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Speech from the Throne

Honourable senators, it is a tremendous honour for me to rise today to take part in the debate on the Speech from the Throne. In particular, I am referring to the following excerpt from the speech delivered by His Excellency, and I quote:

To restore public trust and bring an end to partisanship, the Government will follow through on its commitment to reform the Senate by creating a new, non-partisan, merit- based process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments.

The first down payment on this commitment to renew this chamber is the arrival last week of seven new members, all of whom were subject to the process referred to above.

This is also my maiden speech in the Senate. I rise here today with a profound sense of duty towards Canadians and towards you, my fellow senators. Like all of you, I am here to serve Canadians and to help the Senate serve Canada.

I come to this chamber, as so many of you, cognizant of the sacrifices made by my parents, my wife and my son, and the lifetime of influence still felt from the nurturing of teachers and the members of the village in which I grew up.

Mine is a very Canadian story. My parents came to Canada as young refugees in the Mennonite exodus of the 1920s from the then-Soviet Union. My mother worked at the H.J. Heinz factory for 12 years, leaving at the age of 29 to start Grade 9 and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.

I was born in Manitoba and grew up in Vineland, Ontario, in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula. I am proud of my Mennonite and small-town roots, the values they represent, and the importance of community and service to the country and to those around the world with less than what we enjoy.

I first came to Ottawa as a parliamentary intern thanks to an excellent program that gave me a chance to observe Parliament, MPs and senators, and their work for a year. I have very fond memories of meeting Senator Grattan O'Leary and Senator Eugene Forsey, attending committee meetings and, of course, attending question period in the other chamber.

After graduate studies, I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and soon thereafter served as an assistant to our then new minister, Flora MacDonald — not a task for the faint of heart. I subsequently left the public service to first serve as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition, the Right Honourable Joe Clark, and subsequently to the Deputy Prime Minister, Erik Nielsen, in the government of Prime Minister Mulroney. I am not unacquainted with partisanship, its benefits and its limitations.

I came to the view that my interests and character were best suited to non-partisan public service. I was fortunate to serve as the founding executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Board, whose chair, Gordon Fairweather, was the parliamentarian with whom I had served as an intern so many years earlier.

In 1991, Prime Minister Mulroney made me a deputy minister, and I had the honour of serving in that capacity under five prime ministers and 12 ministers, including Senator Art Eggleton.

For the past nine years, I've worked in the private and the not- for-profit sectors and had the pleasure of being asked last summer to provide advice to the then-leader of the third party on transition to government. Asking me was, I believe, consistent with the now Prime Minister's belief that professional, non- partisan advice, born of experience and sensitive to political circumstances, ought to be called on and used in the nation's interest.

I want to thank the Prime Minister for my appointment to the Senate and to this unprecedented role of Government Representative in the Senate.

I firmly believe that Canada needs a Senate, even more today than at any point in its history. That is why I am here. If the Senate did not exist, we would have to invent one.

We have a Senate, so let's make it work. Let's all agree that the Senate is here to stay. No country as large as Canada, as regionally, linguistically and culturally diverse can function properly without a second chamber in its national political institutions. Our Constitution insists on it and well it should.

Following the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada issued almost two years ago, it is recognized that the Senate plays an important role in our federal, bicameral parliamentary system.

In fact, as a complementary chamber to the House of Commons, the Senate supplements the process of legislative review and serves as an important think tank in the development of public policy over a wide range of issues of the government's jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court decision also clarified that any fundamental change to either abolish the Senate or to make it an elected body with a fixed-term mandate for its members would require a significant level of agreement by the provinces: In the first case, their unanimous consent; in the second, the support of seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, it is now obvious that the numerous attempts of the previous government to introduce substantive changes unilaterally were bound to fail. However sincere the government was in its efforts to seek Senate reform, all of the seven bills it presented either to the Senate or to the House of Commons were indisputably unconstitutional, for they did not meet the conditions of the applicable amending formula, and, more importantly, they were inconsistent with the federal character of this country, which requires that any important structural change in the governance demands a negotiated agreement amongst its partners. It is certain, therefore, that the Senate will neither be abolished nor have an elected membership any time soon, so it's here to stay in its present constitutional status.

