Debates of Feb. 21st, 1994
House of Commons Hansard #26 of the 35th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was petitions.
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February 21st, 1994 / 11 a.m.
Today, as I speak, over a million of our fellow Canadian citizens are watching these proceedings. In that we have been attempting since 1920 to change the format of our prayer a bit, I thought perhaps today we could agree to share in public with our fellow Canadian citizens what we do in private.
With your permission, colleagues, I am going to read the prayers in both English and French. Then I would ask you to observe a moment of quiet meditation, to pray in your own personal way or simply to think of what you will. Is there agreement?
Some hon. members
Almighty God, we give thanks for the great blessings which have been bestowed on Canada and its citizens, including the gifts of freedom, opportunity and peace that we enjoy. We pray for our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and the Governor General. Guide us in our deliberations as members of Parliament, and strengthen us in our awareness of our duties and responsibilities as members. Grant us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions.
Dieu tout-puissant, nous te remercions des nombreuses grâces que tu as accordées au Canada et à ses citoyens, dont la liberté, les possibilités d'épanouissement et la paix. Nous te prions pour notre Souveraine, la Reine Élizabeth, et le Gouverneur général. Guide-nous dans nos délibérations à titre de députés et aide-nous à bien prendre conscience de nos devoirs et responsabilités. Accordons-nous la sagesse, les connaissances et la compréhension qui nous permettrons de préserver les faveurs dont jouit notre pays afin que tous puissent en profiter, ainsi que de faire de bonnes lois et prendre de sages décisions.
We will now have a moment of silence for private reflection and meditation.
Ian McClelland Edmonton Southwest, AB
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of amending the Standing Orders to put in place a procedure whereby, at least once during a session, petitions presented during that session are considered by the elected representatives of Canadians, and may be the subject matter of debate and brought to a vote at the end of the debate, such as for example:
(a) the subject matter of the petition prohibiting the importation, distribution, sale and manufacture of "serial killer cards",
(b) the subject matter of the petition requesting changes to the Young Offenders Act to make it more difficult for dangerous young offenders to be released, such as the petition presented in memory of the late Rosalynn Dupuis, and
(c) a petition which will be presented requesting the government to bring forward a bill which would make recall of members of the House of Commons a part of the law.
Mr. Speaker, it is with a great deal of pleasure that I rise on this very historic day. As the viewers have seen and as we in the House have experienced, this is the first change to our prayers in almost 120 years. This would indicate to all of us that while things may change slowly they can and they do indeed change.
I am very pleased to speak to the motion. As I speak today and as we consider the motion we should think of the underlying philosophy upon which it is based. It is part of a greater ideal of ensuring Canadians a continuing role or place in the debates of the nation through the use of working toward more direct democracy and the participation of citizens in the national political life of our nation.
The right of citizens to be heard and the right of citizens to be recognized and to receive action are fundamental to any nation or any parliament that wishes to strengthen its democratic conditions.
Petitions are an effective means of providing Canadians a greater role in setting the national agenda. The use of petitions is one of the oldest forms of allowing citizens a form of redress, dating back to the days of King Edward in the 13th century. It is through the presentation of petitions that the introduction of legislation by bills came about. Petitions are the planted seed from which our parliamentary traditions sprouted. Therefore their significance should not be ignored.
I am not the first person to stand in the House in recent years to speak to the veracity of petitions. I will quote from Hansard , June 1, 1983. Stan Schellenberger, the member for Wetaskiwin at the time, presented a private member's bill. In support of that bill he said the following:
The practice of putting petitions to a legislative body is not new. It has been happening for hundreds of years. We have brought from the mother Parliament in Great Britain to this institution the practice of presenting petitions to Parliament. From the beginning, the presentation of petitions was allowed by Parliament as a means for ordinary citizens to bring their grievance to the attention of the House of Commons.
It is a method by which ordinary citizens can bring their grievances, concerns and issues to the House of Commons, to the Parliament of Canada. It is not just a safety valve that we can accept petitions, many with thousands of signatures and many with hundreds of thousands of signatures, reject them and then forget them. It is not just a means of allowing the citizens to let off steam so they do not explode. It is a means whereby the citizens of the country are able to establish a direct link with members of Parliament on an issue by issue, day to day basis.
