Hon. Serge Joyal:
Honourable senators, I want to propose some reflection before Bill C-29 is sent to committee. I understand that the bill will go to second reading and be sent to committee tomorrow for further discussion.
I have some reflections to share with you because this is a very serious bill. It is a bill to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament in March 2016.
The first point I want to submit to you is: Were we founded constitutionally to amend a budget bill of the nature of Bill C-29? That’s the first question, before we think of amending that bill, following the interventions yesterday of Senators Massicotte and Pratte and the comment made by Senator Day; I think Senator Smith also spoke on that issue.
My answer to this question is: yes, we can make amendments. The Senate can amend, constitutionally, an act to implement budget measures. This chamber has done it twice, in fact, and it did so in 1993 in a disposition of the budget at that time that was to implement provisions reducing the number of government agencies by eliminating and amalgamating others. I’m looking at Senator Tkachuk on the other side who was appointed in 1993.
It was a famous debate in the chamber whereby the budget of the Mulroney government of the day wanted to merge the Canada Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The argument was to reduce the administrative costs of the agencies by merging those two into one.
The issue was sent to the Finance Committee — the committee was chaired by Senator Finlay MacDonald, a Tory senator — and the committee came back to this chamber with the recommendation that this chamber not proceed with the merger because the two agencies have different mandates and should operate distinctly from one another.
There was a vote and Tory senators voted in support of the report. You didn’t vote, Senator Tkachuk, but the majority of Tory senators voted in support of the recommendation of the committee, and this portion of the legislation was deleted. I repeat: Because we discussed independence in this chamber in those days; you know partisanship? Well, this happened with the support of the Tory majority at that time in the chamber. I think it is very important to be reminded of that.
Then there is another precedent I want to submit to you: the Pearson Airport precedent. Maybe it rings a bell in the minds of some of you. Mr. Chrétien had campaigned, as leader of the Liberal Party, that he would rescind the contract of Pearson Airport. That was an electoral promise. You remember what you have been told: never stand in the path of an electoral promise made by a government when the electorate has sanctioned the authorization to do that.
Well, guess what happened? The bill that nullified the Pearson contract contained a disposition preventing the company from suing to get additional damages other than those provided in the act. The Tory majority, of course, voted against the measure, but some Liberal senators voted with the Tory majority, like former Senator Sparrow. It was a tie and the act was defeated according to our Rules as provided in the Constitution. I repeat: an electoral promise in a piece of legislation that was used to deprive a corporation of its right to go to court.
What does this bill that we will be studying next week do? This bill said the banks will have a special kind of system to protect the consumer, but that system will be less strong than what Canadian consumers enjoy now. What Canadian consumers enjoy now, with regard to the banks, is the right to go to an administrative tribunal to seek redress.
Well, this bill removes that. It deprives Canadians from real recourse to go to court or a quasi-judicial system to protect their rights. Instead, Canadians will go to an ombudsman. I’m looking to my friend, Senator Maltais. The ombudsman was a creation of the 1970s. You remember the first ombudsman, borrowed from the Scandinavian countries. An ombudsman studied a case and made recommendations, but the recommendations were not enforceable. It is as good as the will of those who have the power to give effect, or not. An ombudsman cannot order compensation or damages, either. Well, now, under the various provincial consumer protection acts, consumers can go and have their day in court and get damages.
This bill will deprive Canadians who deal with banks of their right to due process and to seek redress in cases whereby the court would come to the right conclusion. I submit that to you before you embark on the study of Bill C-29. This is a very serious subject.
As we have said, this is an omnibus bill, because this section of the budget has nothing to do with increasing or reducing taxes or voting for additional money for this or that, which we just debated in Bill C-2 with Senator Mockler.
Those provisions deal essentially with the kind of protections that Canadian consumers addressing themselves to banks have under Canadian law. That’s essentially the question. That has nothing to do with the supplementary budget that we have here.
That’s why what Senator Ringuette introduced earlier on in the sitting today is an important issue to study. Now, what we would do is exclude the protections that Canadians have, and we would give the banks a free ride to do whatever they want regarding the protection of their customers. Meanwhile, we are going to go study them, after that: ex post facto.
I won’t be there tomorrow when that will be referred to committee, but my suggestion to you, honourable senators, is to delete that portion of the budget estimate. It has nothing to do with the appropriation of funds. It won’t reduce by one cent the money needed to fulfill the responsibility of the federal government.
On the other hand, adopting Senator Ringuette’s motion would allow us to study this issue and come up with a reasonable proposal. That’s why I think that with Bill C-29 we are at a very important crossroads of our responsibility. We have the right to do it. There are precedents, and we have done so across party lines before, in 1993 and in 1996.
Besides that, in depriving Canadians of a legal protection that they have when they deal with a bank, we know about the power of the bank in this country. Fortunately they didn’t merge. I say that because I co-chaired the special report to prevent the merger of the banks.
Ask yourself what would have happened in those days if the banks had been merged in 2008 during the financial crisis. Just imagine. Fortunately we kept the banks within the legal framework that has maintained the sanity of our banking system in Canada.
Honourable senators, I submit to you that by approving this section without the study and debate that Senator Ringuette is proposing, we are not really acting with due respect for our responsibility to bring sober second thought to this issue. It would not prevent the banks from selling their services tomorrow. It won’t change the prevailing situation of today. It won’t change the government’s income, but at least we will have due regard for our responsibility. If we change the system it would be for the best; it won’t be for reducing the kinds of protections that customers now have and can access in the present context of the legislation.
Honourable senators, that’s the only thing I want to submit to you. We have days ahead of us. We know we have to adopt this bill before the adjournment. I think the wise approach is to stand that clause of the bill, refer it to Senator Ringuette’s motion and the committee, as ably chaired by Senator Smith and Senator Day with their experience, and move forward with the adoption of the rest of the bill.
Thank you, honourable senators.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.