Further, I would ask Canadians to look at other federations and reflect on why they have a second chamber. Consider Australia, Germany, the United States, India, among many others. An upper house is fundamental to the proper functioning of a federal system.

The second chamber provides what all democratic systems require — checks and balances to hold the executive to account — and what all federal systems need — a voice for smaller regions and minority interests so that they are not completely drowned out by the larger voices.

This is why membership in the Senate is by region and why the guarantee of equal regional representation is enshrined in our Constitution, and perfecting this regional approach has been part of virtually every attempt at constitutional reform in the past 40 years.

Not all Canadians are aware that the very notion of regional equity was necessary to strike Canada's Confederation bargain. Without it, there would be no Canada. George Brown, an influential Father of Confederation, summed it up:

On no other condition could we have advanced a step . . . .

George-Étienne Cartier said that "the count of heads must not always be permitted to out-weigh every other consideration." That explains why the Senate and its role dominated the debates during the 1864 Quebec Conference.

Sir John A. Macdonald saw the Senate as a chamber in which the work would be guided by the principle of sober second thought. Representative democracy in 1867 was very different from what it is today. Democracy as we know it today was still taking shape at that time. The French Revolution and its excesses, all committed in the name of democracy, had occurred just 70 short years before. Canada and the other Western countries had not yet embraced universal suffrage. They were afraid that, if given the opportunity, the masses would press for bad policies and bad decisions. For example, James Madison, a key architect of the American political system, claimed that the masses would "vote themselves free beer."

Today, few people question the value of representative democracy. That being said, the government's role has changed considerably since the post-war era. The government has broadened its reach to nearly all sectors, and our executive branch currently oversees some $300 billion in annual spending, which accounts for close to 15 per cent of Canada's GDP. The executive is also much more powerful that it was 50 years ago, and that power has become more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Prime Minister Trudeau recognized that during the election campaign, and he was determined to begin addressing that issue as soon as he took office and in the actions he has taken since then.

Public administration experts point to ample evidence that Parliament is having a hard time keeping pace with the increasing complexity of modern politics. They say that Parliament's ability to hold the government to account has seriously diminished. The time has come to strengthen Parliament and its ability to hold the great debates of the day and ensure that its actions resonate better with Canadians and in the government administration. One only has to think about it for a moment to realize that Parliament is our country's most important democratic institution. It is the only institution that brings together the voices of people from St. John's, Newfoundland, all the way to Victoria, British Columbia, and Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

The question, then, is not whether we should have a Senate. The Fathers of Confederation and the basic requirements of federalism have answered that. Rather, the question before us is: How can we modernize, adapt and strengthen the role of the Senate to meet the expectations of Canadians in the 21st century? That, honourable senators, is the challenge we must all meet together. It is this challenge of credibility that is at the heart of the government's approach to improving the Senate.

Absent any realistic prospect of constitutional reform of the Senate, the Government of Canada has decided to focus on non- constitutional change that has the prospect of improving the Senate's credibility with the public. Everyone can agree that the public is rightly angry about the recent scandals of ethical misbehaviour and poor accountability. The Senate today has a tarnished image. We cannot deny that. At the same time, those of us with knowledge of the parliamentary environment are well aware that the Senate's solid work has contributed mightily to the good governance of this country. However, such positive efforts of the Senate are overshadowed by accusations of patronage and partisanship, which, fed by the current problems, combine to undermine the credibility of the institution. To the public and the world of today, it hardly matters that the Senate is legitimate from a constitutional perspective. The appointment of its members, which is totally at the discretion of the Prime Minister under the traditional process, deprives the Senate of meaningful credibility.

The government has two ambitious, but doable goals, to improve the Senate and its credibility: establish a merit-based appointment process independent of the Prime Minister's unilateral control, and encourage greater independence and non-partisanship of the selected Senate appointees. The first can be achieved by the government itself exercising its prerogative powers. The second will depend on the integrity and commitment of new senators and also firmly on the impact that these changes will have on the current membership of the Senate.

