One of my favourite days of the year is Canada Day. For an elected official it provides a unique opportunity to engage with many citizens from many corners of Okanagan-Coquihalla and hear about the many things most loved about our country and also to receive questions and concerns. One question that I heard from many citizens this year is, “Why don’t we abolish the Senate?” It is an excellent question.
The short answer to this question is in large part because the Senate is part of our Constitution and a constitution, by its design, is inherently difficult to change. In fact one well respected constitutional law professor recently observed that Canada’s constitution may be one of the most challenging to amend in the world. Fortunately, one of the roles of our Supreme Court is to respond to questions of law or fact concerning the interpretation of our Constitution. In February of 2013 our Government posed a number of questions to the Supreme Court including how the Senate might be lawfully reformed or abolished. In 2014 the Supreme Court responded to these questions.
How did the Supreme Court rule? In essence the Senate cannot be reformed or abolished without unanimous support by both chambers of Parliament, as well as all Provincial and Territorial Legislative Assemblies giving their consent to do so. This is obviously a much higher threshold than the general amendment formula sometimes referred in constitutional circles as 7/50- requiring at least the approval of seven Provinces representing at least half of the Canadian population. Unanimous support may seem to some to be an achievable outcome, more so here in Western Canada where the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have recently stated support for Senate abolishment and it is likely the new Alberta government may take a similar position. The BC Government has also indicated it is open to exploring all options. However further east Quebec has firmly opposed Senate abolition as have some of the Maritime Provinces including PEI and Nova Scotia. This is not surprising given that east of Quebec there are a total of 30 Senators compared to 24 Senators for all of Western Canada.
The challenge in abolishing the Senate is that it will require a full Canadian constitutional debate involving Parliament and all of the Provinces and Territories that will also run the risk of being divisive as it would pit different regions of the country against each other. This would also come at a time where Canada has many other important priorities that cannot be ignored. Closing the gap that exists in many first nations communities, continuing to build infrastructure, supporting jobs and our local economies are a few topics that come to mind of national importance. My intent is by no means to defend the Senate but rather to provide context as to some of the constitutional challenges that exist with respect to abolition or reform.
While on the topic of the Senate last week the Red Chamber (as it is sometimes referred to) was in session to debate and pass a number of Bills that have now received Royal Assent. However as mentioned in my May 13th MP report a number of Bills between the House of Commons and the Senate were not passed. One of these bills was C-518 from my Conservative colleague MP John Williamson. Bill C-518 proposed a mechanism that Members of Parliament and Senators convicted of serious crimes would no longer be entitled to collect a generous taxpayer provided Parliamentary pension and related benefits. This bill was supported by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and all local citizens that I heard from. This was a bill I voted for and spoke in support of and was disappointed it did not pass in this 41st Parliament. As the House is now adjourned I encourage citizens to contact me via email at [email protected] or call toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.
Although it has been reported that the 41st Parliament is now dissolved, technically the House stands adjourned and is set to reconvene in September, however as the election writ is expected to be dropped prior it is widely expected that this 41st Parliament will not sit again. The end of any legislative session is always a busy time in the scramble to see Bills passed from the House of Commons to make it into the Senate hopefully to make it through the upper chamber for Royal Assent.
This was a process I went through with my private member’s Bill C-311 on wine importation back in June of 2012 and was also a process that my colleague MP Michael Chong went through late last week with his private members bill on democratic reform. As many may recall the Reform Act of 2014 is one I have supported in Parliament and referenced in a few previous MP reports. It is also a Bill that has just received Royal Assent and is now law. I would like to thank the many citizens who took the time to communicate with me on that particular bill as well as others. On a similar theme this week I was also pleased to learn that the Province of Nova Scotia has now joined the “Free My Grapes” initiative and will also now be allowing direct to consumer shipping of BC wine to citizens in Nova Scotia and conversely BC residents can order some of the excellent wines of Nova Scotia. It is rewarding that four Canadian Provinces are now supporting the free trade of Canadian wine with potentially more to follow. On that note I would also like to recognize the BC Government who continues to work towards the removal of inter-provincial trade barriers in support of our local economies.
Near the conclusion of the 41st Parliament I had an opportunity to thank the many outgoing Parliamentarians and House of Commons staff who have worked very long hours away from family during the operations of the House over the past four years. On the same note I would also like to wish a happy retirement to Southern Interior Member of Parliament Alex Atamanenko. MP Atamanenko represented a large and diverse riding and has worked hard over the past nine years in Ottawa. I know that Mr. Atamanenko’s friendly demeanour and sincere advocacy on issues will be warmly remembered by many of his constituents.
By the numbers the 41st Parliament was a productive one with the passing of roughly 117 Government Bills, 44 other private Bills and 30 motions from Private Members, all over the past four years. It has been reported that no other Parliament in the past two decades has had as much legislation pass through the House of Commons. The past four years have also witnessed two different leaders of the official opposition due to the untimely passing of former NDP leader Jack Layton as well as two Liberal leaders, once an interim leader was replaced with Mr. Trudeau. This Parliament was also described as one of the youngest when first elected and of course also the first with the NDP as the official opposition party as the Liberals were the third party in the House. In October of 2014 an armed assailant attacked the House of Common before being killed by security officers. This disturbing event was not actually the first of its kind. In 1966 an assailant blew himself up in a Centre Block bathroom while prepping a bomb. Overall the 41st Parliament has been through a number of events that has also included some all night sittings, extended hours, filibusters and of course exchanges of colorful and at times interesting language.
