More witnesses for the (Senate’s) defence: Senators George Baker and James Cowan

From that same Legal and Constitutional Affairs meeting, a fine rant from another fiery Atlantic Canadian senator that left Peter Van Loan bristling with barely concealed rage.  (I’d actually recommend reading the full transcript; it was a great debate even if the government did make the mistake of sending an painfully overconfident pitbull to a sword fight.) 


Senator Baker: Minister, as you are aware, presently the Senate is dealing with Bill C-10 that passed the elected chamber with a provision of nine pages that nobody in the House of Commons knew existed. The word “film” was not used in any of the stages, any of the debates or any of the committee reports. You did not know it was there. Nobody else knew it was there. It was the unelected Senate that discovered it.

A short time ago, minister, you appeared before this committee and said we must pass the Elections Act without amendment, and of course there was a provision in there that would have released everyone’s date of birth. We would have had telemarketers phoning every senior citizen if the Senate had not stepped in and overruled the elected chamber of the House of Commons.

In your speech, you said that the Federal Accountability Act was resisted by the Liberals. It is true, minister, that it was resisted by a great many Liberals in the Senate. One thing we objected to, minister, was that a summary conviction offence committed by a candidate or an official agent could be prosecuted 10 years after the fact. It was a disgraceful piece of legislation. From a search warrant that goes into the Conservative Party headquarters, a prosecution could result 10 years later for a minor infraction, whereas the Criminal Code says that for everything else it is six months. It was our recommendation to change it, but you said no.

The point is that we have important work to do here. We fix what the House of Commons does. Senator Moore is trying to say that we need to fill some Senate vacancies. More and more vacancies are coming open. They are not filled unless you have someone who wants to be in the cabinet but cannot be elected. All these vacancies are increasing. We have this important work to do; the check, the sober second thought, on you. The examples are so numerous. We probably would not do it if we were elected because we would behave like politicians; like you people do.

The logical conclusion to what the minister has said here before this committee is this: Vacancies will not be filled, and if this government is re-elected, they still will not be filled. Second reading of the elected Senate bill never appeared in the Senate. It has been stuck in second reading in the House of Commons for four years. Ontario will probably take the Prime Minister to court.

The problem is that you have all these vacancies in the Senate, and we will soon be down to nothing. Is it your intent to eliminate that necessary check that Canadians need on your government?


The Chair: That was his question.

Mr. Van Loan: I know it was a question. When someone is bitter, you can never get a word in edgewise.

In any event, the question was about, as I gather it, sober second thought. I look at the issues you have covered, and it seems to me the place where the sober second thought needs to occur is within the Liberal caucus. I do not know what happens in the Liberal caucus.

We can look at the first issue you raised, which was that of the disclosure of birth dates on electoral lists. That proposal was supported by the Liberal Party at committee in the House of Commons and opposed by the Conservative members.

Senator Baker: You voted for it.

Mr. Van Loan: No, the Conservatives at committee voted against it.

Senator Baker: You voted for it in the House of Commons.

Mr. Van Loan: Only as part of an agreement to have the bill passed to the Senate.

Senator Baker: That is my point.

Mr. Van Loan: We objected. However, it was clear that, without that provision, unless we went along with it, it would not be supported.

Senator Baker: “I had no choice.”


Mr. Van Loan: The Liberals in the Senate disagreed with the Liberals in the House of Commons who reversed their decision and restored the Conservative view of things, so we appreciated that. However, it would have been much easier had that position been worked out in the Liberal caucus in the first place.

And, as a bonus, Senator James Cowan demonstrates the dark yet delicate art of witness cross-examination. (This, incidentally, is an excellent example of why everyone always says that Senate committees are so much more effective than their Commons counterparts.):  

Senator Cowan: Welcome, minister. I want to repeat again the phrase that Senator Moore put to you from your own speech:

We will not support a bill that seeks to force the Prime Minister to make undemocratic appointments to an institution that is not consistent with modern democratic principles.

Do you believe that only elected chambers are democratic?

Mr. Van Loan: I certainly believe that, in the 21st century, the time has come where people want to have a voice in who represents them. I think Canadians —

Senator Cowan: Do you believe that only elected chambers are democratic?

Mr. Van Loan: I believe that the core of democracy is elections, and any legislative body should have a democratic election.

Senator Cowan: The answer is yes?

Mr. Van Loan: Yes.

Senator Cowan: Do you also believe that only democratic institutions, as you describe them, elected institutions, are legitimate?

Mr. Van Loan: We have all kinds of institutions in our society. We have institutions like the court.

Senator Cowan: I am not talking about the court, minister. I am talking about legislative bodies.

Mr. Van Loan: We have a role that our head of state plays, ultimately, with legislation, which I believe is legitimate in our industry.

Senator Cowan: You believe that unless the Senate of Canada, as a legislative body, is elected or selected, that it is neither democratic nor legitimate?

Mr. Van Loan: I think it is certainly not democratic, and it certainly lacks legitimacy that Canadians wish to see in it.

Senator Cowan: You would say that the only way to make a Senate or this Senate legitimate or democratic is to have elected senators?

Mr. Van Loan: There are all kinds of models on how one could do it. I prefer the approach that our government has laid out, where we consult Canadians and ask them who they wish to represent them at a provincial level. There are many ways of going about it. There are many variations on length of term and many variations on rotations of term. Americans have six-year terms and they rotate elections every two years. There are all kinds of different ways of approaching it, but we certainly believe there should be a democratic consultative element in selecting our senators.

Senator Cowan: Without some election, selection and consultation, this Senate is illegitimate and undemocratic; is that your position?

Mr. Van Loan: I do not think it meets the test for legitimacy in the 21st century.

Senator Cowan: Is that your position?

Mr. Van Loan: I do not want to be too critical of a body that is a legitimate part of our history.

Senator Cowan: I realize you do not want to be critical of the Senate.

Mr. Van Loan: We believe that we want it to change.

Senator Cowan: Do you suggest, minister, that you can move from an appointed Senate to some form of elected or selected consultative Senate without a constitutional amendment and without consulting the provinces?

Mr. Van Loan: Of course, the ideal would be a fully formalized process with the kind of consensus that would address issues like representations of the provinces, changes in growth and the representation formula that exists in the Constitution. I think everyone agrees that formula is less than perfect.

Senator Cowan: Minister, I was not talking about the composition of the Senate. I was talking about the method of selecting, electing or consulting senators. I want an answer to the question.

The Chair: Give him a chance to answer.

Mr. Van Loan: These are, of course, all related issues.

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