Without question, one of the most frequently raised concerns that I hear from citizens of Okanagan-Coquihalla, pertains to the Canadian Senate, and by extension– senators. Recently I have had several requests to write about the Senate in a weekly MP report. Although I have covered this particular topic previously, it has been suggested that some may have missed that report. As this is a topic of concern for many, I have included further information on the subject of our Canadian Senate that I also discussed in February of this year.
The two Senate questions I hear most often are directly related to each other: “Why isn’t the Senate abolished?” and “Why not just stop appointing Senators and get rid of the Senate?”. The answer to these questions is complex as it involves the legal status of the Senate and the obligations of Government to comply with legislation that, in some cases, is well over one hundred years old. The Senate, it should not be forgotten, is part of our Constitution. When the founders of Canadian Confederation created the Senate, they did so by essentially dividing Canada into five different regions: The Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec, Western and “Additional”. Additional includes Newfoundland, Labrador, NWT, Yukon and Nunavut. By design the Senate is not based on a representation by population model as is the House of Commons but rather on the principle of “equal” regional representation where the first four regions each have 24 seats while the “Additional” regions have 9 of the 105 seats in the Senate. All of this was re-affirmed in 1982 with the repatriation of the Constitution and a new constitutional amendment process was adopted.
Consequently the constitutionally mandated Senate representation arrangement means that regions of Canada are legally entitled to the number of seats as defined within the Constitution Act of 1867. To date every Prime Minister elected in Canada’s history has by legal obligation, appointed Senators when vacancies arise, most often created when a Senator reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. In addition, the Prime Minister may, in exceptional circumstances, temporarily appoint 4-8 additional Senators if there is a deadlock that must be broken. One of the challenges to the Senate “equal” representation model is that it conflicts with representation by population. As an example, the current Senate model ensures there are actually 30 Senate seats east of Quebec – that is six more Senate seats than the 24 in all of Western Canada combined. Likewise for Ontario in spite of having a larger population than Quebec, Ontario has the same number of Senate seats as Quebec. This senate imbalance was summarized recently by Justin Trudeau who made the comment that “We have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from B.C.… That’s to our advantage.”. Given that some regions in Canada, from a population perspective, are under-represented compared to others, when it comes to the discussion of Senate abolishment, many in western Canada are strongly in favour while regions of Canada such as Quebec are just as strongly opposed as demonstrated by Mr. Trudeau.
Many constituents are surprised that the legislation to reform the Senate, enabling Provincial elections and establishing for the first time, term limits, have been held up in Provincial courts. In order to be able to move on Senate reform, and rather than wasting years and potentially millions of taxpayer dollars in legal wrangling, our Government has posed a series of six questions to the Supreme Court of Canada requesting a ruling on how the Senate can be legally reformed or abolished in accordance with our Constitution. One of the many questions one on the need to determine if there is a requirement to have a Canadian constitutional debate involving all of the Provinces and Territories. Although many have expressed a desire to see action taken on the Senate, few have expressed interest in opening up a Canadian constitutional debate that could potentially pit different regions of the country against each other at a time when national unity is critical. This will be the first time in over three decades that our Supreme Court will look at the issue of Senate reform and/or abolishment in a review process that will ideally provide more clarity on how action can be taken on our Canadian Senate.
Last week was perhaps one of the most unusual I have yet encountered on Parliament Hill. A bizarre incident occurred late in the week when a national news outlet broke a story that Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the Official Opposition, had failed to stop at a series of stop signs on Parliament Hill with an RCMP cruiser with its lights flashing in pursuit. When Mr. Mulcair finally arrived at his parking stall, it is further alleged he made aggressive comments to the RCMP officer involved. As is often the case, this issue became a large media story and also dominated much of the daily Question Period. The Liberals in turn introduced a motion reminding all Members of the House about the importance of respecting Parliament Hill traffic regulations and thanking the RCMP for enforcing them. The motion was quickly passed by the House with all in favour.