In roughly four months time Canadians will again head to the polls to elect Canada’s 42nd Parliament. What the composition and structure of that Parliament will be like is up for Canadians to decide and that is one of the true privileges of living in a democracy.
With the House now adjourned I am available for meetings and welcome your phone calls. I can be reached via email at [email protected] or toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.
Now retired Speaker of the BC Legislature and local MLA Bill Barisoff once commented that the wheels of government often turn slowly but they do continue to turn. It was over a year ago in one of my April 2014 MP reports that I first referenced the serious concern of aquatic invasive species here in the Okanagan and in particular the need to take action on invasive freshwater mussels. This was an issue that was raised by the Okanagan Basin Water Board, various local government elected officials and also citizens within Okanagan-Coquihalla. Since that time I have been actively working on this issue in Ottawa in the hopes that invasive species regulations that help to address this important situation would be introduced and become legally enforceable.
In December of 2014 I sent out a news release to local media encouraged over the announcement of proposed invasive species regulations that had at that time just been publicly introduced. These proposed Canada wide regulations had been announced by my Kelowna Lake Country colleague MP Ron Cannan and I on behalf of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea, along with other important stake holders in attendance. From that point the proposed regulations undergo a formal review process until they are released in the Canada Gazette, when they become legally enforceable. While it is understandable this review process would take time, once May and now June has arrived, so does boating season on many of BC’s freshwater lakes. The need for the regulations to be in force is time sensitive and an important measure towards prevention. For the past month this has been one of my priority tasks in Ottawa and it is without haste that I can now announce that as you read this week’s MP report our new invasive species regulations have been published in Canada’s Gazette and are now in force.
It is important to recognize that this is one of many steps required to protect British Columbia freshwater lakes; however all steps can and will make a difference. From my perspective it is also important that I make clear as a Member of Parliament the concerns I take forward to Ottawa are those that are raised here in the riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla. On that note I would like to recognize West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater, chair of the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) and the rest of the OBWB staff and directors along with many citizens who expressed concern on this issue. While there is more work to be done it is rewarding to have these new regulations in place in spite of nearly fourteen months elapsing since my first report on this subject in 2014. My thanks to all who worked hard to raise concern on this important issue.
This is also the last full week the House of Commons will be in session with only a few sitting days expected for next week. Later this week the Board of Internal Economy will also release the annual publishing of the members’ expenditures report for 2014‑2015. This is important information for taxpayers as it relates to the annual spending of Members of Parliament. As with previous years I will use this and other information to release my 4th annual accountability report in the near future and will welcome your scrutiny. If you have any comments or questions on matter before the House of Commons I can be reached via email at [email protected] or toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.
Although there are a number of events occurring in Ottawa this week, the issue that is dominating most of the media spotlight is the recently released audit of the Senate from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG). This audit of the Senate covered the fiscal periods of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, reviewed $186 million in spending contained in roughly 80,000 expense items involving 116 sitting and recently retired Senators.
The findings? Of the $186 million reviewed in the AG Senate Audit approximately $975,000 has been identified as either questionable or spent in a manner that is not in accordance with Senate rules. This questionable spending involves 30 of the 116 Senators audited; 21 of the 30 Senators have been publicly listed in the OAG Senate audit while the remaining 9 of these 30 Senators, also publicly named, have been referred to law enforcement for further investigation.
The OAG Senate audit also provided an opportunity for Senators identified in the audit to respond to the expense claims that have been referenced in addition there is also Senate created process that involves dispute resolution where there is disagreement. The Senate expense resolution process will be led by retired Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie. While it is not possible in the space of this column to list all of the Senator responses to the audit to date some Senators have admitted error in certain cases and made repayments while other claims are in dispute.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson has also made observations and recommendations regarding the Senate audit that include concerns over a lack of accountability and transparency and that in many areas Senators can make decisions that are more economical for taxpayers. In total the AG has called for a transformational change in how expenses are administered and the need to do so in a more accountable and transparent manner.
My thoughts? I have long been a supporter of increased transparency and accountability. This is why I make a point of publishing an annual accountability report that includes many items either not normally publicly disclosed or not easily located. To date my annual accountability reports have been well received and I encourage all elected officials to find ways to share similar information. Once concerning aspect of the Senate audit is that while just under $1 million in potentially questionable spending has been identified, the cost of this particular OAG Audit of the Senate is currently listed as $23.6 million. While I continue to fully support increased accountability and transparency it is also important for cost effective solutions to be identified. Canadians deserve a process that creates confidence in how your tax dollars are spent with regard to expenses of elected Members of Parliament and un-elected Senators.
It is also important to recognize that while some have promoted the idea of eliminating or de-funding the Senate, this could not be achieved without a national constitutional consensus among all of our Canadian Provinces and Territories. For more information on the Canadian Senate please see my February 26, 2013 MP report. For more information on the OAG Senate Audit or any matter before the House of Commons please contact me [email protected] or call toll free at 1-800-665-8711.
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