I have a further quote from Mr. Schellenberger as reported in the same 1983 edition of Hansard :
-it is only in recent years that nothing has happened to petitions. Petitions are brought to the House by a Member of Parliament, are read to the Speaker and the Clerk who then deal with those petitions, and the next day they are either found to be in order or not. They then disappear in a room somewhere in the House of Commons.
They are never to be seen again. He continued:
That is not entirely the case, but it is pretty close.
This was 10 years ago when another member of the House was speaking to petitions. This matter has come and gone and come and gone. The reason we are addressing it today is that we hope Parliament, with a new and fresh face, will pay much more attention to the fact that petitions are a meaningful exercise by which citizens participate in the democratic traditions of the country. He continued:
For example, on the issue of capital punishment, many citizens of our nation believe this institution is not representing the wishes of the majority of the nation-
Regardless of whether we believe in capital punishment individually, do our laws represent the will of the nation? He went on:
-and their only means of bringing that to the attention of the House is through the presentation of petitions or Private Members' Bills. Neither of these two methods has been very successful in bringing about a change in the past, but at least the opportunity is there to bring a grievance forward.
I draw the attention of members to the fact that in 1981 Stan Schellenberger brought forward a private member's bill on petitions. We do have a fair amount of the groundwork already done.
In petitions we are talking about a much broader issue, of whether democracy is chained to tradition or whether it is anchored securely to the past or whether it is a living, breathing ideal that adapts to the changing times.
Very often whenever the concept of recall or a citizen's initiative or a referendum passes anyone's lips the retort that is heard is always Edmund Burke and his famous letter to the voters of Bristol. It is always said that members are elected to serve their constituents and if they do not like the way the member serves them, they can turf him or her out at the end of the session. In fact after Edmund Burke wrote that famous letter to the voters of Bristol in 1779, in the subsequent general election he was turfed.
His letter was in response to his constituents because they believed that the captured American revolutionary sailors were pirates. They would be brought to England and after about three years or so given a fair trial and hanged. He did not think this was right. Edmund Burke's position was that the American sailors should be treated as prisoners of war, tried by their peers and given a swift and fair trial under British tradition.
His compatriot at the time, Thomas Payne, broke with Edmund Burke on the basic philosophy that Edmund Burke was chained to tradition and to the past and he had made a virtue out of the fact that he was pledging himself in perpetuity in fidelity to the crown, to the Magna Carta, and that because the crown had given rights to the people, and in turn had pledged certain requirements to the crown, that these would follow through forever. Therefore Edmund Burke's understanding of democracy is built purely on tradition.
Thomas Payne was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and advised him in drafting the American declarations. His contention was that democracy lives and breathes in changes. In his book The Rights of Man , he wrote words to this effect: Every generation has the right and the responsibility to govern for its time and should not chain future generations to decisions of
today than past generations have the right to chain today's generation to their decisions.
It is a very important consideration. He also wrote the phrase that many people will recognize: "The greatest tyranny of all is the presumption of ruling beyond the grave". When we talk about how we should change or should we change the way our Parliament works, the way we as a Parliament relate to the citizens of Canada, and whether empowering citizens is a good thing or a bad thing, it depends whether we have confidence in the choice that our voters made in getting us here in the first place.
We have to understand that we are not in 16th century or 12th century Britain. We live in a completely different world. We can focus the attention of every single person in this country on a single instance. Everybody understands now. Everybody can remember what they were doing at great moments in our history.
The example that always comes up is Ben Johnson. Everyone remembers when he won the hundred yard dash. Everybody in the country knew about it and was aware of it. If this were 16th century Europe it might take 30 years for the information to get around, but we knew it all around the world at the same instant in time.
We have to allow our democratic traditions to evolve and to change so they reflect the way communication works. We have a citizenry that is far more aware of what is going on and far more capable of being a part in providing a valid role in the daily organization and governance of our country. That is why petitions should be given the honour and diligence they deserve. Petitions are a constitutional right of Canadians and are an effective means, in principle, of putting forward concerns, opinions and perceived problems.
