In Debate: On Senate Reform

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):  

    Madam Speaker, I am very happy to be speaking to the Senate reform bill.

     First, let me say that I am very disappointed that the government has put up no speakers. I wonder just how important this bill is to the Conservatives if they have nothing to say.

     As members know, New Democrats have long advocated for abolishing the Senate. This has been our position since the 1930s. Very recent polling shows that Canadians are open to having a closer examination of the value of the Senate in the 21st century and that we should carefully look at Senate abolition because it is achievable and it is a balanced solution.

     The NDP believes that the Senate is a 19th century institution, an anachronism that is unnecessary in a modern 21st century democracy like Canada's. Senators only sit 90 days of the year and they cost taxpayers over $90 million annually. The Muskoka minister's $50 million pales in comparison. Democracies such as Denmark and New Zealand have long since eliminated their outdated senates. This decision was also undertaken many years ago by our own provincial governments. There are many who support the NDP position, including the premiers of several provinces.

For example, the premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, stated in May of this year:

I support abolishing the Senate. I don't think the Senate plays a useful role. I think that they've outlived their usefulness to our country.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty echoed Ms. Clark's comments:

We think the simplest thing to do is abolish it, and I think, frankly, to reform it in any substantive way is just not possible. We have one elected accountable body that sits in Ottawa for us in the House of Commons. I just don't think we need a second, unelected, unaccountable body.

Even Conservative-friendly premiers condemn the Prime Minister's recent patronage appointments.

     Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said, “It takes away momentum for change at the provincial level and it will probably increase calls that we hear from time to time saying, 'Do we really need this institution?'”

    The Senate has become a repository of failed candidates, party fundraisers and professional organizers. These taxpayer subsidized Conservative senators even torpedo legislation passed by the elected members of Parliament. We are talking about bills passed by elected and accountable members of Parliament, such as the late Jack Layton's private member's bill to ensure action on climate change. Also, there was the member for Ottawa Centre's private member's bill to provide affordable AIDS drugs to those suffering in Africa. Both bills were killed by the Senate.

    Both of these bills were extremely important and valuable not only to Canadians, but to people around the world. These bills were an opportunity for Canada to shine on the international stage, but the unelected Senate trashed them and left Canadians wondering what on earth has happened to our democracy.

    New Democrats would like to abolish the Senate.

    In addition to what has already been discussed, this bill has some other problems. It restricts all senators appointed to the Senate after October 14, 2008 to a single, non-renewable nine-year term. Senators would never have to be accountable for campaign promises they made because they would not have to keep them, or for any of the actions that they had taken while in office.

    Provinces and territories are given the opportunity to hold elections if they choose. These elections are at the cost of the provinces. The prime minister can then decide if she or he wishes to appoint the senators, but there is absolutely nothing holding the prime minister to appointing anyone who has been elected.

    Several provinces have indicated that they have no intention of holding Senate elections. The Province of Quebec has been perfectly clear and called the legislation unconstitutional and said Quebec will launch a provincial court appeal if the bill proceeds without the consultation of the provinces.

    The Conservatives and the Liberals seem intent on maintaining an antiquated institution that they have increasingly used for partisan purposes.

    New Democrats understand that the Senate is unnecessary and does not serve to further our democracy in any way at all. We will continue our call for a referendum on the abolition of the Senate. In the meantime, we will work hard to expose the dangers that the Conservative agenda on Senate reform pose to the very fabric of our democracy.

    Six years ago when the Prime Minister was opposition leader, he knew there was something wrong with an unelected Senate. He thought it was unfair. He called it undemocratic. He also said an appointed Senate, a relic of the 19th century, was what we had. He did not like how the prime minister holds a virtual free hand in the selection of senators. He promised that if he ever got the chance to be the prime minister, he would not name appointed people to the Senate. He insisted that anyone who sits in the Parliament of Canada must be elected by the people he or she represents.

    However, the Prime Minister has turned his back on those democratic principles. Instead of solving the problem, he is becoming the problem. The Prime Minister now holds the all-time record for appointing the most significant number of senators in one day. Who are his appointees? The Conservative Party faithful: spin doctors, fundraisers, bagmen, insiders, people such as his former press secretary, his former Conservative Party president, his former national campaign director through two elections, and let us not forget the several defeated Conservative candidates who were rejected by the voters.