An advisory body for the selection of Senate candidates has been established under the chairmanship of Madam Huguette Labelle, a distinguished former civil servant and University of Ottawa Chancellor and the President of Transparency International. This board applies a set of publicly announced criteria to evaluate potential nominees for proposed appointment to the Senate. For each vacancy in the Senate, a list of five names is submitted to the Prime Minister, from which one will be selected for recommendation for appointment by the Governor General. This process, used to fill the first seven seats, will be further expanded by inviting the participation of the public in submitting names of potential candidates. While this openness will certainly present challenges for the advisory board, the government is fully intent on involving the public in this selection process.

The criteria used in evaluating the submissions will include relevant, merit-based experience; personal character and suitability; as well as other factors to reflect the great diversity of the population and the values of the Charter. In addition to cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, occupational and physical factors, the government is determined to promote gender parity.

Looking at the current membership of the Senate, my distinguished colleagues, it must be admitted that previous governments, including that of Prime Minister Harper, made serious, meaningful efforts to broaden the base of the Senate to ensure better representation of Canada's diverse and talented citizenry. Nonetheless, the fact that these appointments were nominated exclusively by the Prime Minister without the benefit of a more transparent process involving an independent advisory body acting as a filter to evaluate candidate qualifications meant that the appointments were open to the suspicion of patronage. Certainly, that was the general public perception and well reflected in the media.

The constant refrain for too many years has been that the Senate is a kind of dumping ground for party faithful or a reward for effective fundraisers. Not all were as bold as my good friend, former Senator Irving Gerstein, who proudly and honestly boasted of his skills as a party fundraiser. Though I know Senator Gerstein was an able senator who performed his responsibilities with great competence, and not a little humour, the government has determined that the time has come to do what it can to rid the Senate of the stigma of patronage. This is the minimum first step in renewing the Senate and re-establishing its credibility. The government promised to do this during the last campaign and is committed to taking effective action.

The second way the government proposes to renew the Senate is to encourage the independence of new Senate appointees. By better ensuring that these senators are appointed on the basis of merit, the government believes that there will be less reason for them to feel the need or the obligation to align themselves with a political party. If this approach takes hold, the result will have the effect of allowing the Senate to more fully benefit from a wholly appointed membership. This benefit was expressly acknowledged by the Supreme Court's decision in 2004 when it stated:

The framers sought to endow the Senate with independence from the electoral process to which members of the House of Commons were subject, in order to remove Senators from a partisan political arena that required unremitting consideration of short-term political objectives.

Without denying the attraction of political allegiance and the comfort that comes from a shared identity, partisanship has a way of restricting a senator's independence by imposing the obligation of party loyalty. This is actually inconsistent with the fundamental purpose behind the creation of an independent, appointed, rather than elected, Senate.

I freely admit that this has not been part of the Senate's history. Conservatives and Liberals have been a constant feature of the Senate since its creation. I would add, however, that this may very well be one of the basic reasons that there have been calls for Senate reform. If senators are going to be partisan, why not have them elected just like their counterparts in the House of Commons? It is only by encouraging non-partisan independence that the purpose of an appointed Senate can be properly justified. Only in this way can the talents and experience of each and every senator be fully applied to the consideration of proposed legislation and public policy.

The government's preference for a more independent-minded, less partisan Senate is amply demonstrated not only by the six other independent senators who just joined this chamber but also by my appointment as Government Representative and how I am to exercise this office. Though I am, as I said earlier today, the Leader of the Government in the Senate with the benefits that come with this position according to the law and the Rules of the Senate, the government has deliberately insisted that I be styled the Government Representative. This has several significant meanings, in my view. Unlike any other past Leader of the Government in the Senate, I sit as an independent. I do not belong to any political caucus. Like my immediate predecessor, I too am a member of the Privy Council, though not a minister.

This means that in my role, my fundamental purpose is to act as a go-between, a conduit, between the government and the Senate. It is my task to speak to the Senate on behalf of the government and similarly to represent the views of the Senate to the government. To fulfill my duties, I do not need to be a member of a political party and will not be a member of a national caucus or any political caucus. Any influence that I exercise in the Senate, in addition to the benefits that I have as leader, will depend on my powers of persuasion, on the merits of the government's legislation and policies and, frankly, the goodwill of the Senate for its consideration and approval.