Although Canadians may use petitions as a means of putting their thoughts forward to Parliament, the use of petitions by citizens is in decline. The reasons should be examined. If the use of petitions is in decline, why do members suppose that is? It has to be because people do not believe it makes any difference. If a group circulates a petition until it gets a million signatures on it, if they work day and night, spend untold hours at it, it comes in here, is read to the House and then disappears, does that not feed the cynicism that all parliamentarians feel the citizens in common hold toward the institution of government?
If we are to build this bridge, this strength and this tie between the people who must go through some pretty difficult times because we are eventually going to have to live within our means, then the leadership to do so has to come from this House. It has to come from the fact that we as members of Parliament honour, respect and pay attention to the citizens of Canada whether we agree with what they say or not.
The voters whom we represent expect us to use our wisdom and our intelligence but they do not expect it to be a one way street. They expect it to be a two way street. They do not expect every single issue that comes before the people to be referred to referendum or to petition but they do expect us to listen and to pay attention to whatever they have to say and not just at election time.
Not everything we do or say can be envisioned ahead of time. However, we must give members credit, a lot of it is in the red book. But there are a lot of things that the government did not envision. It had no way of knowing they would have happened, could not have prepared for it so it could not be part of the mandate that gets any of us elected into the House. Therefore we have to be prepared between elections to listen and respond to what our citizens have to say.
The decline or the apathy in the use of petitions by Canadians is a symptom of a much bigger problem. It is the neglect of petitions by elected representatives. It is a microcosm of the alienation electors feel toward the political system.
At times between elections issues arise that were not dealt with during the campaign, as I said a little earlier. It is during these periods that citizens need the ability to put forward their opinions to the government. Democracy needs to be a two way street and petitions allow this exchange to take place with great effect.
Although in principle petitions seem a valuable way for Canadians to address their government and an effective means for government to gauge the mood of the nation, petitions have been pushed aside in recent years, their value left untapped. Therefore we cannot blame Canadians for becoming cynical with government when every time, time after time, they see their protests ignored. The neglect of petitions by legislatures leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of all those who demand a bigger stake in the democratic process. The formulation of a petition is guided by many rules and procedures and it is a painstaking process for organizers.
We have received a petition with well over a million signatures. Imagine the amount of effort that has to go into it and it should not be taken lightly. The fact that the government is able to dismiss a petition regardless of the number of signatures or the importance of the issue with a blanket response is really a slap in the face for both the signators and for democracy.
Governments must recognize what a great tool a petition can be as a means of putting forward effective legislation. By the use of some very simple procedural reform pertaining to petitions, governments will be able to effectively gauge the thoughts of citizens as well as allowing them a way to become involved in national issues.
For instance, issues such as abortion, capital punishment, et cetera have all been addressed by one petition or another. If the government were not so quick to dismiss the thoughts of citizens, it could use these petitions as a springboard from which to develop policy. If Canadians are to go to all the trouble of
formulating a petition it is most likely a reflection of an attitude present in the nation on a particular issue. For instance, in 1975 a petition on abortion was presented to the House. This petition had over a million signatures. Recently we received a petition concerning the Young Offenders Act, most likely the largest petition ever brought to the House. It does not matter how big it was or how many people got involved in putting it together, it was dismissed with little or no effect, even though it perhaps recognized the attitude of the great majority of Canadians.
Petitions therefore could be and should be used as a tool of democracy. Petitions would tie the government closer to national attitudes and bring individual members, all of us, closer to our constituents. More important, it would allow Canadians as individuals back into the decision making process of their nation.
I stand here today confident that these small, simple procedural reforms to the use of petitions could become that very tool. There are many means by which the petition could be made more relevant. We would have to consider which petitions carry a particular weight because obviously not all petitions have the same substance. Petitions that do carry significant weight either because the same issue is presented over and over again or because one petition has an overwhelming number of signatures, must be considered and recognized in deciding what happens to them.
