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Speech on Bill S-229 (Property Qualification for Senate Appointments)

Constitution Act, 1867

Bill to Amend—Second Reading—Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Banks, seconded by the Honourable Senator Day, for the second reading of Bill S-229, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Property qualifications of Senators).—(Honourable Senator Tkachuk)

Hon. David Tkachuk: Honourable senators, I am pleased to participate in debate on Bill S-229, a bill introduced by Senator Banks that would remove the real property and net worth requirements for persons to be qualified to sit in the Senate.

This short speech of mine comes at a rather opportune time as Senator Banks and I had a lengthy discussion last night on the difficult process of coming to unanimity between our two parties. The importance of this bill should not be exaggerated; it seeks to accomplish a needed and overdue but minor reform.

Bill S-224 underscores the marked difference between division of the government on the one hand and the lack of division to maintain status quo on the other. While many paid lip service to Senate reform, actions and results thus far demonstrate the challenge of making reform. This sad reality is being played out, despite the fact that Canadians — and this has been demonstrated in poll after poll — want serious Senate reform to occur. The government, for its part, has listened to Canadians and made Senate reform one of its key priorities.

In last October's Speech from the Throne, the government renewed its commitment to Senate reform and subsequently reintroduced Bill C-19 on Senate tenure and Bill C-20 on Senate appointment consultations. Bill C-19 replaces the former Bill S-4, which was delayed, as honourable senators know, for over a year by the Senate following its introduction and was then effectively killed by the Liberal majority in this chamber. Most Canadians and commentators would regard reducing the tenure of senators as an incremental but important step in making the Senate worthy of 21st century democracy. However, senators on the other side chose to block even this incremental attempt at reform. It is worth reviewing what happened in debate on Bill S-4 because it set the context for the debate we will have on this bill. Suffice to say, the story of Bill S-4 and its treatment in the Senate serves as a cautionary tale for why we need Senate reform.

As I mentioned earlier, the Senate acted to stall progress on the former bill for over a year. While most bills are subject to review once in each chamber by one committee, Bill S-4 was twice subject to committee review. The "subject matter" of the bill was first examined by the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform chaired by Senator Hays with Senator Angus as deputy chair. The bill was then subject to the regular committee review process in the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In an unprecedented tactic, the Senate ultimately killed the bill by refusing to allow it to proceed to third reading unless it was first referred to the Supreme Court of Canada. This was done despite the fact that the report of the Special Senate Committee — a committee formed by senators and composed of a majority of Liberal senators, I might add — endorsed the government's overall approach to Senate reform and affirmed the constitutionality of the bill. The report concluded that:

Our discussions with constitutional scholars and legal experts have yielded, for the most part, convincing arguments that the government has chosen the correct approach to making this change. The witnesses generally felt that the Constitution was sufficiently clear on this matter and that a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada to clarify and resolve the matter is not required.

Bearing in mind that it is the subject matter of the bill that has been referred to the Committee, most Committee members have concluded that there appears to be no need for additional clarity on the constitutionality of Bill S-4 as a condition precedent to the Senate proceedings with a consideration of the Bill as proposed.

As the Special Senate Committee report noted, many of Canada's leading constitutional experts appeared before the committee and supported the government's position on the constitutionality of the bill. This list of supportive experts included Peter Hogg, Patrick Monahan, Stephen Scott and former Senator Gérald Beaudoin, to name but a few. When the bill was reviewed again by the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Peter Hogg and Patrick Monaghan took the trouble to contact the committee to reiterate their support for the government's constitutional position.

Quite rightly, the government rejected the proposal of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for a Supreme Court reference. The vast weight of public opinion supported the government's position that Bill S-4 was constitutionally valid and that there was no need to delay the reform process further with a reference. While I was initially hopeful that the Senate would listen to Canadians and embrace reform, it became obvious during the debate on Bill S-4 that the Senate was opposed to even the most modest reforms.

Honourable senators, I am hopeful that the elected members of the other place will be more sensitive to the views of Canadians on this matter because Canadians are not prepared to accept an institution that has remained virtually unchanged since Confederation, an institution that is neither democratic nor accountable to the people of Canada. While the Senate may have suited 19th century sensibilities when it was created in 1867, it is now an institution that is severely out of touch with our times. In our contemporary society the Senate lacks the credibility to fulfill its role as an effective representative of the regions in the federal legislative process. The status quo is not good enough for our political institution and this is particularly true in regard to the Senate. That is why it is essential that we continue the pursuit of practical, achievable, and meaningful reform that will help to ensure that the Senate devolves in accordance with the expectations of Canadians.

Honourable senators, I believe we are at a critical juncture in the history of the Senate. The patience of Canadians and the government is waning. If we do not embrace change then we may be viewing the dying days of this institution. We have the power to change destiny by supporting real reform to the Senate, as has been proposed by the government. Honourable senators, because some change is better than no change, I support Bill S-229 and commend Senator Banks for introducing the bill while awaiting the day that I might stand in this chamber and vote in favour of the government's more meaningful Senate reform proposals.