Speech on the Senate (C-7)

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-7, an act respecting the selection of senators and amending the Constitution Act, 1867 in respect of Senate term limits.

The Senate was created in 1867 to mirror the British House of Lords to serve as a chamber of sober second thought, to provide regional representation, and to act as a check on Parliament. It was made as an appointed body so that it could not stop legislation from the House of Commons. It was to revise and review the 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 by our founding fathers that an elected body, the House of Commons, would not do so. Today we know that this is not true.

The Senate is broken and no longer works in the public interest. The House knows it and so do the Canadian people. We need to go beyond simply changing term limits of the Senate. The Senate needs fundamental change.

I became convinced of the need to abolish the Senate after witnessing the vote in the Senate in 2010 that killed Bill C-311, the climate change accountability bill. That bill would have required the federal government to set regulations to establish targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions to 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. This bill would have been the first step toward setting hard targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. However, it has become abundantly clear that the government did not want to deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time, so it arranged for the Senate to do its dirty work.

Bill C-311 passed the House of Commons. The bill passed at committee. The majority of members in the House at that time passed the bill, yet it was killed in the Senate. Let me repeat for clarity. The unelected, unaccountable Senate shut off debate and called a snap vote to kill important legislation passed in the House of Commons.

This was an outrageous move. Canadians were outraged by this move. It was the first time since before the Second World War that the Senate voted down a bill that won the support of the majority of 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 Conservative 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 short few years ago, before they were in power, the Conservatives had very real concerns about the way the Senate operates. 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, and the Prime Minister was correct. The Senate is undemocratic. It is why the people of New Zealand abolished the upper house, the legislative council, in 1951.

It is amazing how things change once someone gains power. Now that the Conservatives are in power, they have completely changed their tune and are using the 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. Let us not forget that this was the same modus operandi of the federal Liberal Party. It too stacked the Senate with friends and insiders.

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

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

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

It is time for an examination of democratic reform. It would show Canadians that we, as their elected House, care about their participation in our political system.

This is the third time the Conservatives have introduced legislation on an unelected Senate and legislation on Senate term limits. Each time the legislation died because of prorogation or dissolution of the House.

The NDP policy calls for abolishing the unelected Senate. It is fairly clear. It is a long-standing call that dates back to the 1930s. This policy has been constantly reaffirmed by the party. We want to maintain our position to abolish the Senate. We call on the government to hold a referendum, asking the Canadian public whether they support abolishing the Senate.

Who else has called for this? Let us look across the country. Both Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter openly have called for the abolishment of the Senate. The premier in my own province, B.C. Premier Christy Clark, has said that the Senate no longer plays a useful role in Confederation. Manitoba maintains its position on Senate abolition, although it does have plans, if this bill should pass, for Senate elections. Quebec has called this legislation unconstitutional. It has said that it will launch a provincial court appeal if the bill proceeds without consultation of the provinces.

The public supports the idea of a referendum for the Senate, and it is growing. For instance, an Angus Reid survey from July of this year shows that 71% of Canadians are in favour of holding a referendum to decide the future of the Senate and 36% of Canadians support the abolition of the Senate. That is up from 25% a year earlier. We can see the momentum is growing. There have been 13 attempts to reform the Senate since 1990 and all have failed.

The Conservatives have not properly consulted with the provinces about whether they agree with the content of the bill. When the bill was first introduced in June 2011, Conservative senators, even those appointed by the Prime Minister, pushed back against plans for Senate term limits.

Senators will remain unaccountable to the Canadian people. By only being allowed, by law, to serve one term, senators do not have to face the public or account for the promises they made to get elected or the decisions they took in the previous nine years, and they get a pension when they leave office.

Having an elected Senate will fundamentally change the nature of politics in Canada. It will create a two-tier Senate, where those who are elected will feel they have more legitimacy. Since the Senate has virtually the same powers as the House, an elected Senate would have greater legitimacy to introduce legislation or oppose bills sent to it from the House of Commons. We could end up with the kind of gridlock we have seen in the United States.

The safest and conservative approach to the Senate is to abolish it. We know how the House of Commons works, but we have no idea what will happen with an elected Senate.