We can make a couple of procedural changes. I would draw the attention of members to the private members' bill that was introduced, Bill C-642 in 1980-81, for more definite attitudes and things that could be changed. One thing we might do is move that petitions, after being read in the House, be given to the pertinent committee for discussion and its merits reported back to Parliament. I recognize that the House procedures committee will be looking at petitions as part of a greater analysis.
Another possibility would be to allow petitions to be debated in the House. The government and each opposition party could then use a supply day to debate the petition. We know that if a petition came to the House we could use a supply day and could debate the petition. That is what we are doing right now where we have the opportunity to bring forward what is on our mind.
Unless we have the vehicle in place to ensure that the government does something about petitions then nothing is going to happen. We have to bring this forward in a fashion that brings all members of Parliament on side, recognizing the need to evolve our Parliament into a situation where it is not just the opposition saying we should pay attention to this. It has to be all of us, opposition and government together asking how we can make this institution work better?"
I understand at present the government is required to respond to a petition within 45 days. However, nothing states that the response has to be anything more than just a blanket statement with perhaps little relevance to the petition. It is in essence merely an acknowledgement that the petition was received.
At the very least there should be some mechanism in place to keep track of petitions that have been presented in the House in each session, the number of signatures and the topic of the petition. This clearing house would provide an effective way for legislators to keep abreast of the mood of the nation as well as providing a filing system to ensure that records are kept so that we can see if one particular issue comes up day after day after day.
Some people worry that petitions may be a way of allowing special interest groups easy access to the political process. However, I would argue that special interests have already kidnapped the national agenda and that some use of direct democracy is necessary to offset that and bring the majority of Canadians back into the game by allowing the majority of citizens a means of expressing their grievances and the knowledge that they will be addressed. I am encouraged that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is considering discussion of direct democracy issues, including petitions.
It is imperative that Parliament listens to citizens and that all citizens know Parliament cares about what they have to say.
Rey D. Pagtakhan Winnipeg North, MB
Mr. Speaker, I have a brief comment and question for the hon. member. He mentioned toward the end of his speech that special interest groups had kidnapped the national agenda. The word kidnapped of course is pejorative and connotes a very negative meaning.
I would like to ask the member who these special interest groups are that he had in mind, that have kidnapped the national agenda in a negative way.
Ian McClelland Edmonton Southwest, AB
Mr. Speaker, I take the comments of the hon. member under advisement. I had some difficulty with that word. I thought I should not use it because perhaps it was pejorative and did reflect something I did not wish to bring into this debate.
The fact that special interest groups have had a tremendous impact on the affairs of the nation goes without saying, but not in this Parliament thus far. However, we know in the past 10 years there has been a tremendous amount of special interest group politics in our land. Everyone who has a grievance or an ox to be gored is up front and centre. As members of Parliament
when we open our mail we open a big stack of special interest group information every single day.
An hon. member
Ian McClelland Edmonton Southwest, AB
An hon. member said they are petitions. He is right. They are petitions of a kind but they are not the kind of petitions we are talking about.
They are organized people who have the resources to be able to influence the decision making process of this House. It is either because they can hire some Ottawa lobbyist or because they have that ability within their own organization and they know how to turn the wheel, or put a little grease on it.
The vast majority of Canadians do not have access to these organized means of representation. The vast majority of Canadians are individuals who may be sitting around having a cup of coffee saying: "I am really choked about this. I have had it up to here. What can I do about it?" A decision is then made to start a petition.
What happens? They start a petition which might be big or small. Their idea might be fantastic but it is not treated with the dignity it should have when it gets to this House. That is what we are talking about.
I accept the member's position with regard to the use of the word kidnapping. It was a word I probably should not have used.
Dennis Mills Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Industry
Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member on the initiative of discussing the whole process of petitions.
The idea of creating more awareness about the process of petitions is useful but I would have to challenge him when he states that these petitions are presented in Parliament and are not seen after that. The fact is that all of these petitions are answered individually and there is further opportunity for those petitions to have greater impact even beyond their presentation in this House.
If members of Parliament are seized with a particular idea they could present it in a private member's bill. The hon. member mentioned the Young Offenders Act. Last Friday the hon. member for York South-Weston on the government side put forward amendments to the Young Offenders Act. Therefore I think the hon. member is short changing the process.
