Statement made on 28 October 2010 by Senator Art Eggleton
Hon. Art Eggleton:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on Bill S-8, An Act respecting the selection of senators.
This bill has drawn a fair amount of comment from honourable senators on both sides of the chamber. I agree with many of the points raised in previous debate and would like to bring forth two different lines of reasoning for why I take issue with the bill before us.
The first stems from the systemic technical problems with which this bill is plagued. As Senator Brown pointed out in his speech at second reading, this bill will not be a legal directive. Instead, it simply gives the Prime Minister the option to consider appointing senators that have been elected as nominees from their respective province or territory.
I ask honourable senators: What is the point? If a prime minister can simply discount these province-wide elections, or consultations, why bother holding them? The whole point of the elections is to make the process seem more democratic and legitimate. If prime ministers have the ability to overlook the results, the process will be seen by many as far from democratic.
The bill also states that it would help establish a framework to provide guidance to provinces and territories for the text of legislation governing Senate elections. However, each province or territory would be in charge of establishing their own rules and regulations, meaning a lack of uniformity and potential for a wide range of requirements varying from province to province and territory to territory.
Moreover, each province would have to pass legislation allowing for these elections to take place. It is not unreasonable to argue that not every province would be in support of that idea, resulting in some provinces adopting the idea and others choosing not to, meaning a complete double standard or two-tiered system across the country; a less legitimate process, I would argue, than we currently have or, as Senator Neufeld said in the chamber, one that is neither workable nor effective.
Honourable senators, this bill is full of many "mays," "coulds" and "ifs" and lacks any form of definitive concrete language. It comes across as merely hypothetical, a bill that, if passed, would only give the illusion of change and the option to ignore it.
My second comment on Bill S-8 comes from a concern about its impact on our parliamentary system. I oppose this bill because I completely believe that the Fathers of Confederation had it right when they designed the upper chamber. They realized that they needed an effective upper chamber that would, as Sir John A. Macdonald remarked in 1867, serve as the sober second thought in Parliament. The Senate would, therefore, act as one of the checks and balances in Canada's parliamentary government, an element essential to democracy.
We have seen the principle of sober second thought time and again throughout the history of the Senate. Honourable senators will remember Bill C-2, the Accountability Act, from not long ago. It was rushed through the House of Commons and was found to be flawed by the Senate in terms of meeting the intent of the legislation. Dozens of amendments were passed in the Senate and the bill was returned to the other place, where many amendments were accepted by the government — some were not — and after some further discussion between Senate and house representatives, a final bill acceptable to the government and the majority of the other place was approved by this Senate. That clearly demonstrates the value of legislative review or sober second thought.
This is not the only bill that was amended by the Senate. Senators may remember Bill C-29, An Act to Amend the Patent Act; or Bill C-12, An Act to Promote Physical Activity and Sport; or Bill C-15, An Act to Amend the Lobbyists Registration Act, just to name a few. All were amended by the Senate because senators took their role seriously. In fact, according to statistics from the Library of Parliament, during the period between 2001 and 2004, the Senate amended 10.7 per cent of government legislation, and that was at a time when the government and the Senate majority were of the same political party.
I am afraid, honourable senators, an elected Senate would scuttle the current independence of senators even more by increasing even more the role of partisan politics that are so much more prevalent in the other place. Instead of fulfilling roles to complement the work of the other place, an elected Senate with candidates running under party banners would tighten the stranglehold parties have on the legislative progress.
Let me now turn to a major theme that was highlighted by Senator Nolin. As the honourable senator so eloquently argued in this chamber, if we had an elected Senate, we would quite likely not have the same composition of members that we have today. We may well have fewer women in the Senate than we do now; we could have fewer Aboriginal leaders than we do now; and we would likely not have people with the wide variety of backgrounds and expertise that we have today.
Many of these senators are not politicians who would seek election to public office and would be unable or unwilling to meet the significant financial and time demands required for an election campaign; yet they provide dedicated service, valuable insight and expertise in helping the Senate carry out its sober second thought, social policy development and minority protection mandates.
