At the time this article was written Guy
Charbonneau was Speaker of the Senate. This is a revised version of an address
to the Chambre de commerce française au Canada (Section de l'Ontario) in
Toronto on September 12, 1985.
Let me begin with the two most frequently
asked questions. First, does the Senate serve a useful purpose? Second, what
duties do Senators perform?
The Senate is the second legislative
chamber. Any bill of a non financial nature may emanate from the Senate,
however, virtually all bills sponsored by ministers are tabled initially in the
House of Commons and are then referred to the Senate which examines, amends,
polishes or rejects them. This particular phase of activity does not take place
primarily in the Chamber itself. The real discussions take place in the
committee rooms among Senators and expert witnesses. These are serious and low
key, a far cry from the electoral rhetoric and speeches of some partisans.
Until the late sixties, the Senate reworked
approximately twenty percent of the bills emanating from the House of Commons.
In many cases, radical amendments were brought in. Since 1971, the procedure
has been refined somewhat and the role of the Senate has changed considerably.
Paradoxically, this change is inversely proportional to the quality of the
image projected by the institution. Now as soon as a minister tables a major
bill in the House of Commons, we receive a copy of it. We refer the bill
immediately to one of our standing committees which proceeds to examine it.
Some committee members are already experts on the subject being examined but,
not content to rely solely on their innate knowledge, they call upon outside
experts to testify and therefore gain a greater understanding of the bill's
various components. After conducting these rather in-depth reviews, the
committees are in a position to propose substantial amendments to the
sponsoring ministers while the bill is still being debated in the Commons.
Except in very rare instances, the ministers agree to the proposed amendments
and incorporate them into their bills, without ever revealing their origins.
Everything takes place behind the scenes and the Senate gets no credit for the
work it does. Not only does it not get any credit, it has to put up with
criticism as well. Once the amended bills are officially referred to the
Senate, they rapidly pass through the three reading stages. The Senators are
then accused of rubber stamping the legislation.
Why is the public not aware of this
particular constructive aspect of the Senate's work? Simply because debate in
the Senate committees has been replaced by dialogue and discussions among
informed persons. Partisanship is not a major factor. The tone of the
discussion is calm and the nature of the talks is often technical and even scientific.
In short, nothing to interest spectators. I would not be exaggerating if I said
that because of our desire to research subjects so thoroughly, we create a kind
of vacuum around us!
I hasten to add that Senators themselves are
partly to blame for this misconception on the part of the public. We take it
for granted that the quality of our legislative work speaks for itself. While
this may be a noble attitude, it has very limited results. We must find a way
to communicate with the public at large and to make it aware of our standing
and special committees and commissions of inquiry. The Senate carries out
exceptional work and research and Senators deserve more than passing
recognition for their contribution. They deserve a certain amount of
I could cite a long list of bills which have
been amended, usually without mentioning the contribution of the Senate. An
exception was a recent bill respecting the Canadian Security and Intelligence
Service. After we tabled our report, which amounted to a comprehensive analysis
of the proposed legislation, the bill was withdrawn and completely overhauled.
For once, the Senate made the front pages, owing to the timely nature of this
issue which affects individuals and national security.
Before I pat myself on the back too much,
allow me to quote a few others who have recognized that the Senate does change
legislation. According to one journalist "the Senate has been a major
influence in the past, although rarely openly ... The success of the process is
probably due to its low profile. The government ministers invariably took the
Senate amendments and introduced them in the Commons – never once mentioning
where they came from".1 An article by a University of Calgary professor
noted "the questioning by Senate committee members of departmental brass
is generally sharper, better informed and much less partisan than that of House
of Commons' committees."2
Many examples could be given. For example
the tax reform legislation of 1971 was studied by the Senate Banking, Trade and
Commerce Committee. It spent three months examining the preliminary white
paper, received some 443 briefs, heard 118 witnesses, and suggested more than
40 changes in the proposals, almost all of which were embodied by the
government when the bill was introduced. The committee then subjected the bill
itself to the same meticulous scrutiny, for another three months, and
recommended another nine amendments, all adopted by the House of Commons. In
such ways as this, Senators are doing an indispensable job for the taxpayer and
the citizen, in simplifying and clarifying legislation, avoiding unfair and
unworkable provisions, and reducing needless and costly litigation.
I would now like to talk briefly about
investigations. Since the Senate is fortunate enough to boast among its members
experts in a wide range of fields, it is possible for it to carry out in-depth
investigations or inquiries into subjects of interest to the general public.
Since they are already familiar with the subject under investigation, these
Senators know who to ask to testify as expert witnesses and to contribute to
their research so as to produce reports which are both consistent and feasible.
Because we are legislators, we concentrate on getting results from the bills
and on drafting reports. As a result of our investigations, major pieces of
legislation have been drafted and, as I mentioned earlier, new departments have
even been created.
Here are just a few examples of some of the
issues that the Senate has investigated:
- The GATT tariffs following the Kennedy round
- Foreign control of the media
- Canada's fiscal and financial policy
- Fiscal reform
- The agricultural industry
- Direct foreign investment in Canada
- The textile industry
- Trade and antitrust legislation
- Canada's relations with the U.S.
- The revision of the Bank Act
- The northern pipeline
Certain reports stemming from these
investigations have led to the creation of departments such as Industry, Trade
and Commerce and Manpower and Immigration, to the adoption of the Industrial
Research and Development Incentives Act, to the creation of the DREE program
and to the establishment of the Atlantic Development Council, to name only a
Reports by royal commissions of inquiry
often gather dust on the shelf, after costing the state substantial sums of
money. Senate reports, on the other hand, are noted for their reasonable cost
and positive results.
