Libby speaks out on the Senate Reform Act

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House of Commons
November 22, 2011

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak at second reading on Bill C-7, pertaining to the Senate. As many of my NDP colleagues have outlined today in the House, we have a lot of concerns about the bill.

The first thing I want to point out is that this is the third time the Conservative government has introduced this legislation. Despite repeated campaign promises of an elected Senate that go back even to the Reform days, the Conservatives have let it go so long that it makes one wonder whether it is indeed a priority for them.

On examining the bill, the NDP sees several major issues of concern that leave me unable to support the bill. I think the most basic premise of the bill is that it brings forward measures that are really half-measures, measures that are not going to fundamentally deal with what is a very undemocratic institution.

We know that the Senate has been around for a very long time. The NDP has been calling for the abolition of the Senate going back to the 1930s. When one looks at the bill, it is being put forward under the guise of democratic reform. It is being put forward under the guise of improving the Senate to make it more accountable.

Fundamentally, however, even though provinces may choose to have a process to elect senators, there is nothing in this bill that actually compels the Prime Minister to adopt those electorally based decisions that have taken place. The Prime Minister would still be free to appoint whomever she or he chooses.

That is because the constitutional question; we understand that, but it goes to the very heart of this bill that it will possibly go through legal challenges and it actually does not, in any fundamental way, bring a greater measure of democracy to Parliament itself overall. That is something we are very concerned about.

We in the NDP have taken a different tack. First of all, through motions that we have presented and had debated in the House, we have called on the government to hold a referendum that would ask the Canadian people whether or not they support abolishing the Senate.

We think that is a fair thing to do. This debate over the Senate–whether it should be there or not, whether it should be elected, or what form it should take–has now gone on for decades. We believe it is a fair and proper question that should be put to Canadians as to what they see as the future of the Senate.

We know that recent polls show a growing appetite to deal with this question. For example, in July of this year 71% of Canadians were in favour of holding a referendum to decide the future of the Senate and 36% of Canadians supported the abolition of the Senate, up from about 25% a year previous.

We know people are concerned about this issue, but there is no question that the bill is absolutely the lowest denominator. It is a low bar, a very minimal attempt to deal with the fundamental question of democratic reform in our country.

On the bill itself, before I get to a broader question, I think there is concern over what will happen if this bill goes through, as it no doubt will with this majority government. Even though it has been before us three times now, if it does finally go through this time around and we have an elected Senate, if that is what it turns out to be, and local elections take place in provinces and those people are then appointed to the Senate, it will create a very odd entity down the hall in the red chamber. In effect, it will create a two-tier Senate in which it is very possible that those who have been elected will feel that they have more legitimacy, because there will be people who have not been elected and people who have been.

We could end up with a very strange combination. In terms of the operations of the Senate, it could produce significant problems. We could end up with the same kind of difficulty or gridlock that we have seen in the United States, which I think people abhor.

Some people say we have to have a Senate and we have to have an upper chamber, but I would remind all of us that in provincial legislatures, these senate provisions were abolished many years ago.

In fact, all provincial senates were abolished in 1968. Apparently, the provinces and their legislatures have been able to function in a proper manner since that abolition. Therefore, the argument that we must have this upper chamber is a bogus argument.

Obviously, there are people who support the Senate. However, this is the main argument I want to make. There is also a very strong case to be made that it would be better if we focused democratic reform on our system overall.

In the House of Commons we are elected in our 308 ridings and constituencies across the country, seats which may possibly increase soon, and yet there is a fundamental issue here about the process and the manner of that election.

The first past the post system we have is a system that actually does not reflect the way people are voting. The makeup of the number of seats in the House unfortunately does not reflect the way people are actually voting. The representation by party is not reflecting the actual vote. A system of proportional representation is a far superior and more accountable form of election for the House of Commons or any institution. It is something that we in the NDP have long advocated.

I will say that too has been a big issue across the country. We have seen several referendums provincially. We have had two in British Columbia, one in Ontario, and one I believe in New Brunswick, although I could be wrong on that, but certainly in the Maritimes, so there has been a very healthy debate among Canadians about the need to have democratic reform.

Yet here, at the federal level, there has been a deafening silence. Certainly, New Democrats have pursued this issue with vigour. We have worked with organizations such as Fair Vote Canada. We have been very involved in a healthy debate about democratic reform.

We believe that the real course of action that is needed here, the change that is required to help transform the political process and the way people feel about their involvement in the political process, is to bring forward initiatives around proportional representation. Of course, we should begin here in the House of Commons to have a process to do that.

We came close to that in I think 2002 or 2004 when the former Member of Parliament, Ed Broadbent, who was the member for Ottawa Centre, was very active and worked very closely with the Liberal government of the day. We almost got to the point where we would have had a process to examine this question of democratic reform as it affects the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, nothing proceeded, as was often common with the government of that day. There were promises made that were not followed through. We did not make any progress on that issue.
Subsequent to that, we have had vigorous debate at provincial levels about democratic reform. In the provinces that I mentioned, that debate has specifically taken place sometimes over what is called STV, a single transferrable vote. There are again arguments on both sides of that. What was important was that there was an identification by voters that they wanted to engage in a debate and a conversation about changing the electoral system to make it fairer, more accountable and more democratic.

That is the disappointment of the debate we are having here today. We are failing to address the very pressing issue of democratic reform, where people are voting for their own Member of Parliament. We could engage in a process whereby we could adopt a position that would ensure that we do have a much more open sense of democratic voting and accountability. There are many countries around the world, and most democracies, that have some form of proportional representation. We are now one of the very few countries that does not.

This is a missed opportunity. Here we are having this debate on the Senate that in and of itself will possibly produce a quagmire of legal questions. We are missing the boat on the fundamental question of democratic reform for the House of Commons.