Honourable senators, the facts bear that out. Due to deliberate choices during the appointment process, certain population groups are more represented in the Senate than in the other place. As a result, women constitute 34 per cent in the upper house and 21 per cent in the lower house. First Nations are 7.7 per cent in the upper house and 1 per cent in the lower house. It is not perfect, but it better reflects the makeup of the population of Canada than the House of Commons.
The Senate also brings stronger regional perspectives to bear in its deliberations. That is particularly important to protect the minority interests of smaller provinces. That was a key concern of the Fathers of Confederation. In fact, most democratic federations in the world have an upper chamber to better protect their minorities' interests in the legislative process.
As Andrew Heard, a political scientist from Simon Fraser University, pointed out in 2008 about the current makeup of the Senate:
The result is an accumulation of institutional memory, collegiality and expertise.
Harnessing this experience has led to much more than legislative insight.
A number of significant impressive policy reports have come from this place that has influenced public discourse and government action. Important and significant policy studies in recent decades have included reports on banking and finance, national security, fisheries, poverty and mental health.
Senate committees have more time than House of Commons committees to study issues in depth. Members usually have more years to develop expertise in committee issues and the Senate committees function in a less partisan way.
A good example is the committee that I chair, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. A two-year study under the previous chair, Senator Michael Kirby, on mental health issues, resulted in an award-winning report, which the committee unanimously, both Liberals and Conservatives, adopted, with many of its recommendations being implemented by the current government. The chances of a house committee coming up with such a report involving a two-year study and a unanimous decision — now that would be rare indeed.
The committee has also had consensus on reports on early learning and child care, population health, autism, and poverty, housing and homelessness, which demonstrates its ability to work together, like many other Senate committees, to create sound public policy options.
Perhaps it is because of this exemplary reputation that the Minister of Health recently asked our committee to do an in-depth study on Canada's pandemic preparedness.
Honourable senators, I want to close on an important issue that advocates of an elected Senate often raise, and that is the one of legitimacy. Even though the Senate provides significant contributions to legislation and policy development, as I think I have demonstrated, those who advocate for an elected Senate hold the belief that there is a democratic deficit and that this house is not legitimate.
Honourable senators, I do not think our system of democracy as a whole, I do not think our system of government as a whole, lacks for democracy. We have one of the most democratic countries on the face of the earth. Changing to an elected Senate, however, will change the dynamic of our parliamentary system. Two elected chambers will make it less like the traditional Westminster system and more like the American system. An elected Senate, like its counterpart in the U.S., will feel that it has as much right to represent the public as does the House of Commons.
As a 1978 Government of Canada paper rightly pointed out:
Two elected Houses would complicate the question of ultimate responsibility, and thus undermine parliamentary government.
Honourable senators, I do not think we need to elect two chambers in the Parliament of Canada. One is enough. Furthermore, if Bill S-8 does pass and we have an elected Senate, we must realize that we simply cannot tinker around the edges. We would be required to fundamentally change the nature of our parliamentary system. Australia, which has a parliamentary system and an elected Senate, tinkered with it but found that it led to parliamentary deadlock. As Australian political scientist John Uhr commented just last year:
Australian parliamentary commentators have increasingly rejected the terms and categories of the 'Westminster' system . . . The presence of an elected Senate in a constitutionally-entrenched federal parliament is far from classic 'Westminster.'
Therefore, if we accept Bill S-8, we must accept the slippery slope away from the Westminster parliamentary system, a system, I might add, that has stood the test of time.
Honourable senators, I do believe the Senate needs reform or renewal. What I believe the Senate needs more than anything else is a change in how appointments are made. Until now, appointments have been the prerogative of one person, the Prime Minister. I believe that should change. One alternative would be to have a special council, perhaps including former senators, make recommendations to the Prime Minister or Parliament, similar to the process of selecting judges.
Another could involve some provincial appointments. I believe that a ten- to twelve-year, non-renewable term limit would be appropriate.
Honourable senators, let us renew the Senate; let us make it function better; but let us not destroy or radically change the structure of an institution that has served us well for the 143-year existence of this country.
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