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Marie-P. Charette-Poulin

The Hon. Marie-P. Charette-Poulin, O.St.J., B.A., LL.B., M.A. Called to the Senate of Canada in September 1995, Senator Marie-P. Poulin was the first woman to chair the Senate Liberal Caucus, and the first senator to chair the Northern Ontario Liberal Caucus.

Statements & Hansard

Bill C-20, the Fair Representation Act—Third Reading

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Statement made on 16 December 2011 by Senator Joan Fraser

Hon. Joan Fraser:

Honourable senators, as has been so often remarked, Canada is not an easy country to govern or to hold together. We are so big and so varied, and the strains on our cohesion are often so great, that it is extremely difficult to devise the best way for Canadians to be represented in their federal Parliament, in the House of Commons.

Historically, faced with the continuing move of population from east to west and the need to ensure that smaller provinces, and those provinces that have lost or may lose population, will continue to be properly represented in the House of Commons, the solution, and the way to square the circle, has been to add seats to the House of Commons and to add protective measures.

I think the oldest and probably the strongest of these is what is known as the senatorial clause in the Constitution, which says that no province shall have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has seats in the Senate. This was originally devised about a century ago to protect Prince Edward Island, but it now also protects New Brunswick, and in the foreseeable future may well also protect some other provinces.

There was also added in law — not in the Constitution — in the 1980s a grandfather clause to the effect that no province could actually, in a redistribution, be given fewer seats than it had in the previous distribution of seats. This complicates the distribution of seats enormously, and that is one reason why historically we have coped with this difficulty by simply adding seats to the House of Commons.

All the expert witnesses, the learned academics whom the committee heard from — there were six of them — agreed that, as my colleague Senator Dawson has just suggested, you cannot go on doing this forever. You cannot just go on forever and ever and ever adding seats to the House of Commons. Physically, there is not room. Perhaps a building ought not to determine the quality of political representation, but the chamber has its own historic and emotional importance to many Canadians, and there is also the question of cost. There are various costs to this business of just going on and on and on adding seats. The most obvious and immediate one is, of course, in cold, hard dollars.

According to figures that your committee was given by the government, adding 30 MPs, which is what this bill will do, will cost the taxpayers of Canada $19.27 million a year. Over a four-year cycle, therefore, it will cost nearly $80 million, plus the cost of actually running elections for 30 more MPs, which is a bit over $15 million. We are up at about $95 million for the privilege of adding 30 MPs.

Given the size of our budgets, there are those who would say, echoing C.D. Howe, what is $100 million? However, I do not think the people of Canada would think that, particularly not at a time when everyone in this country is being asked to face cutbacks and austerity. For $95 million, how many Employment Insurance agents could we have kept on the payroll to serve the people who need their services? How many environment researchers or fisheries researchers could we have kept? We have decided not to do that, or at least the government has decided not to do that.

We had one witness, Professor Andrew Sancton from the University of Western Ontario, whose remarks reminded me of a position often taken by our former colleague Senator Lowell Murray. Senator Murray used to say that matters electoral were things where the Senate should not automatically defer to the House of Commons in, but on the contrary we should examine the proposals very closely because of the House of Commons' obvious self-interest in bills concerning matters electoral.

Professor Sancton said:

Except for incumbent and aspiring MPs, the absolute number of seats in a particular province is quite irrelevant.

Then he went on:

My main concern is simply this: Very few of us can solve our own difficult personal and employment problems by simply adding to our numbers and appropriating more resources, but this is exactly what the House of Commons is proposing to do.

In a way that is true, although perhaps rather a more harsh description of what the House of Commons is doing than I would actually have chosen. I think this bill was, in fact, designed to try to solve real problems in a manner that was appropriate. All of our witnesses said that this was an honest attempt to solve a difficult problem.

The fact remains that sooner or later we have to bite the bullet. We have to say it will not do simply to go on adding MPs. It seems to me that if we have to face that problem some day, why not now?

My party has proposed a formula in the house, and again in our committee here, that would keep the total number of MPs in the House of Commons at 308 but would redistribute the balance of those seats, while preserving the senatorial clause and the grandfather clause to protect small provinces, in a manner that would reflect population shifts. In this way, populations would continue to be represented proportionately, as they should be in the House of Commons, but we would not be engaged any more in this endless series of increases.

As Senator Dawson has just pointed out, in previous redistributions there was time for public debate. Options were presented and white papers were presented so that the people of Canada could consider the implications of whatever the final choice was going to be and have input in that final choice. That has not been done this time, but it will have to be done, if not now, probably fairly soon, so why not now?

Professor Sancton said — and I thought there was much logic in his argument — we should freeze the number of seats now and then have the debate on what the appropriate size of the House of Commons should be. Maybe it should be greater than 308, but think it through. Think through the principles upon which you are going to determine that size and then let the people of Canada have their say about it through public hearings and their politicians.

That was not done this time, but I hope it will be done soon so that we have plenty of time to consider, with a tranquil spirit, how we will approach the next redistribution.

Senator Lang pointed out in committee that Yukon may well face a significant increase in its population that would merit more than the current one seat. At the moment all the territories get one seat each and that is that, no one even thinks about it. We cannot go on like that forever if their populations shift. How will we handle it? We need to know.

I would like to leave honourable senators with one last thought about another cost of endless increases in the number of MPs. We can find money, we can find space, but we cannot find more time. The more MPs there are, the less time there is per MP for participation in debate and in the work of house, and indeed even for the work of the committees.

I have long believed that one reason we in the Senate can pride ourselves on what we consider to be more thorough, deeper debates, both in the chamber and in committee, is that there are fewer of us than there are MPs. Therefore, we can each claim a slightly greater share of the available time than is available to the average MP.

To take it to its logical extreme, I mentioned in committee that a few months ago I had the privilege of observing a session of the European Parliament. I do not know how many hundreds of members there are of the European Parliament, but I know that the chamber that has had to be built to accommodate them resembles a small football stadium. The result is that for major speeches, they have time limits of 30 seconds, one minute, or, if they are very lucky, two minutes. Two minutes to give a speech on the budget, for example. That is where we will end up if we go on growing and growing like Topsy.

Senator Carignan: Good idea.

Senator Fraser: The government may think it is a good idea. Wait, as my colleague says, until the positions are reversed.

We will not get there tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but it is something else that I think we need to bear in mind. Therefore, I cannot support this bill as it is written.

I accept that it was honestly and appropriately drafted, and after several iterations everyone agrees that this version is better than the ones proposed by the government in the past, but I still think we could have done better.

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