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Grant Mitchell

The Hon. Grant  Mitchell, B.A., M.A., C.F.A. Senator Grant Mitchell has had careers in the public service, business and politics in Alberta. He was appointed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in March, 2005.

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Second reading of Bill S-202, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (repeal of fixed election dates)

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Statement made on 16 June 2009 by Senator Wilfred Moore

Hon. Wilfred P. Moore:

Honourable senators, I am happy to support Senator Murray's bill in his efforts to repeal a law that has no place in a Westminster system and one that has been discredited widely, even by its own proponent, the Prime Minister. When Mr. Harper was the leader of the opposition, he came out in favour of fixed election dates. The main justification he articulated was the need to curtail the excessive powers of prime ministers, in particular in relation to Parliament, which is supposed to be an authority over the executive, not the other way around. That is one of the few areas where Mr. Harper and I agree. In the Office of the Prime Minister, there has been a gradual accumulation of power over parliamentary life that undermines the proper functioning of responsible government.

Let me say a few words about my position with respect to fixed elections. In my view, Canada already has a time frame imposed on the life of a Parliament. It is the five-year limitation found in section 50 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The change to a four-year time frame amounts to tinkering.

The idea that the prime minister's authority would be removed has been shown to be an illusion. Indeed, I agree with Senator Murray's assessment that section 1 of the legislation is a loophole wide enough to accommodate the calling of an election by any prime minister in any circumstance. Even if we believe that the legislation is sound, we have always known that a majority government can manoeuvre around it by keeping its members of Parliament away from a vote, thus engineering its own defeat in the House of Commons.

Finally, my main reason for opposing fixed election dates is that it puts the country on a permanent election footing of the kind seen in our neighbour to the south. This election footing has a serious impact on all parties in Parliament by distracting them from the real work of governing the nation, and forcing them to tailor every position, every vote and every press release through the distorting lens of the campaign trail. It has been commonplace to describe Parliament these days as "dysfunctional." That means the other place, not Parliament, is dysfunctional, at least in the eyes of Mr. Harper. Yet, as we all know, the other place may be unable to function only upon the government losing the confidence of the House. It is not the decision of any prime minister; the house decides whether it can function. With the fixed election proposal, the government, in a single stroke, took all the things that are wrong with our parliamentary system and magnified them.

While I share the view that the office of prime minister has excessive powers, I do not see the power to call general elections as being among them. My proposed legislation, which has been referred to committee, addresses the power of the prime minister to manipulate the timing of by-elections and the excessive authority that the prime minister has over filling vacancies in both Houses. What a revealing hypocrisy that the government would brag about its fixed election legislation, which has turned out to be an illusion, while vigorously opposing meaningful changes that would actually curtail the powers of the prime minister with respect to by-elections and Senate appointments.

As Senator Murray said, the Prime Minister might not have broken the law, but he broke his word. I agree with Senator Murray's assessment in his opening remarks at second reading when he said:

The bill that we passed into law is a facade. It is misleading; I would almost say it was intended to mislead. In any case, it is of no force or effect.

Obviously, the Prime Minister has revealed that he never believed the arguments he articulated in relation to fixed elections. When Mr. Harper was leader of the opposition, I thought he was serious. I thought he believed that fixed elections were a good idea. I disagreed with him, but it seemed as though he meant what he said. As it turns out, he meant none of it. Then again, why should we be surprised? This is but another example of Mr. Harper breaking his word. Need I remind honourable senators of his broken promises with regard to income trusts and the Atlantic Accord? Suffice it to say, the pattern is well established. Even if we buy the weak excuses offered, which amount to nothing more than variations on the theme "the devil made me do it," and even if we forgive the Prime Minister the exuberance that caused him to swallow himself whole for his short-term political interests, even then we must accept one fact that has become indisputable as a result of the Prime Minister's behaviour: The fixed elections law is a dead letter. It is a meaningless entry that does nothing more than clutter the statute books and add to the confusion about how a Westminster system with responsible government is supposed to function. Senator Murray's Bill S-202 will erase the mistake and save the Prime Minister from future embarrassment. Honourable senators, the government's willingness to disregard its own law for short-term ends is truly only a small indicator of a larger pattern that permeates almost everything in the government's highly partisan agenda. The legislative program of this government is designed to serve its communications interests in the permanent campaign footing they have imposed on Canada.

Honourable senators, I cannot let this opportunity go by without drawing the attention of the Senate to another pattern of behaviour that has become more and more acute in recent times. The government in this place has adopted a stance with respect to Senate public bills that is hostile. Through persistent adjournments, the government has erected a road block unlike anything we have seen before. The work of the Senate, according to the practice of the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, is to be put on hold until the government has had an opportunity to have its officials analyze our initiatives. Then, we are to wait further while the government can find a volunteer in its caucus who will agree to act as "critic." Then, we are to wait a few more weeks while staff changes in government departments oblige analysts to start over. Then, we are to wait further once this caucus volunteer comes forward because the volunteer needs to be briefed, presumably so that he or she will know what to think. Then, we wait further until the erstwhile critic prepares a speech and delivers it.

Senator Murray moved second reading of Bill S-202 on January 29. That was more than four months ago. The government has been adjourning the item ever since. This is not debate; it is obstruction. They engage in this pattern of obstruction, while having the gall to accuse the Senate falsely of obstructing government bills.

Honourable senators, this house is noted for its collegial atmosphere and its muted partisanship, but the government of late has tested courtesy and collegiality well beyond the breaking point. It is time that we stopped tolerating the unacceptable obstruction that masquerades as research and speech preparation. It is time that courtesy and respect once again became a two-way street in this place. It is time to send Bill S-202 to committee.


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