Promoting the independence of senators as an ideal does not mean rejecting outright political allegiances if that is the preference of individual senators. Parties will continue to be a feature of the Senate as long as members want to be part of them. Moreover, the government fully realizes that it does not have the right or the authority to insist on senators being independent; nor does this approach of encouraging independence mean there cannot be alliances based on like-minded views. There will always be a tendency among senators to form groups or associations based on shared values, geography or objectives. Indeed, this is likely to become more prevalent in a chamber that will eventually be dominated by independent senators over time. But these alliances need not be party-based, and there is no need for them to have any extent or permanence beyond the subject that has stimulated the union.

This analysis is, I believe, a fair representation of the government's proposals to restore the Senate's reputation. By creating an appointments process that is at arm's length and by encouraging senators to be independent and not aligned, the Senate, through its accomplished members, will gain, over time, greater credibility among the public. This is meaningful because it will allow the Senate to shift its attention to the substantive work it does as a complementary chamber to the House of Commons. I note with admiration the work that has been launched by senators in the past number of months.

The work of the Modernization Committee, open caucus sessions and ministers' attendance in Question Period are all positive and forward-leaning innovations. My newly appointed colleagues and I look forward to working with all of you from all sides of the aisle, those in party caucuses and those who are independent or not aligned. But change we must. Our Rules, procedures and practices and how we allocate resources must ensure that the voices and contributions of all senators are respected. We must manage our institution with the transparency that gains the confidence of Canadians.

As many of you know, I appeared before Senate committees on a number of occasions when I was a deputy minister. I always walked away impressed with the quality of the questions and the deep commitment of senators toward Canada and Canadians. It is unfortunate that this distinguished record of legislating, deliberating and investigating the issues of the day has been overtaken by expense accounts, ethical issues and, frankly, excessive partisanship. We need to do better; and we need to do a better job of ensuring Canadians are aware of the solid work that is done in this chamber on their behalf. In this regard, I'm impressed with the innovative approach taken only a few weeks ago in respect of the study on obesity by the Social Affairs Committee. Not only was the work of high quality, but also the use of social media ensured a broader audience was engaged in the policy debate.

Historica Canada has described the Senate as "Canada's best think tank"; and well it should. The Senate has conducted excellent research, produced seminal reports on a wide variety of subjects, and put the spotlight on the most important issues of the day. The Government of Canada is still harvesting the work of former Senator Michael Kirby and his committee's report on mental health.

You now understand why I accepted without a moment's hesitation the invitation to serve in this chamber. The Senate is at a critical moment of transition, and I want to play a role, however modest, in strengthening this vital institution. That is the reason I stand before you today.

I believe the Senate as a whole can make a substantial contribution by embracing a less partisan perspective on many public policy issues. There's little that the Senate can accomplish and little value to be added by trying to "out-partisan" the other chamber. The Commons lives and dies by partisan politics. We ought not to compete with but rather complement the elected chamber. However, having a Senate that can engage in an analysis of a bill or a policy less constrained by pressures of partisan views or public opinion can serve a useful purpose. It is in keeping with the complementary role played by the Senate and is intended to supplement, rather than compete with, the House of Commons.

With respect to legislation, the Senate can add to the quality of review by building on the work performed by the House of Commons. It can concentrate on aspects of a bill that may not have been thoroughly vetted by the Commons. The Senate can also encourage more public engagement by hearing witnesses that did not have a chance to appear before the Commons committees. Moreover, the Senate is capable of undertaking studies on substantive issues that require attention but that are politically delicate and publicly sensitive. The Senate's inquiries, for example, into euthanasia and assisted suicide, illegal drugs, and national health care over the past decades are three of many examples where the Senate has promoted meaningful public discourse over the last 50 years.