The hon. member also mentioned that not all petitions carried the same weight. If we want to continue on the hon. member's theme of direct democracy I suggest to him that all petitions should carry the same weight. We should not discriminate. If someone is committed about an issue to the point of forming a petition and requesting a member of Parliament to present it, then we should not separate petitions. It is our responsibility to place all of them on the floor of this House and members can react as they choose.
I am a little more optimistic about the petition process. I have seen many things occur through this process although I was sceptical during my first year as a member of Parliament. For example one issue I pursued vigorously in the last Parliament concerned violence against women and children. Because a number of petitions were presented other members became interested and, therefore, the issue became a front burner one.
I do not want to leave the impression in the general public's mind that once a petition is placed on the floor of this House that is the end of it. That in fact is not the case.
Ian McClelland Edmonton Southwest, AB
Mr. Speaker, I too would like to make sure the Canadian public understands that petitions which have come forward thus far have not just been thrown away. Many have had a profound effect on this Parliament.
In general terms if many of us believe as the hon. member initially thought that petitions do not have all that much significance, then the perception already exists in the land that petitions do not really mean much.
Having seen the effect petitions have had either through repeated presentations or in some other way, if hon. members believe that petitions are meaningful but the people in the land think they are a waste of time, then we have a problem. We need to address that because the citizens of Canada have to know their representations carry weight. If we can get that connection and that link together we will go a long way in building a bond between the elected and the electors.
The member's position on whether all petitions would carry the same weight is well made. A petition in the public's interest with 100 signatures is extremely important. We have to be careful though that we do not petition ourselves out of business. At its height in one year 33,000 petitions went to the British Parliament. Obviously that did not work.
Suppose there is a petition on the issue of capital punishment for example that this House is offside with the vast majority of Canadians. Let us say we are going to have a petition the people want and we are working toward a citizens' initiative, some measures would have to be in place to allow citizens access to the parliamentary process. Of course it could not be used frivolously. In something we have put together we have suggested that it might take 3 per cent of Canadians in order to initiate something.
However petitions of another nature that just come to the House do have weight, whether they are from 10, 1,000 or one million people. However, one million people getting together to sign a petition is not the same as 20 people getting together to sign a petition.
John Finlay Oxford, ON
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments and ideas behind the speech, however inherent in what the hon. member has said lies the danger. He has said petitions must not be frivolous. He said that the British House had 33,000 in one year and obviously things got out of hand.
Unfortunately most petitions are generated by special interest groups. I put one example to my hon. friend for his comment. He mentioned a petition of 1,000 signatures concerning abortion which took a great deal of effort. I trust the hon. member knows the latest poll with respect to abortion shows that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of Canadians do not want abortion made illegal. In other words in the vernacular they are pro choice. Therefore if we paid too much attention to a special interest petition of one million signatures we would be getting ourselves into a great deal of trouble.
All members in this House represent people in their ridings. If we are doing our jobs we know largely what most of them think. We should be in touch with the silent majority and we should not be swayed too rapidly by special interest groups.
Ian McClelland Edmonton Southwest, AB
I appreciate the point of view the hon. member has brought to this House. We were elected. We have to use our minds. We have to use our intelligence and we have to use the collective wisdom we brought with us to this House. I am not suggesting for one moment that we operate our country by referendum or by citizens' initiative, however these vehicles should be in place and should be available to citizens.
Today we are talking about how our House accepts and deals with petitions, what we do with them and whether or not citizens think their involvement and work in putting forward a petition really matters.
Fernand Robichaud Secretary of State (Parliamentary Affairs)
Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to inform hon. members that the principle of the motion before the House today has already been the subject of debate and was referred on February 7 to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for consideration and a subsequent report by the committee.
The text reads as follows: "That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs examine procedures regarding members statements, special debates, the taking of divisions of the House by electronic means, the conduct of Private Members' Business, especially with regard to private bills and to Senate public bills, any anomalies or technical inconsistencies in the Standing Orders, the reform of question period, measures to achieve more direct participation by citizens, including citizens' initiative, the right of constituents to recall their MP-binding referenda, free votes in the House of Commons, debates on petitions and fixed election dates."
