Speeches | What is Realistic and Effective Parliamentary Reform?

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 that implicitly.

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 eight years.

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 accountability.

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 worse.

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 to veto.

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 spin politics.

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 long time.

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.

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