tell
me that somehow this will properly redress regional imbalance, because
it will not do that. Instead, it will exacerbate the problem, making it
The other issue to mention is what electing a Senate would do to the
relative power structures of the various political entities in Canada.
I mentioned earlier that the executive branch, the Prime Minister and
the House of Commons certainly would have a problem if senators began
I love saying this to our Conservative Alberta MPs when I bump into
them in the airport: There are 28 Alberta MPs and 6 elected Alberta
senators. Who do you think will be more powerful? Whom do you think the
press will want to speak to? Who do you think will have the force and
the podium from which to speak? It will not be the members of
Parliament who represent one twenty-eighth of a province. It will be
the senators, who represent the whole province, although they are 72
per cent fewer in numbers than the members of Parliament. Senators will
have much more influence.
I often ask people to name five members of the U.S. Congress. They
cannot do it. Then I then ask them to name five senators in the U.S.
Senate. Most people can do that. Why is that? It is because senators
have presence and power, which brings me to my next point.
Does anyone truly believe that this Prime Minister wants an elected
Senate? Does he want to give away that power so that he cannot do what
he wants to do? It is anathema to everything he does with respect to
power. He is not truly worried about it, because he assumes that he
will never have an elected Senate.
Once senators are elected, they will exercise their powers
rigorously to represent regional interests. Where does that power
currently reside? It resides with the provinces and their respective
premiers. Where would we take the power from? It is not infinite power.
We would take it from the premiers. When I ask people to name five
governors in the United States, they find it more difficult now that
Sarah Palin has resigned. People remember the name of Arnold
Schwarzenegger. However, they cannot name any others because so much of
the power resides with the Senate. So, we are playing with a certain
kind of fire that needs to be debated and elevated way above simple
Some people think that the Senate is useless. Some of our new
senators are beginning to realize just how hard we work. We do great
work in this place and we need to continue that. The last time I
checked, there are 26 federations in the world, 24 of which have second
houses. Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates, which have fewer than
2.5 million people, do not have second houses. Canada is one of the
largest countries in the world. It is complex and complicated to govern
with 13 jurisdictions, many cultural groups and various economic levels
and energy systems. If any country on the face of the earth needs a
Senate, it is Canada, which has been well-served by the Senate for a
There are those who lament the fact that young people and others are
not interested in participating in the political process. We hear so
much aggressive criticism by the government of our institutions, in
particular the Senate. Nothing good is said about the Senate by the
leadership on the other side. It hammers and hammers not only this
institution, but every institution that it does not like at some point.
People think it must be bad because those in a position of authority
are forever putting it down.
Let me make this point: The parliamentary system of government is
the most successful system of government on the face of the Earth and
it has lasted longer than any other system of government. It began
about 900 years ago with the signing of Magna Carta. We have a
tremendous, wonderful, remarkable system of government.
Yes, it can be improved, but let us step back — people in this
house, new ones and others in particular — and say: "We will not
criticize this institution for the sake of criticizing it for political
gain." The Senate is a special place. Of all the people in the country,
honourable senators have a special responsibility to protect and defend
it: yes, to improve it, but also to protect and defend it.
Please click here to read the full text of the Senator's speech