This issue was quickly succeeded by another as the subject arose of Members of Parliament, more specifically Justin Trudeau, and the practice of missing time in the House of Commons while accepting thousands of dollars from charities in order to deliver paid speeches. This has led to many reporters delving into the financial disclosure of all Members of Parliament to probe the extent of Members of Parliament billing charities for work while they are also being paid as MPs. While the subject quickly became the most hotly discussed issue in Ottawa, what was less reported was that Mr. Trudeau has now volunteered to work with organizations that he past billed for speeches in an effort to mitigate any hard feelings and resolve outstanding issues. From my perspective while both of these events received a large amount of media attention once again it must also be pointed out that many important bills that are progressing through Parliament remain largely unreported. This was a concern similar to what I voiced in my report from last week.
Of those items that received little attention, here is the progress of some of the recent Legislation within the House. Bill C-60, the budget implementation bill, has passed third reading. Bill C-62 “The Yale First Nation Final Agreement” has reached third reading in the Senate, Senate Bill S-2 the “Matrimonial Real Property Rights Act” that I have discussed in the past along with Bill S-8 “Safe Drinking Water on First Nations Lands” has now passed third reading in the House of Commons. Bill S-6 “Election and term of Office of First Nations Chiefs” has come before the House as has Bill S-16 “Trafficking in Contraband Tobacco”. One bill that will be up for debate and that I intend to speak to, is Bill C-54 “Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act”. Citizens in Merritt will know the tragedy of three young children who had their lives senselessly taken by an individual who was found to be “Not criminally responsible” for his actions. The family of these children, including their mother, have since discovered that there are many loopholes in this legislation that allow for the family to be continually victimized by an individual whose actions have already caused far too much pain. Bill C54 seeks to take action on many of these long outstanding issues and introduces greater judicial oversight into this process in addition to greater consideration for victims. This is a bill that has been strongly opposed by the Liberals and I expect the debate will be a very involved one. I have heard from many citizens in the community of Merritt who are strongly supportive of this Bill. I will continue to speak in support of this Bill and look forward to voting in favour of it.
Also occurring in the House of Commons this week is private members business that includes Bill C-473 “An Act to amend the Financial Administration Act” and Bill C-452 “An Act to amend the Criminal Code (exploitation and trafficking in persons) will reach report stage. A reminder again from last week’s MP report the excellent website www.openparliament.ca is a great resource for all citizens to keep tabs on legislative events occurring on Parliament Hill. If you have a comment or question on these or any Bill before the House of Commons please contact me toll free at 1-800-665-8711 or via email at email@example.com
As I write this week’s report to you it happens to be tax freedom day. This is the day where your combined tax bill from all levels of Government is considered to be “paid” by the average Canadian and from that point on, any income can go towards paying for expenses, discretionary spending, debt or directed to savings etc. I believe that we should never overlook the fact that it takes roughly half a year to get to this point although the upside is that five years ago it took nearly 7 months to reach tax freedom day. In fact, today the federal tax burden on Canadians is at its lowest level in 50 years. Lowering of the GST rate from 7% to 5% and reducing income taxes are primary reasons for these changes however there have been nearly 150 different types of tax reductions introduced by our Government overall in recent years. In addition over one million low income families, seniors and individuals have been removed from the tax rolls over this same time frame, to directly benefit those most in need.
Ultimately these changes leave more money in your wallet where you can decide best how those funds can benefit you and your family. It is estimated that the burden on the average family today has been reduced by more than $3,000 per year in combined taxes. Often the debate within the House of Commons will focus around how best to grow jobs and the support the Canadian economy and if these objectives are best met through bigger government and more governmental spending or smaller government with taxpayers deciding where to best spend their hard earned money. This is to a large extent an ideological debate and while most agree with the need to balance taxation levels there is again disagreement on where the balance point should be. One point that is not in dispute is that last week Statistics Canada announced over 95,000 net new jobs were created all across Canada in the month of May-the majority being full-time, in the private sector. This was the second largest monthly job gain in Canadian history, and I was also pleased to see that youth employment was also up by over 54,000 jobs- the largest increase in youth employment in roughly thirty years. Since July of 2009 there are now over one million net new jobs in Canada as our job creation record is the best within the G7.
