Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Bill—Allotment of Time for Debate

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, Bill C-38 is now in our hands, as many of my colleagues have said. Here we are with the guillotine cutting off debate. I have many concerns about its contents. How could anyone not find mistakes and weaknesses in a 425-page document that is supposed to be a budget implementation bill, which also happens to introduce, amend and repeal more than 70 federal statutes?

Now, we have time allocation. What an “omni-mess.”

One the changes in the bill that is particularly concerning for me is the raising of the age of eligibility for Old Age Security payments from 65 to 67. With 40 per cent of OAS recipients earning less than $20,000 a year, it is easy to see that low-income seniors will be hit hard. For these Canadians, OAS represents either the only income or a significant portion of the income that they will live on the rest of their lives. We need more than the six hours to debate this issue alone.

As though this is not disturbing enough, honourable senators, let us consider the reasons that the government has provided for this and other changes to the program. The Prime Minister insists that they are necessary to ensure the financial sustainability of OAS. Citing statistics from the country’s Chief Actuary about the aging of the baby boomer population, he extrapolates, saying that we have a crisis at hand. He says that our public pension system cannot possibly accommodate future retirees and it is unsustainable in its current form.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Budget Officer opposes this argument head on. According to Kevin Page, the OAS program is well equipped to meet the increasing demands of the aging population. The Chief Actuary, who regularly monitors the state of the program and its preparedness for the growing number of Canadian seniors, is also unconcerned about its sustainability.

From where I stand, I am inclined to think that the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the country’s Chief Actuary know better than the Prime Minister. I am likewise of the opinion that Mr. Harper’s fear-mongering is a tactic within a broader strategy to impose a conservative ideology on the pillars of our social safety net and the country at large.

I was here as a reporter some time ago when a wonderful woman came onto the Hill and told one Prime Minister, “Goodbye, Charlie Brown.” This Prime Minister may yet have his own “Goodbye, Charlie Brown” moment.

Honourable senators, I am one person, one parliamentarian among hundreds on the Hill. My perspectives, insights and inclinations are distinct, and my freedom to express them in this chamber is both my right and my duty to the people of this country. I do not expect all honourable senators to unanimously agree with what I have to say. I do not want that. Instead, I simply want my voice to be part of discussions and debates with anyone here who chooses to share his or her point of view, and I want time to do it. This is what a democracy is and this is how we arrive at decisions in good conscience, decisions that best reflect the interests and needs of Canadians.

It has been said that the Conservative government is a majority government, so we all know that the bills that it wants passed will be passed. This certainty, however, is not sufficient for the government. It has to go further — too far — and invoke one motion after another for time allocation on debates over its bills.

Senator Cowan has provided public assurance that Bill C-38 will be passed without delay, but the Conservatives nevertheless have gone ahead anyway and invoked a motion for time allocation, and there will certainly be more before the bill leaves the Senate.

I have asked myself why, as have many of you, I am sure. However, looking for motives and reasons is hardly the path of enlightenment. It is the style and modus operandi of our government to bully and bulldoze through the legislative process. It is simply an abuse of Parliament.

The only productive response to the government’s disregard for democracy is to highlight its impact, to try to make one another, and Canadians too, care about what is at stake.

In an opinion piece titled “Unleash our political process!” published in The Globe and Mail in 2002, Chuck Strahl and a man named Stephen Harper had this to say about Jean Chrétien’s parliamentary practices:

More than any other government in Canadian history, the Chrétien government has used time allocation and closure routinely and cavalierly to shut down debate. Private members’ business is supposedly outside of the control of the PMO, but cabinet and caucus have used procedural chicanery in the House, Senate and standing committees to postpone, eviscerate and hijack the efforts of individual MPs.

Is it not compelling that the same man who wrote this is leading a government that has the all-time record for use of time allocation? Within the current parliamentary session, this government has invoked 23 time allocations and closure motions. Bizarre, ironic, possibly even deceptive, but what is the point of labelling these actions and defining motives? Again, what matters is the impact: the erosion of Canadian values and democracy and the falling way of public trust in our parliamentary system.

This week alone, I received emails from individuals with serious concerns about the direction of the Conservative government and the fact that those who really know about the issues are denied the opportunity to speak.

In response to cuts in Parks Canada, for example, and a leak to the media of a letter threatening — which is not unusual — the department’s employees against criticizing the government, a man from Ontario wrote me concerning restrictions on public information about preservation of local and global ecosystems. He argued that communicating with and engaging the public should be in the hands of scientists, park rangers and directors and environmentalists rather than these anonymous spokespeople selected and approved by the government. He also stressed, quite rightly, my responsibility to keep in mind and act in respect to public opinion and the well-being of the country.

In another email, a woman from Nova Scotia described the worries she and her family share about the lack of clarity and the number of non-financial changes in Bill C-38. She believes that neither Parliament nor the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been properly involved, which she says is “in no fair way to the institution of Parliament and Canadians.” She also charges the Harper government with keeping people in the dark about changes to laws and acts. In her own words, “. . . we are concerned about what is happening to the country we all love so much.”

I have also been thinking too about why it is always called the Harper government. Are you not Conservatives? Is it not the Conservative government? A person called me yesterday about how on all the papers and all the documents it is “the Harper government.” Why one person? I thought you were a party. I thought it was the Conservative government.

Canadians reach out to parliamentarians with a mix of trust and hope. In both of those emails and several others I have received this parliamentary session, there is a common request that, as a senator, I carry out my responsibility to scrutinize bills and ensure they undergo due process.

Subjected to a time allocation, we are each of us being hindered from thoroughly fulfilling a crucial pact with those we are here to serve, Canadians. Debate is one of our essential roles, and procedures should not be used to stifle that role. In the words of John Diefenbaker, “Parliament is more than procedure — it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.”

The government is aware of the harmful impact of restricting debate on democracy. A decade ago, as I mentioned, Stephen Harper described this as an abuse of power, and he opposed it. He knows full well what he is doing. After all, it is not a Conservative government; it is the Harper government. To know it and still carry through with it again and again portrays an utter disregard for Canadians, for democracy and for the wisdom and progress that can be realized from a free exchange of ideas.

It is time we acknowledge what is happening and do something about it. If Conservative MPs and senators are just going to continue humiliating themselves by saying only what their leader tells them to do, then that is their problem. At least, it eventually will be their problem. Conscience has a way of tracking us all down.

Frustration has a way of eventually forcing us to accept things for what they are. As much as I believe that cooperation is best, I am not seeing the merits of this, not at this point, after months of witnessing the Conservatives running around with this time allocation.

I see my time is up, but today we Liberal senators are pushing back. I hope that in the not-too-distant future Canadians will look at this record and recognize our decision to push back as the beginning of the end of Stephen Harper’s reign and the beginning of the return to a parliamentary system that functions as it should, democratically in the interests of the people we serve.