Although this exercise is redundant, having already been initiated by a standing committee of this House, I certainly do not question the right of the opposition party to debate the subject today, on an allotted day.
Before starting the actual debate, I think it is important to realize there are two kinds of petitions: first, petitions arising from the fundamental right of citizens to present grievances to Parliament, and second, petitions to seek presentation of a private bill, which are signed by the person or persons seeking to be exempted from the application of certain legislation. Of course, today's debate concerns the first kind which presents grievances expressed by citizens.
For the benefit of Canadians who are listening, I will take a few minutes to give a short history of the petitions presented in the House of Commons and explain how they are presented and how the government is expected to respond. I will then give some examples to illustrate that our Standing Orders give the members of this House the means to discuss matters presented by petitioners. Finally, I will provide a summary of what is being done by this government to bring about a thorough reform of the operations of the House of Commons, which will substantially expand the role of members in developing fiscal policy and in the legislative process as a whole.
Petitions as we know them today were developed during the 17th century at a time when the British Parliament was beginning to be perceived more as a political and legislative institution than as the highest court of law in the land. The rights of petitioners and the powers of the House to act on the petitions were defined in two resolutions passed by the House of Commons in 1669. The resolutions were worded as follows:
"That it is the inherent right of every commoner in England to prepare and present petitions to the House of Commons in case of grievance and the House of Commons to receive the same; that it is an undoubted right and privilege of the Commons to judge and determine, touching the nature and matter of such petitions, how far they are fit and unfit to be received".
Until the adoption in 1842 of several standing orders aimed at defining the format for presenting petitions and at making any kind of immediate debate on their content virtually impossible, the House of Commons imposed very few restrictions on the debates arising from the presentation of petitions. Petitions had become a way to introduce a subject into the House for debate
and they were sometimes used to obstruct the planned work of the Commons.
Moreover, since the composition of the House was becoming at the time increasingly representative of the different trends of thought, the need to use petitions as a means of conveying to Parliament the pressing demands of the public decreased and as a result, the number of petitions presented declined considerably.
The Constitution of Canada recognizes that the right to petition the crown or Parliament to remedy a grievance is a fundamental principle, one that has been invoked frequently since 1867. While the House of Commons is an institution that is representative of the voters, only their elected representatives are allowed to bring issues before the House. Ordinary citizens cannot petition Parliament personally. Therefore, it is important that Canadians have a mechanism for bringing grievances deemed relevant to the attention of Parliament.
Contrary to the situation in Great Britain, the number of petitions addressed to the Canadian Parliament decreased dramatically owing to the establishment of courts of law, to the lack of clarity in the standing orders of the time and to the manner in which petitions were handled. The process in no way reflected the importance that petitions should have been assigned, considering the fundamental right of the people to petition Parliament.
Therefore, in 1984, the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons examined the question of petitions and recommended numerous amendments to the standing orders to correct the problems associated with the procedure governing petitions.
Here is what the chairman of the McGrath committee had to say in his report tabled in June 1985:
"Public petitions addressed to the House of Commons constitute one of the most direct means of communication between the people and Parliament. It is by this means that people can voice their concerns to the House on matters of public interest. However, despite the considerable effort spent preparing and circulating petitions to gather signatures, once they have been presented in the House and received, it is rare that further action is taken.
We agree that the right to petition Parliament is a fundamental right of the citizen and that petitions are an integral part of the process whereby the people of Canada speak to their elected representatives. However, the use that is made of this right gives us some concern. The procedure governing petitions should be defined more clearly to generate respect for the process and make it more meaningful. There is a definite need to clarify the rules relating to petitions, to promote increased uniformity in their presentation and to ensure that they are acceptable by the House in terms of content. In addition, we should issue guidelines on the drafting and signing of petitions. We also think that petitioners are entitled to a response".
In order to achieve these objectives, the committee recommended eight amendments to the Standing Orders on petitions.
