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Carolyn Bennett, MP

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Speech today on NDP motion to abolish the Senate – problematic

Posted on March 3, 2011

It’s always humbling to try and speak on a motion that combines 2 important issues…. I’m afraid I didn’t do justice to either one ….which was my point about the problem with the NDP motion today..

Hon. Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I rise with pleasure to speak to the motion from the New Democratic Party today on democratic renewal. I am disappointed, however, that New Democrats have chosen these particular leftovers from their 2008 campaign to be debated together, which really goes around the ability to debate either one of them in a substantial way.

New Democrats made their decision to focus on these issues now, in the face of the Minister of International Cooperation not telling the Parliament of Canada the truth, the recent electoral fraud that is before the House, the government’s mishandling of the evacuation of Canadians from Libya and the overriding attitude of secrecy of the government, when it is very clear that there is no appetite to open the Constitution at this time.

It is also disingenuous, Liberals believe, that the motion does not really address the fact that constitutional talks would have to be reopened. In fact, a very expensive referendum would be in no way any more than a polling result in terms of its binding nature.

Hier, Chantal Hébert a dit que le NPD fait fausse route dans la réforme du Sénat:

La présente chronique a été rédigée avant la tenue du débat sur la motion qui devait avoir lieu hier à Ottawa. Ce débat a été remis à aujourd’hui. Deux heures semblent peut-être bien peu de temps à consacrer à une cause soutenue par une multitude de Canadiens. Il n’y a pas si longtemps, même le premier ministre Stephen Harper était favorable du moins dans les circonstances, c’est vraiment 120 minutes de trop. Pour bien des spécialistes des affaires parlementaires, un réforme du Sénat compte parmi les dix principales mesures nécessaires pour régler le déficit démocratique. N’empêche que le NPD croyait vraiment que le Sénat est un enjeu prioritaire et recommanderait un retour à la table des négociations constitutionnelles plutôt que de préconiser un référendum sur son abolition. L’abolition ou une réforme substantielle de la Chambre haute est seulement possible avec une modification de la Constitution laquelle nécessite l’appui de la plupart et probablement de l’ensemble des provinces. Le chef du NPD soutient qu’un référendum préparait au moins le terrain pour une discussion nationale sur le Sénat. Néanmoins, les expériences récentes ont montré que les campagnes électorales sont au mieux une tribune précaire pour ce genre de débat.

Yesterday, the Hill journalist, Dale Smith, also commented that it was disingenuous to go about proposing a referendum without acknowledging that this proposal will mean reopening the constitution. He went on to say that he had even had some NDP MPs tell him that the Senate did good work, before they launch into a convoluted and, dare I say, unicorn-filled discussion about how they would supposedly replicate that good work in the Commons, reformed by proportional representation, but he said that is a much longer story for another day. However, because it is not an elected body, that somehow negates its usefulness, never mind the fact that senators are not electioneering is a big part of why they do their good work. Finally, the supreme court is not elected either, but vanishing few people dismiss them as an unelected body.

We believe that there are many other proposals: electing the Senate by proportional representation. There are many ways of going about this without having pure abolition, and a lot of us do believe the Senate, and particularly its committees, has done good work.

In my years in Parliament, I think of the good work done by many of the senators themselves. It is almost one-person commissioners going out and listening to Canadians on important things, like Senator Yves Morin on science and technology and health research, Senator Keon, Senator Dallaire, Senator Landon Pearson for children’s rights, Lucie Beaupré, reproductive rights and military families, Joyce Fairbairn on literacy and Paralympics. It was almost like they had a mandate, and there are many reforms that could do that in a clear appointment system that would allow us to fill the second chamber with people with expertise, non-existent in the House at the time.

The Liberal Party favours Senate reform that reflects sound public policy and respects the constitution. By initiating what are likely to become broad constitutional negotiations with the provinces to deal with Senate reform now is simply not where the current priorities of Canadians are, either in terms of substantive democratic renewal, or the broader challenges the federal government should focus on.

Right now the Conservatives are moving two bills through Parliament at a snail’s pace, by their own design, which really amounts to a piecemeal approach to Senate reform. While we would not completely rule out some form of these proposals on Senate term limits and provincial and territorial Senate elections, the Conservatives have failed to properly consult with the provinces on these bills or with the Supreme Court of Canada on potential constitutional implications.

Abolishing the Senate would require a resolution of Parliament, together with the approval of at least seven provinces, representing at least 50% of the population of Canada. Some constitutional experts have even contended that unanimous consent of the provinces would be required.

As for electoral reform, the issue is in need of serious and comprehensive dialogue with Canadians about whether the current system is, for all its faults, working, and if not, what needs to be fixed or what is to replace it. We believe that there is lots of support for various approaches to electoral reform.

Last week in Alberta it was very clear, there are many Liberal in Alberta very keen that their votes count here in the House of Commons. Green Party members across the country care about this, and I think the federalists in Quebec have been often worried that more people there can vote for a federalist party and they can end up with a separatist majority. This kind of distortion in result is worrying to people, and although we welcome that dialogue, I believe it would be premature to start prescribing alternate systems at this time.

