Business of Supply

My apologies, Mr. Speaker, my passion for this speech sidelined my adherence to the rules for a moment.

Our government believes that the Senate must be reformed, or as with its provincial counterparts, if we cannot reform it, it should vanish. Our government is committed to reforming the Senate so that it better reflects the democratic values that Canadians have grown to expect and that is why we introduced the Senate reform act.

The Senate reform act contained two important elements. First, it would limit senators’ terms to one non-renewable term of nine years. Second, it provided for a framework that provinces and territories could use to consult their populations on Senate nominees. While we know Alberta has been electing its senators for some time, other provinces have considered it, with the province of New Brunswick talking about electing its senators some time in the next few years. However, in our federal Parliament, despite our best efforts, progress on our Senate reform initiatives have been stalled by continued questions really about the constitutionality of that legislation from the lower house reforming the upper house.

While we remain confident that Parliament alone does have the authority to proceed with the amendments found in the Senate reform act, it appears that any progress will continue to be stalled until we can put these important constitutional questions to rest.

That brings us to our Supreme Court reference. On February 1, our government launched this reference question to the Supreme Court of Canada to gain clarity on the constitutionality of the Senate reform act as well as on a broader range of Senate reform questions and issues. The clarity achieved as a result of the reference will allow debate in the House to proceed on the basis of the merits of reform and without the uncertainty surrounding the constitutionality of the act. Ultimately, by addressing these questions now, we can move forward and accelerate the pace of reform. If all the questions and hyperbole in the House are any indication, truly there must be a desire to reform and to look forward, not to the past.

The reference process poses six questions concerning the amending procedures of part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. The first two questions ask the court to confirm the constitutionality of the provision for nine-year non-renewable term limits for senators and a non-binding framework for provinces and territories to establish their own processes to consult voters on the selection of Senate nominees. Our government remains confident that these measures separately and together may be accomplished by Parliament acting alone, pursuant to section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The remaining questions focus on the appropriate amending procedures for a number of other issues that have been prominent in the Senate reform debate, being mindful as I said at the outset that this debate has been going on for 30 years. These additional issues include a national Senate appointments consultation process, real property and net worth qualifications for senators, and as a last resort, a question will be posed for consideration of outright Senate abolition.

Canadians deserve a more democratic Senate and the Supreme Court reference will help advance our progress toward that goal. We have been pursuing that goal since assuming government some years ago.

At this point, I will introduce and outline, in some broad strokes, the key arguments that our government is putting forward in the Supreme Court reference on Senate reform. The Constitution comprehensively sets out the rules for achieving Senate reform. Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, exhaustively describes the procedures for implementing any proposed constitutional reforms and sets out amendments that require provincial consent. In relation to the Senate, four changes require provincial consent: the powers of the Senate, the method of selecting senators, the number of senators to which each province is entitled, and residency qualifications.

Any other changes to the Senate can be made by Parliament alone. The plain language of sections 38 to 44 of part V of the Constitution, the history of the Senate and amending procedure reform, and the ordinary rules of statutory interpretation, all support Parliament’s authority to make the reforms proposed in the Senate reform act without obtaining the consent of the provinces.

It is our government’s position that except for the four matters mentioned explicitly in section 42, Parliament has the exclusive authority to make laws amending the Constitution in relation to the Senate. Term limits, consultation processes on appointments and the removal of property requirements are not among the four matters set out in section 42 of the act. Therefore, Parliament alone can make these real changes to that institution. These real and tangible changes related to accountability and reform have been asked for by Canadians for 30 years.

Our government looks forward to receiving the Supreme Court’s opinion on this matter. Arguments will be made next month on this important national reference question. Our government received a strong mandate to pursue Senate reform, and the Supreme Court reference represents another concrete step toward the goal of making the Senate a more democratic, elected and representative place.

Our government strongly supports measures to improve accountability in the Senate, but we do not believe that the motion before the House today would bring us any closer to achieving that objective. In fact, the motion today and the partisanship and hyperbole it has already generated from the opposition members actually undermines the very principles that the motion purports to represent.

To have a serious discussion on democratic reform or potential amendments to the Constitution or on constitutional questions and removing partisanship from the upper house, and to try to advocate for those things through partisanship in the lower house does not seem to me to be a way to really engage the House in a serious debate about Senate reform, or indeed, to engage Canadians, Canadians such as Bert Brown or the late Stan Waters, who worked tirelessly for decades to reform that institution.

Motions that promote partisanship and promote division among Canadians in parts of this country undermine our parliamentary democracy. Therefore we certainly oppose the motion today, and I encourage all members, including the member for Toronto—Danforth, to encourage his colleagues to speak about reform of that institution in a meaningful and serious way, as Canadians have been asking.

As I said at the outset, Stan Waters was the first elected senator from the province of Alberta. There have been several since. These are Canadians that not only step up wanting to serve the public in the unique capacity of our upper house, but they are asking the public to support them in their pursuit of public office.

As any members of the House would know from knocking on the thousands of doors, which I know we all knock on in elections, that degree of connection and accountability that we seek on the doorsteps of Canadians translates into accountability in elected office. The very act of going to Albertans, asking for their votes, while knowing that senators will not serve beyond the end of their terms, would build accountability into each seat in the upper chamber. In fact, fighting against reform, which the opposition appears to do, particularly my friends in the Liberal caucus, would breed the opposite result.

How can we truly believe that any Canadian, man or woman, from any region of the country, any territory, if they never have to ask Canadians for their support and they could technically sit in the upper chamber for 30 or more years, how can we really expect accountability to exist in every case?

As any elected member of the lower House knows, going and seeking the trust of voters through an election builds accountability and term limits will build in accountability and respect for the institution in a way that has not been seen.

I should note that reform of the Senate is truly what Canadians want. It can be done in a way that I have outlined in my remarks. Many of the changes can be done by the House alone and effective senators can play a significant role.

As I said yesterday in some remarks on the subject, while I was in the Canadian Forces during the Chrétien Liberal government, the Canadian Forces was being dismantled. There were morale problems. The only—

Stay in Touch with Erin

Sign up for email updates from Erin O'Toole to hear the latest from Ottawa and our riding.