Here are the rules to follow in presenting a petition in the House of Commons-I am sure that all members already know them, but I am repeating them for the benefit of the people listening to us-as prescribed under Standing Order 36 and summarily described in the third edition of the "Précis of Procedure" prepared by the Table Research Branch.
Members wishing to present petitions in the House do so during Routine Proceedings after "Motions" and before "Questions on Order Paper" are called. A petition may also be presented simply by filing it with the Clerk at any time during a sitting.
Before being presented, a petition must be certified and examined as to form and content by the Clerk of Petitions.
If the petition meets the requirements specified in the Standing Orders, the member presenting the petition, after being recognized by the Chair, can make a brief statement to inform the House of the content of the petition; debate on the petition itself is not allowed.
The government is obliged to respond within 45 days to all petitions referred to it. Various conditions apply to the presentation of petitions. Aliens, not resident in Canada, have no right to petition Parliament; nor may ordinary citizens of Canada address the House directly-their petitions must be dated, presented and endorsed by a member. A member cannot be compelled to present a petition and no action may be taken against a member for refusing to do so.
It is interesting to note that Standing Order 36 includes the eight recommendations in the McGrath report except for one element. The committee recommended that the government be obliged to respond within two weeks of receiving a petition, while Standing Order 36 prescribes a 45-day time limit.
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons offer several alternatives for a debate on a grievance expressed in a petition presented in the House. A member can make it the subject of a motion or a bill to be included in the "Order Paper" of the House for debate. The grievance can be the subject of a government motion, like the motion we put forward on cruise missile testing on Canadian territory, which enabled parliamentarians to debate this issue often raised in many petitions presented in this House. Speaker.
The grievance can also be reviewed by a committee of parliamentarians, or take the form of an oral question during question period or of a question in the "Order Paper". Of course, the government can decide that it needs to legislate to
redress the grievance submitted to it through the House of Commons.
Then there are the general debates on the business of supply, better known as Opposition days like today, when the Opposition can decide on the motions to be debated on designated days of a given supply period. We are currently in the period ending March 26, which includes nine allotted days. The next period, which will end June 30, will include 10 allotted days. The period ending December 10 will also include six Opposition days.
So if they wish, the opposition parties normally have 20 days a year during which the grievances presented by Canadians in petitions tabled in the House could be debated.
On February 7, the House of Commons passed the motion presented by the government House leader, the Hon. Herb Gray, which changes the rules of Parliament. The purpose of this reform is to make the House more effective by giving every member more influence over policy development.
These changes which give members a greater role in drafting legislation and setting the government's spending priorities were the first initiatives arising from the Liberal election program for job creation and economic recovery, as mentioned in Creating Opportunity, our famous red book. These initiatives were adopted by the House of Commons.
During the debate, Mr. Gray said, "Today, we are providing a framework for renewal. It will be up to all members, both government and opposition, to make these procedures effective".
The main changes to the Standing Orders are as follows. Two new processes, in addition to those that now exist, are being established so that members can review bills. Thus members will participate directly in the preparation of laws and have greater autonomy in amending government legislation, through the committee system.
The Standing Committee on Finance will hold pre-budget consultations and make recommendations to the Minister of Finance.
The standing committees will be authorized to examine the government's future defence priorities and to report on them at the same time as they deal with the Main Estimates for the current year.
These measures were preceded by a review of the structure of standing committees to reflect the reorganization of the government. These reforms are only the first stage.
A petition is an excellent way for the public to express its opinions directly on the floor of the House of Commons or the Senate, through a parliamentarian. The government is forced to respond and in many ways will take the petitions into consideration in future decisions.
For instance, and this is a very good example, last week, my colleague, the minister responsible for Canada Post, announced a moratorium on the closure of post offices. There is no doubt in my mind that the many petitions presented in this House by hon. members on this subject definitely had an impact not only on the decision to review this policy but also on the decision to impose the moratorium.
Another case is also a good example: the GST. In the election campaign, we promised to replace the GST and to ask the Standing Committee on Finance to study alternatives. This decision was not made in a vacuum. Obviously, Canadians were heard by our government and their thousands of petitions presented in this House, submitted to the House, bore fruit.