The NDP motion restricts the options for reform to a mixed form of proportional representation and direct district elections, and this kind of change requires a broad consensus that does not currently exist.

Mr. Speaker, I think the member knows that in the world there are only three systems left with pure first past the post, the U.K. which is moving to change it a bit, the United States and ourselves, and that there are systems around the world that work and ones that do not work. I agree with the member that the ones where it is pure proportional and no one really knows who their member of Parliament is would not work in this huge country. I think people do need to know–people know their address, they know where they come from, they know the regional issues–that we would, I would assume, in any electoral reform keep individual riding members.

The debate that we would have with Canadians about the lack of proportionality and the lack of Liberal members from Alberta when they can get up to 20% of the vote, the fact that in 1993 the Conservative Party had 20-plus per cent of the vote and only two seats, I think people understand that there is a distortion in that and that we need to have a proper conversation with Canadians as to what might work to fix that.

The Green Party put forward an interesting idea, which would be that there would be a best losers list, which is that they would have had to be a candidate in the last election, knocking on doors and listening to people, that if we were going to get three members from Alberta, they would be three of our candidates as opposed to the party list, the predetermined party list, as was the proposal in Ontario.

I have to admit that until we move on party reform, we are not going to get the kind of support for electoral reform.

Je dois placer le débat d’aujourd’hui dans un contexte pratique. Pour abolir le sénat, comme le propose le NPD, il faudrait modifier la Constitution canadienne. Le droit constitutionnel interdit au gouvernement fédéral d’effectuer unilatéralement des changements de cet ampleur. Il faudrait l’appui d’au moins sept provinces, et peut-être même des dix. Les constitutionnalistes ne s’entendent pas sur la procédure de modification qu’il faudrait suivre pour abolir le sénat. Il faudrait sûrement l’approbation d’au moins les deux tiers des provinces dont la population représente au moins 50 p. 100 de la population de toutes les provinces; la règle de sept sur cinquante.

Quant aux provinces de la Colombie-Britannique, de l’Ontario, de la Saskatchewan et du Manitoba, elles ont déclaré favoriser l’abolition pure et simple du sénat, mais le Québec et les provinces de l’Atlantique ont déjà indiqué qu’elles s’y opposeraient, parce qu’elles voient là un moyen de protéger les minorités et les intérêts régionaux au Parlement.

Il convient de replacer tout cela dans le contexte d’un rapport gouvernemental sur les refontes démocratiques publié en février 2007, selon lequel les participants à des groupes de discussion s’opposaient à de grands changements constitutionnels exigeant le consentement des provinces de peur d’ouvrir une boîte de Pandore.

En ce qui a trait à la représentation proportionnelle, le scrutin uninominal majoritaire à un tour en usage aux niveaux fédéral et provincial offre bien des avantages, mais arrive mal à constituer des assemblées qui reflètent les choix des électeurs. C’est pourquoi quelques provinces canadiennes ont tenté de changer leur système électoral.

L’assemblée de citoyens mise sur pied par la Colombie-Britannique en 2003 a recommandé d’instaurer un mode de scrutin à vote unique transférable — VUT. La version britanno-colombienne du VUT regroupait tous les sièges en circonscriptions régionales à députés multiple dont le nombre de chaque parti correspondait à sa part des suffrages exprimés. Plusieurs femmes ont beaucoup de difficulté avec le système VUT parce que ce système n’augmente pas du tout l’assurance d’avoir plus de femmes.

En Ontario, le premier ministre Dalton McGuinty a annoncé le 23 octobre 2003 la création d’un Secrétariat de renouvellement démocratique qui a chargé un assemblée de citoyens d’examiner le mode de scrutin. En mai 2007, l’assemblée de citoyens a recommandé un système mixte avec compensation proportionnelle. Dans ce système, l’électeur vote à la fois pour un député ou député local et pour un parti élu par scrutin uninominal majoritaire à un tour. Le député local représente les circonscriptions électorales tandis que les suffrages exprimés en faveur des partis déterminent, conjointement avec le nombre des élus locaux de chaque parti, combien de députés de liste chaque parti reçoit en plus de ses députés de circonscription. En octobre 2007, des réformes n’ont obtenu que 36,9 p. 100 des suffrages, soit nettement moins que les 60 p. 100 requis pour rendre le résultat du référendum exécutoire.

Des commentateurs ont dit que le résultat a reflété le scepticisme de l’électorat au sujet des partis politiques. Le manque de transparence et la démocratie de chaque parti politique a dissuadé les citoyens de voter pour le référendum.

It is upsetting today that we spending the time in this chamber rehashing the NDP platform from 2008, and many commentators have commented that we cannot possibly do justice to either of these and they both require a serious conversation with Canadians, not a top-down prescription.

It is also interesting at this time of the electoral fraud accusations from the public prosecutor that we actually look back to the Gomery commission and ask the NDP and the government of the day what they are doing about these recommendations that Lawrence Martin reminded us of in his September column. Where is the Appointments Commissioner? Where is the reduction of the size of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office? Where is the establishment of the integrity of the access to information process, or the vetting system that sees Ottawa officialdom gagged unless given approval by PMO–PCO? Where is some semblance of power to the cabinet or a prime ministerial pledge not to make pivotal decisions, such as on income trusts and Québécois nation status, without prior consultation with that body? That would help.

