Speech on the Senate and Need for Proportional Representation

I stand to speak today in favour of the New Democrat motion calling for a referendum to abolish the Senate and for proportional representation.

The Senate was created in 1867 to mirror the British House of Lords, to serve as a chamber of sober second though, to provide regional representation and to act as a check on Parliament. It was made an appointed body so that it could not stop legislation from the House of Commons. It was there to revise and renew legislation. It was also created to recognize the social and economic elite. It was, in part, created to protect the property interests of the wealthy.

There was some concern from our founding fathers that an elected body, or the House of Commons, would not do so. Today we know that is not the case.

The Senate is broken and no longer works in the public interest. This House knows it and so do the Canadian people.

I became convinced of the need to abolish the Senate following the controversial Senate vote on November 16, 2010, that killed Bill C-311, the climate change accountability act.

Bill C-311 would require the federal government to set regulations to establish targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and to set long-term targets to bring emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The government must take action on climate change and Bill C-311 would have been the first step to set hard targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it has become abundantly clear that the government does not want to deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time, so it got the Senate to do its dirty work.

Bill C-311 passed the House of Commons and passed the committee. The majority of members in this House, who were sent here to represent their constituents, passed the bill and yet et it was killed by the Senate. I will repeat for clarity that the unelected and unaccountable Senate shut off debate and called a snap election to vote down and kill this important legislation that passed through the House of Commons.

That was an outrageous move and Canadians were outraged by the move. It was the first time since the second world war that the Senate had voted down a bill that had won support of the majority of members in the House of Commons. This move did not get the attention it deserved. It was a fundamental change in the way our democracy operates.

The government is not known for its transparency and adherence to democratic principles and now it has appointed enough senators to circumvent the democratic process.

Only a few short years ago, before the Conservatives were in power, they had very real concerns about the way the Senate operated. While the Prime Minister was in opposition, he claimed that he would never appoint a senator. At that time, he considered the Senate to be undemocratic.

This is something members will rarely hear from me but the Prime Minister was correct. The Senate is undemocratic. That is why the people of New Zealand abolished their upper house, the legislative council, in 1951.

It is amazing how things change when one gains power. Now that the Conservatives are in power, they have completely changed their tune and are using this unelected, undemocratic body to push through their legislative agenda.

The Prime Minister has appointed 36 Conservative insiders to the Senate since coming to power. In 2008, he broke a record by appointing 18 people to the upper chamber in just one day. The Senate is now stacked with failed Conservative candidates, party fundraisers and political organizers. We must not forget that this was the same modus operandi for the federal Liberal Party. It, too, stacked the Senate with its friends and insiders.

A senator earns approximately $132,000 a year. The qualification to become a senator is to be loyal to the ruling party that appoints him or her.

The Senate costs approximately $90 million a year to run. Taxpayers are paying a large sum for an unaccountable and unelected group of senators that block legislation passed by their elected representatives.

I believe it is time, through a referendum, for Canadians to have a say on the future of the Senate. A referendum would open up the dialogue on systems in which far too many Canadians have lost faith. It would allow us to engage the population in an issue that is important to our very democracy.

I will now talk about the second aspect of our motion, which reads:

(c) the House appoint a Special Committee for Democratic Improvement, whose mandate is to (i) engage with Canadians, and make recommendations to the House, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation....

These two ideas, to abolish the Senate and to investigate how to best create a House of Commons that accurately reflects the votes of Canadians, fit well together.

Voter turnout continues to decline each election. In 2008, only 59.1% of Canadians went to the polls, the lowest turnout in history. The youth turnout was even worse. As parliamentarians, we should be very concerned. We need to reflect on why this is occurring and how we can turn this disturbing trend around.

Too often I hear from people who feel their vote does not matter. They tell me that they often decide to vote strategically. They feel that it does not matter who they vote for because there is no way their favourite candidate will, under our current electoral system, ever be elected. Therefore, they end up voting for a candidate, not because they support that candidate, but because they want to stop someone else from gaining power.

Proportional representation is an electoral system that allows every vote to count, whereas the first past the post system creates a winner takes all situation. I worry that sometimes people stay home from the voting booth because they feel that with our first past the post system, the person they want to vote for does not stand a chance so they do not bother voting.

This is not the way our democracy should operate. This could point to why Canadians, and particularly why the youth vote, seems to be so disengaged. It is time for an examination of democratic reform. It would show Canadians that we, as their elected House, care about their participation in the political system.

The United Kingdom, in conducting a referendum on electoral reform in May, is doing just that. The people of the United Kingdom want their voice heard, and so do Canadians.

An Environics poll conducted for the Council of Canadians last year indicated that 62% of Canadians supported moving toward a system of proportional representation in Canadian elections. This support was consistent across the country, notably 71% of youth wanted to move to a proportional representation system.

I mentioned in my speech my concern about youth voting and the voter turnout. If we can do anything to inspire our younger generation to get to the polls, we must. It is imperative to the future of our democracy.

In the motion supported by Fair Vote Canada, it states:

With people all over the world risking their lives to demand their democratic right to be heard, it's about time that Canadians had a fair voting system, so that all our votes can make a difference.

We must do all that we can to bolster our democracy and to ensure that all votes count. For that reason, I am in full support of the motion and urge all parliamentarians to vote in favour of it.