Speaking of money, I would like to touch
briefly on the Senate's budget. The total amount of our budget is a little less
that $27 million, and the percentage it represents of the government budget is
about .000260. The salaries and social benefits for Senators and Senate staff
total just under $20 million. This amount includes security, maintenance and
general services, which would be incurred even if the Senate did not exist.
I also wish to point out that policies of
restraint are being applied in the Senate. During the last fiscal year we kept
our fiscal expenditures to 98.6% of our budget, which means, I believe, that we
were the only department to end the year under budget. This year we went
further: we have budgeted for a 0.28% ( reduction from last year, even after
absorbing a 3.8% statutory increase for salaries, which of course is an
unavoidable increase and our largest expense item.
Appointment to the Senate
Senators are often the target of criticism
because of the manner in which they are appointed. I will not say much about
this age-old problem. Since 1867, efforts have been made to come up with the
ideal alternative, a method which would satisfy those who favour an elected
Senate, those who would prefer a shared federal-provincial system of
appointment and those who want indirect elections, not to mention those who
defend the status quo. It would be easier trying to square the circle than to
resolve this problem from a constitutional standpoint. As I see it, the
important thing is whether the country needs a second chamber and of this I
have no doubt and whether senators satisfy our expectations. This too can and has
In order to carry out its duties and
responsibilities effectively, the Senate must naturally bring together persons
from diverse backgrounds, since the bills referred to it by the House of
Commons touch on many areas. The institution remains faithful to a tradition
dating back to the Greeks and Romans who were in the habit of assigning
important responsibilities to persons called senators who, because of their
vast knowledge of current events, were capable of making sound decisions.
A broad spectrum of professions are
represented in the Senate which is a well spring of valuable knowledge.
Senators may be farmers, businessmen, bankers, journalists, members of the
legal profession, doctors, union officials, teachers and individuals actively involved
in local or regional politics such as ministers, mayors or former MPs.
A Senator has to have sufficient experience
to be able to make enlightened decisions about bills. He must also be prepared
to serve society, to devote sufficient time to the study of questions debated
in the Chamber or in committee. In some cases, this devotion results in a
substantial drop in income. A Senator cannot make a serious commitment to his
work without spending a great deal of time becoming acquainted with national or
regional problems. Consequently, he has less time to devote to his other
profession. Like so many of my colleagues, I embarked on this second career
willingly and I freely accept the restrictions imposed on me.
Speaking personally, I readily admit that I
was appointed to the Senate not only because of my vast experience, but also
because of my involvement within the Conservative party. In a democracy,
political parties act and speak out freely.
The confrontation between parties enables
citizens to make judgements and choices during an election campaign. Conviction
and a sense of public duty prompted me to join a political party nearly thirty
years ago. I was concerned about the problems confronting society and political
commitment appeared to me to be one of the surest ways of finding solutions to
When you combine the experience gleaned from
an active personal career with involvement in many areas of society, you have a
Senator who is in tune with current events and who can contribute effectively
to the smooth running of the state. It would not surprise me if you found this
conviction on my part somewhat presumptuous. I am well aware that the public
does not always hold a high opinion of the position of Senator. People in many
circles, beginning with members of the news media, believe that the Senate is a
kind of early retirement institution or better Vet a reward handed out for
services rendered to the governing party. This is a narrow interpretation of
Insofar as being a reward for fundraisers is
concerned I fail to see why a citizen should be criticized for supporting a
political party. Since political parties have a legitimate right to exist and
are indispensable to the smooth running of a democracy, in what way is it wrong
to supply them with the resources needed to operate? In asking citizens to help
fund the activities of a political party, are we not facilitating at the same
time the process and exercise of democracy? Does anyone seriously believe that
political parties would be able to function without the necessary funding? It
was this belief that led me to devote part of my time to raising funds for my
own party. In doing so, I consider that I acted as a responsible citizen. I do
not see why I should experience the slightest remorse for having obtained
satisfactory results in this area and for having subsequently been appointed to
Upon taking my seat in the Senate, because
of my experience and knowledge of certain specific areas, it was natural for me
to become a spokesman for business groups, small and medium-sized businesses,
financial institutions and industry the job creators, the motors of our
economic life, thanks to whom the Canadian people can enjoy adequate social
measures. As circumstance would have it, I became highly aware of the special
needs of our economy and consequently, of possible political solutions.
We who sit in the Senate are aware of the
imperfections of our own chamber. We would like to see some changes made,
whether it be by amending the Senate rules, by reaching a federal-provincial
consensus or by enacting federal legislation that does not arouse the ire of
the provinces. Significant advances can be made in terms of the method of
appointment, the duration and renewal of mandates, eligibility requirements and
the conditions under which we carry out our duties. We should be dealing with
these areas instead of going on about amending the constitution. The present
method of Senate appointment, which is the sole responsibility of the Prime
Minister, and the permanent nature of Senate positions, although not
specifically provided for in the constitution, no longer conform to a changing
democracy. We are the first ones to request changes so that we can exercise our
powers as co-legislators in an openly democratic chamber.
1. Stephen Hall, Ottawa Week Newsletter,
March 5, 1985
2. Hawley Black, Aerospace Canada
International Magazine, August