What about opening up the executive branch of government to media scrutiny that could include the daily briefings in Langevin Block? What about re-empowering the increasingly cheapened committee system, starting with having government members understand that they must represent the public good, not just their party’s talking points? What about reforming question period and the antiquated convention that shrouds the decisions taken by the Governor General in total secrecy?

I have been across the country convening round tables on democratic renewal from Moncton to Vancouver, and not once did any of the participants ask to open up the constitution. It is the third rail right now in our conversation on democratic renewal. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time low voter turnout. There is no question that people are concerned about the all-time high cynicism in the population. There is serious concern about negative advertising and the way that the party in power seems to be employing the republican voter-suppression techniques, that all government is bad, all politicians bad, and what does it matter if we vote, negative advertising. The real voter suppression that attempts to drive down voter turnout actually ends up being good for the Conservative base.

It seems a bit astounding that the bill on increasing advance polls, brought forward by the government last April, has stagnated since April 26 last year. We have seen nothing about trying to increase the voter turnout. We think that the youth of Canada need to know that the government would prefer they did not vote, that tenants did not vote, and that we need to be putting in place things that can rectify that.

Across this country, it was very clear that Canadians were reminding us of the Prime Minister’s previous comments in the Reform Party foundational document that said that they believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supercede their obligations to their political parties.

On all four topic areas of parliamentary reform, citizen engagement, electoral reform, party reform, there is no question that Canadians understand there is lots to be done. The very definition of “good governance” according to my hero Ursula Franklin, is that government being fair and transparent, and that it takes people seriously. That needs to apply not only here in government and in Parliament, but in our riding associations. People will not believe that we will govern that way if we do not conduct ourselves better. That includes abiding by the Elections Act.

The three guiding principles of best possible representation, best possible transparency, and best possible information with which to make decisions, really have promoted, in each of the places I have been, terrific round tables on representation, openness and transparency, and on information. People came forward with all kinds of ideas about improving Parliament’s ability to hold government to account: the idea of democracy between elections; gender balance; aboriginal provincial–territorial relations; electoral reform; and Senate reform.

The lack of openness and transparency of this government is of huge concern to the people of Canada, as is its refusal to move forward on whistleblower protection and indeed the scandal of the person put in charge of so-called whistleblowers within the government. The role of the media is of huge concern also. The long form census, the ability of officers of Parliament to have their budgets and the legislation to support them, the independence of advisors, the firing of those who do not agree with the government and the muzzling of civil society are issues I have heard raised at almost every table.

We know that the government has blurred the roles between government and Parliament with government ads being confused with partisan ads, two prorogations, the blurring of confidence votes, the fact that the U.K. cabinet office before the U.K. election said not to do what Canada had done in terms of threatening an election every time what was asked was not received. It is a travesty.

If we look at the index page of the Conservative Party platform for 2006, the government has done nothing in terms of making qualified government appointments and cleaning up government polling, advertising and procurement contracts. It is a litany of not.

I believe that we need to work together with all of the parties to actually figure out what we can do together.

As the leader of the official opposition has said:

We must be able to put limits on the power of the Prime Minister of this country.

As Jim Travers has said:

It has taken 500 years to wrestle power from the king and 50 years to get it back into one man’s office.

It has to stop right now. The country is appalled at such things as electoral reform, inserting “nots”, the long form census, detainee documents, costs of prisons and oaths to secrecy. We need to open this up. The democratic deficit is in allowing citizens, MPs and Cabinet ministers in. I am sorry the debate today is on something not as important as that.

Hon. Carolyn Bennett: Mr. Speaker, Chantal Hébert is one of the most professional journalists on the Hill. She criticized our government when she felt that we were doing wrong. Today she is criticizing the NDP for bringing forward something that might require constitutional change without acknowledging that even in the motion. She is saying there are many other things before us right now that are more important than this debate. This chamber can do nothing about this issue on its own.

Obviously in any assembly one, two or three people will bring dishonour to an institution and that is really what is happening right now with the charges of electoral fraud. It is also very sad to see parliamentarians being brought into that kind of debate and dishonour.

Hon. Carolyn Bennett: Mr. Speaker, I believe that what is being proposed in the U.K. is not mutually exclusive with moving on to full proportional representation. It is a first step. It is not mutually exclusive but I do believe it may be because the citizens have such difficulty letting go of a hard-held wand that we need to do a much better job explaining to Canadians the distortion in the system that is not truly proportional.

I do believe that the member is also absolutely correct. My reflection on the activities of the Senate predated these extraordinarily über-partisan appointments of this Prime Minister in terms of where is the Roméo Dallaire appointment. This is pure partisan obfuscation of what should be a sober second thought. I do feel badly that the people there, and the people in this House more recently elected, do not understand that is not the norm.

The normalization of the partisanship is an absolute destruction of this chamber that was designed for hon. members.

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