Odds are you may not have heard about Canada’s recent success in new jobs or our progress in moving tax freedom day earlier in the year. I have noted most of the recent media focus has been on a fellow backbench MP resigning from caucus as the principal news story dominating a large segment of our Parliamentary press gallery. Over the same time frame there have also been many important Bills that have moved forward but again are largely unreported as the focus remains on the actions of a few and overlooks the work of many. If I sound somewhat jaded with how some of the Ottawa media cover what we do in Ottawa, it is in large part because I feel the positive work and many accomplishments are constantly ignored or overlooked. This past week I spoke in support of several different private members bills that are important to citizens in Okanagan-Coquihalla. I know from my experience with my own private members bill how much effort and compromise is required to bring a Bill though the House. The fact that so many of these bills are overlooked is disappointing.
Fortunately there is a solution: www.openparliament.ca is a volunteer run website that is the creation and hard work of Mr. Michael Mulley. Open Parliament is an incredible resource and does an outstanding job in compiling what occurs within the House of Commons and presents that information in a very user friendly and informative manner. In short, Open Parliament allows you to “keep tabs” on what occurs in the House of Commons and most importantly it is a very effective tool for citizens to hold their elected Members of Parliament to account. I encourage citizens to visit Open Parliament to hold me to account. Speeches, member statements, voting records and even my twitter feed are aggregated and presented in an easy to follow manner and I encourage citizens to pay a visit to the site. If you have any comments, questions or concerns do not hesitate to contact me toll free at 1- 800-665-8711 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org
In my March 14th MP report I touched on the subject of Canada’s wireless communication industry and the fact that Canadian consumers pay some of the highest wireless communication rates worldwide. In the same report I also covered many of the initiatives that our Government has introduced or is in the process of bringing forward to help stimulate wireless provider competition and improve availability in many markets across Canada. In response to that report I received a number of comments from citizens who were generally encouraged that government is taking a more active role to increase competition and encourage greater access along with more competitive pricing. Following that report I also had a meeting to hear directly from representatives of the Canadian wireless industry who also passed on some information that may be of interest.
According to the Canadian wireless industry roughly 99% of Canada’s population now has access to wireless service that is 3G or faster, in fact there are now more wireless connections in Canada than wired. The largest growing demographic of smartphone users is between 18-34 years old– who make up 74% of all Canadian users. On average traffic on some Canadian wireless networks is growing by 5% per week with over 274 million text messages sent per day. As for the Canadian wireless industry, it now employs more than 261,000 people and contributes in excess of $40 billion annually to the Canadian economy. In terms of investment, nearly $24 billion has been invested in wireless infrastructure over the past decade. It is estimated that by 2014 more people will connect to the internet via a mobile device than a conventional desktop computer. At the same time for users over 55 years of age smartphone use is expected to increase from roughly 17% of the population to close to 30%. Clearly the Canadian wireless industry is a fast growing one involving more and more Canadians of all age groups. It is for these reasons that many might take interest in the newly announced CRTC wireless industry code that will bring new rights to Canadian wireless consumers.
Changes to “The Code” as it is referred to, will include the ability to cancel your contract at no cost after a maximum of two years, the ability to cancel your contract and return your phone at no cost, within 15 days (and specific usage limits), if you are unhappy with the service, to be able to have your phone unlocked after 90 days, or immediately if you paid in full for your phone. Also included is the option to have your service suspended at no cost if your phone is lost or stolen, to receive a notification when you are roaming in a different country, disclosing what the rates are for voice services, text messages, and data usage, to limit your data overage charges to $50 a month and your data roaming charges to $100 a month and to pay no extra charges for a service described as “unlimited”. You may also refuse a change to the key terms and conditions of your contract, including the services in your contract, the price for those services, and the duration of your contract. The above changes in some cases apply differently to pre-paid wireless services and all of the changes do not come into effect until later this year on December 2nd of 2013. If you have further questions or comments on these changes please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Debate in Ottawa this week will include the following Government Bills C-60 “Economic Action Plan 2013” and Bill C-51 “Safer Witnesses Act”. Senate Bills S-2 “Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act” and S-17 “Tax Conventions Implementation Act, 2013” Private Members Bills this week will include Bill C-419 “An Act respecting language skills” and Bill C-478 “Respecting Families of Murdered and Brutalized Persons Act” If you have comments, questions or concerns on these or any Bill before the House of Commons please contact me toll free at 1-800-665-8711 or via email email@example.com
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.