August 10, 2011 · 4:43 PM

MP Russ Hiebert introduces Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform, to participants in a town-hall meeting in White Rock last week. / Alex Browne photo

Democratic reform of the Canadian system of government, and particularly the Senate, has been under debate – as Russ Hiebert himself points out – for more than 120 years.

But the South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale Conservative MP and Tim Uppal, federal minister of state for democratic reform, spent only an hour chatting about it with close to 50 constituents – most of them seniors – at a town-hall meeting Friday at the White Rock Community Centre.

Hiebert said following the meeting that he felt that was the right length of time for the audience.

“I could see people’s eyes glazing over,” he said, noting the competition the afternoon meeting had from the long-awaited arrival of summer weather on the Peninsula.

Uppal (Edmonton-Sherwood Park), whom Hiebert introduced as a family friend, had a simple message to deliver.

“The fact that the prime minister has appointed a minister of state for democratic reform shows that it’s a significant priority for this government,” he said.

Uppal said a significant gain for democracy in Canada has been the federal Acountability Act which has, he said “taken the big money out of elections” by limiting the amount corporations, unions and associations can contribute to to campaigns.

Most significant of all, Uppal said, is the Senate Reform Act introduced on June 21, which would establish election of senators and limit service to a nine-year, non-renewable term for all senators appointed after 2008.

Senators can currently serve a term of up to 45 years, under rules that establish that they can be appointed at age 30 and can serve until they are 75 – which is already a reform of the original lifetime term, Uppal noted.

“Lifetime terms don’t make sense in a 21st century democracy,” he said, adding that a nine-year cycle of terms would lead to regular renewal of the senate.

Uppal also noted that polls have found two-thirds of Canadians support election of senate nominees, which would be a means for ensuring more representation for the West.

But he said the democratic process for putting forward senate nominees won’t happen until the provinces – and their political parties – create a legal framework for it.

He cited Chilliwack MLA John Les’ private member’s bill proposing a Senate Nominee Election Act, introduced in early June, as an example of the provincial legislation that needs to take place.

The town-hall meeting received mixed reviews from attendees, some of whom expressed disappointment that senate reforms didn’t go further – to which Uppal and Hiebert responded that a start has to be made somewhere.

Among those critical was Brian Marlatt, Progressive Canadian Party candidate in the previous three federal elections.

Marlatt, who served as a policy advisor on a regional and national level for the Progressive Conservative party, said what the current Conservative government is proposing amounts to breaking campaign promises by “opening up the Canadian Constitution.”

An elected senate driven by provincial interests, he said, would politicize what was always intended as a sober court of second opinion.

“I wonder if this is not inverting the Canadian federal principle. The BNA Act created Canada federally as one dominion,” Marlatt said after the meeting. “The key principle here is that we’re members of one family – not the United States of Canada.”

White Rock resident Roderick Louis also questioned the effectiveness of such town-hall meetings in addressing the issue, adding he favours the formation of a Royal Commission on Senate Reform.

“This is a shotgun approach being taken by the federal government in terms of informing the public,” he said. “We had around 40 people here out of a 1.5 million population in the Lower Mainland.

“Now Mr. Uppal will go back to Ottawa to report on public views of Senate reform – after talking to 40 people.”