Of course, the members of the opposition party who presented the motion are eager to bring up cases where the opinions expressed by Canadians in petitions were not reflected in decisions made by the government and they neglect to mention all the other cases.
The main subject of debate today is petitions, but I believe that the real issue of this debate and of all the questions raised by members of the Reform Party on the subject of parliamentary reform is the loyalty of members to their constituents, to their party, to their country or to their conscience.
We, Liberals, believe that members of Parliament must strike a balance between these positions which can sometimes be reconciled in making a decision, but can also be highly conflicting.
Canada is a country greater than the sum of its parts. So, for the sake of national cohesiveness, the decisions made by Parliament must be greater than the sum of individual decisions made by its members.
We, Liberals, feel that the credibility of parliamentarians is enhanced when they contribute directly, and can make an important contribution, to the development and implementation of programs and goals that the federal government must achieve, and not, as some members would have it, by repeating the public opinion parrot fashion and serving as mere voting machines.
In conclusion, and I know my time is running out, as for the other examples cited in the opposition motion, I wish to bring to the attention of the members the fact that the Minister of Justice has already answered in Question Period to some of these subjects and is looking into those matters.
As for the third and last example, that of recall, I do not need to repeat what has been said in this House about the experience in Alberta.
In closing, I sincerely feel that our Standing Ordes already provide many procedures to deal with grievances presented in the petitions we table in this House. On the other hand, if the Procedure and House Affairs Committee were to conclude that changes were called for with regard to petitions, I am sure that all the hon. members would consider their recommendations very carefully.
Deborah Grey Beaver River, AB
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his comments.
We are talking about reform and the government is talking about opening up the process. The member referred early in his comments to the fact that petitions will be studied by committees. As far as I was concerned, he almost said that our whole motion today was not out of order but certainly questionable because it seemed that this was already dealt with by going to committee.
Members know that people get a chance to watch this place on television. When they see things disappear from the floor or the Chamber they wonder where they go after that. When something is referred to committee, for instance, or as we received information from our orientation session for all the new MPs this term, it was mentioned by one of our clerks that these petitions kind of disappear into warehouses.
I appreciate the member's comments about the closure of rural post offices. This government has just brought in a moratorium on that. Maybe it is due in some small part to the petitions. I think that is good. Maybe the government is listening to a point on that.
To just say that we really do not need this debate today on the floor of the House and write the whole thing off and say that it is being dealt with in committee is unnecessary .Canadians do not know exactly what goes on in committee. I suspect they will not wait with bated breath until somebody stands up to give a report from the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs about a particular petition.
We are asking on this side of the House that we have this opened up so that people can watch it being debated on the floor of the House of Commons.
I would like to ask the hon. member if he thinks there is virtue and merit in the fact that people can be tuned into their televisions right now watching it. With regard to his comments about the anti-GST petition, which many of his colleagues in the last Parliament presented, I dare say hundreds of thousands of those, what will happen when this government brings in a new, improved GST? How will this government react to whatever kinds of petitions are brought forward on the floor of the House of Commons on behalf of Canadians?
Fernand Robichaud Beauséjour, NB
Mr. Speaker, I want to reassure the hon. member who just spoke. I have no doubt that her party acted out of a sense of duty in presenting this motion here today. I simply said that we had already dealt with this issue and that a committee would be looking into it, but I think there may be some merit to debating it further in this House.
She referred to the example I had given: the moratorium on post office closures announced by the minister. I was a member of Parliament from 1984 to 1990, and we were already receiving petitions back then. I had received petitions from my constituents because the government had decided to axe some post offices, especially in rural areas.
I think that these petitions did play a major role in calling the government's attention to the fact that, for the people living in rural areas, post offices were really very important.
The hon. member also referred to the GST. When we were in the opposition, we presented many petitions to point out that the GST was creating hardship for the business community due to the complex procedure involved. We have decided to find an alternative to the GST. I sincerely believe that the committee presently examining this issue and looking for ways to replace the GST with a much simpler system and one much more compatible with business management practices will take into account the demands of Canadians, demands brought before this House by members of all parties on behalf of their constituents.