    The Prime Minister has broken his promise to do politics differently. Not only does he play the same old politics, he plays them better than anyone else, and I mean that in a very negative way.

    Last fall the Conservative-dominated Senate was used to veto legislation the Prime Minister simply did not like.

    The climate change accountability bill was Canada's only federal climate change legislation. It passed twice in a minority parliament. It was good, solid legislation supported by a majority of elected MPs, legislation embodying the direction Canadians want to take. On November 16, 2010, the Senate defeated Bill C-311 at second reading. There was no committee review or witness hearings. Canada's only legislative effort to fight climate change was gone, killed by the unelected friends of the Prime Minister.

    Now unelected Senators seem poised to do the same thing to the NDP labour critic's bill requiring Supreme Court judges to understand both official languages. Former Bill C-232 was duly passed by elected MPs in the previous Parliament, and is now Bill C-208.

    Just because someone flipped pancakes for the Conservative Party of Canada does not give that individual the right to override the wishes of elected MPs.

    Too often today's Senate is doing partisan work for public money. Speaking of money, Canadians are paying more and more for a discredited institution that does less and less at a time when people are dealing with a slow economic recovery, and the Conservative government is contemplating billions in cutbacks.

    Maintaining the Senate costs Canadians around $90 million a year. While folks are looking for jobs and trying to make ends meet when their EI runs out, or scraping by on pensions that do not even cover basic necessities, senators are earning $132,300 a year for a three-day work week. Add in travel and expenses and each senator is costing us about $859,000 a year, all for an institution that will not play any relevant role in the lives of most Canadians.

    I can think of a lot of things that do matter to people, such as creating family-supporting jobs, improving public health care, and building decent futures for our kids. Lining the pockets of party insiders just is not high on my or anyone's list.

Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP):  

    Madam Speaker, one of the things that I hope to address later today in my presentation on this bill is the constitutional difficulties of reforming the Senate. I am particularly attracted to the NDP proposal that the Senate should be abolished.

How does the hon. member for London—Fanshawe and her party contemplate getting around the constitutional aspects of Senate protection within our system? How would we engage the provinces and territories to make this happen?

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Madam Speaker, there clearly will be significant challenges to face in terms of the Constitution.

   When I was a member of provincial parliament, we looked at the Charlottetown accord, and realized that any time we take on changes to the Constitution, we face real difficulties.

    The point is that Canadians have been very clear. This is an antiquated institution that many Canadians are just not willing to pay for any more.

    We would consult with Canadians. We would talk to the provinces. We would find a way of doing it and making sure that the concerns of the people across this country were addressed, while respecting their very clear wish that we move into the 21st century and leave this less than sober second thought bunch behind.

Mr. Jonathan Tremblay (Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, NDP):  

    Madam Speaker, my question concerns the attitude of the government toward the fact that one voter out of three voted for the Conservatives. We have to expect that even some of those voters were opposed to this bill.

     I would like my colleague to comment on that. What are the Conservatives trying to do by limiting the number of hours of debate on this bill?

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Yes, Madam Speaker, it is very clear. In the last election the Conservative Party garnered 38% of the vote and the rest of Canadians, 62%, voted for other parties.

    I have profound concerns about the democratic nature of that. New Democrats have long proposed proportional representation. We think that is the way to make every vote count.

    Even more to the point of the gerrymandering of our democracy, both here in the House with time allocation motions and in committees with all kinds of less than democratic means, the Conservatives are undermining what Canadians believe they have, a democratic state.

    One of my real concerns, and I think this has been voiced, is in appointing Conservative-friendly senators. Even when this Conservative government is gone--and let that be soon; it cannot come quickly enough--even after it is long gone, there will be that Conservative Senate interfering with the democratic processes in this House by simply voting down legislation that matters, like Mr. Layton's climate change bill and the bill that would have delivered drugs for people suffering from AIDS, malaria and measles in Africa.

    We should be ashamed that happened. Yet we have this legislation in front of us that shows no shame, and in fact supports an institution that has clearly been derelict in any kind of duty to Canadians.