In doing this work, the purpose of the Senate is not to determine the outcome or settle the question; it is, rather, to gather evidence from relevant sources and alternative perspectives to provide a balanced assessment. This is, in fact, one of the paradoxical characteristics of the Senate, that in being able to resist the pressure of public opinion, it can actually contribute to public good by promoting useful discussion on important but controversial issues.

That said, I accept that the House of Commons should have its way on a number of fronts. The government of the day has every right to pursue the priorities outlined in its election platform. The party in power won a mandate from Canadians to implement the measures it brought forward during the campaign. Democracy requires it. Indeed, if democratic institutions cannot deliver on this, then one can only wonder what it can actually accomplish.

I firmly believe that the Westminster parliamentary system is the best possible political system. It has evolved over time, building its reputation through its actions and learning lessons, often from some crisis of renewal.

I once again turned to Walter Bagehot's classic treatise, The English Constitution, in which he described how the unwritten part of the Constitution should work. Published in 1867, the year Canada was created, his work has stood the test of time. We have known and accepted for quite some time that the Senate cannot introduce money bills.

Bagehot also had advice for the House of Lords that still applies to the Canadian Senate. He wrote that:

. . . the House of Lords must yield whenever the opinion of the Commons is also the opinion of the nation . . . .

The Lords, he maintained, was ". . . a revising and suspending house."

He put it succinctly when he argued that the House of Lords can reject a bill from the Commons once, twice or even three times, but if the Commons keeps on sending it up, at last the House of Lords should not reject it.

This chamber holds important comparative advantages over other institutions. We need to do better in pursuing these advantages for the benefit of Canada. We are half of the Canadian Parliament. This is another Senate paradox: We can ignore short-term public opinion and, in doing so, exceed public expectations. The less partisan we act, the more credible our voices will become. We have the ability to operate above the fray and can shed light in an expeditious fashion on the long-term challenges confronting our country. We are in a position to articulate the regional economic circumstances shaping our country's six distinct regional economies in how they can best be accommodated when developing national economic policies. This is one of the most important roles of the Senate, if not the most important, and we need to do better at pursuing it. If the Senate cannot be a respected broker in dealing with regional issues and tensions, no one can. When it comes to minority rights and the protection of the Charter, it is the Senate that ought to be particularly vigilant in ensuring compliance with the Charter. Last week's Supreme Court decision with respect to the Criminal Code amendments ought to give us courage to act as the defenders of the Charter.

The Senate is in an ideal position from which to address, in a thoughtful and reflective manner, the great issues of the day. Through the work of our committees we can together determine an agenda to deal with these challenges over the time of this Parliament and beyond.

Let me end by briefly referencing two subjects which would benefit from Senate study.

First, caring for seniors: The subject is usually separated into two completely separate issues as if they are not intertwined, which they are. The two issues are seniors' incomes, and caring for seniors who need care but do not require hospitalization. In the federal and provincial governments, the first issue is handled by income support departments, while the second is handled by health departments.

With the ever-accelerating growth in the number of older seniors and the desire to find ways to enable them to stay in their homes as long as possible — this is both cheaper and gives the senior a better quality of life — the two issues are clearly intertwined. What should the policy which covers these two areas be, and how ought the inevitable costs be allocated between public support and individual contribution?

The second issue of great importance to me is pluralism and the ongoing "hospitality to difference" in our country and in the wider world. The recent election and public debates on cultural and religious diversity and practices underscore the need to thicken — to make more resilient — our culture of respect for difference, while sharing common Canadian values.

This is made ever more challenging in a world of refugees and spontaneous flows of migration, the challenges of radicalization and terror, all of which challenge social cohesion. This is an issue of our time and one for which Canada's voice in the global debate ought to be heard.

Already, good work is under way. We ought to take full advantage of our position at the heart of Canada's democracy to push the frontiers of knowledge on the important issues facing our country and, in doing so, help shape and prepare the political and public policy debate for Canadians. We have the resources and we have highly-qualified and deeply-committed Canadians wishing to make a difference. Let's go and do it.

I look forward to working with every one of you to shape the Senate for the 21st century and to enable all of us to tell our children, our grandchildren and all Canadians that we are proud to be senators and proud of the work we do for our country.

In the words of Senator Campbell, senators, our future is bright.