House of Commons Hansard #42 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was date.

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12:45 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Liberal

John Harvard Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade

Mr. Speaker, I found it interesting to listen to the hon. member from New Brunswick but after listening to her I began to wonder whether she had the requisite confidence in her fellow parliamentarians.

We have a Parliament in the country. We have responsible government which means that the government is responsible and accountable to Parliament. By having a fixed date election, basically she is saying that she would rather have a set rule and not leave this matter, of when an election should be called, to parliamentarians. That to me suggests that she does not have the kind of confidence that perhaps she should have in her fellow parliamentarians.

I want to remind her that in the 1970s in the United States there was something called Watergate. Because of its constitution, it had to go through a lot of legalistic manoeuvres to get rid of President Nixon who finally resigned.

She and I are old enough to remember that if Watergate had happened in Canada, Richard Nixon would have been gone in a matter of weeks because it would have been left to the politicians of the day. I think our system works quite well.

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April 27th, 2004 / 12:50 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Elsie Wayne Saint John, NB

Mr. Speaker, Watergate was a scandal but I do not think that has anything to do with our fixed election dates here in Canada.

As far as I am concerned, I have no worries whatsoever. If I were running again for a four year term I would put my name up and take my chances. Members do that in every election, whether it is three years when an election is called or whether it is four years. What we are saying is that we need stability here. We need to work together and we need to find a way in which we can operate.

We do not have to do this just for the sake of the Prime Minister when he feels he is up in the polls. When he is down in the polls he does not want to have an election, and everybody knows that. Everybody on the government side knows that is exactly what is happening.

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12:50 p.m.

Brossard—La Prairie
Québec

Liberal

Jacques Saada Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister responsible for Democratic Reform

Mr. Speaker, today we have a motion before us, the substance of which is that we should have elections in Canada on a fixed date.

I would like to address this question in two ways, the first a matter of substance and the second purely political.

Regarding the first, and of course these arguments can be developed further as the day goes on, I would like point out a few elements that strike me as producing a direct contradiction between this motion and our British parliamentary system. Why do I see the two as not readily reconcilable, if not totally irreconcilable? I will give a few examples.

As hon. members are aware, in Canada the Prime Minister is the person who has been elected leader of a political party and he or she becomes Prime Minister when that party obtains the most seats in Parliament. As a result, in the course of a mandate party leaders can change, and this is a regular occurrence. Once new party leaders become Prime Minister, they may well feel inclined to seek the approval of the population, obtain general support for the decision taken by their party.

With set election dates, a leader could not take advantage of this mechanism of seeking the support of the public. In other words, by taking away a new PM's opportunity to seek public support, we would be preventing the public from expressing its opinion of the new Prime Minister. In other words, proposing elections on a set date is not a reform that enhances democracy, but rather one that diminishes it.

We have, of course, seen recent examples of party leaders who have sought that endorsement and not found it.

If, for example, the government is facing some extremely important and fundamental problem, a really important issue such as a war or threat of war, and the decision is made to seek a mandate from the population in order to steer the country in the right direction, this is impossible if there is no possibility of calling an election.

Taking away this power, and having elections on a set date, is in fact taking away an important instrument from the government as far as public consultation is concerned. Is this more democratic, or less so? In my opinion, it is the latter.

There are of course other negative impacts. I think one of my colleagues alluded to them. We saw that, here, the issue of confidence in the government is not dealt with in the same fashion as it is in the United States, for example. The result is that a crisis in that country took a very long time to be settled, whereas here, because the government must have the confidence of Parliament, it would be settled much more quickly.

In other words, what is at stake here is the principle of accountability. This principle cannot be strengthened if we are subjected to a date that has nothing to do with the time when we really want to hold the government accountable.

Moreover, a reform of this nature would probably require a constitutional reform. Would it really be a good thing, at this point, to undertake a constitutional reform on an issue that would split us, with one group strongly in favour of an objective date and the other firmly opposed to it? Such a reform could not work alone because, in any case, the Governor General would maintain the power to dissolve Parliament. Confidence and non-confidence votes must be maintained. If we were to vote against the budget, would this mean the fall of the government? If not, then there would be no accountability anymore.

So, we would have to maintain some controls between these fixed dates, with the result that it would basically be impossible to deal with the issue of accountability with fixed election dates.

This is the purely technical issue. There is another issue that seems much more important to me under the circumstances.

I would like to really go to the bottom of things. I would like to know why present such a motion and why present it today.

Why do we have to face such a motion today? It is quite clear that when we tabled our action plan on democratic reform on February 4, we invited all parties to join us in a non-partisan way in the implementation of the reform, which was not aimed at helping the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, or the Bloc, but which was aimed at making Parliament more responsible before the population. They refused; the authors of the motion we are debating today refused.

In our action plan, we took some points that that party's own backbenchers had written in two reports, but because we were proposing the action plan, politics prevailed in their minds and they refused to adhere to it. Now they are trying to address democratic deficit on a piecemeal basis. How can one have a vision when a party is playing politics with one piece of a very complex puzzle, and is not even able to assess the consequences of changing one piece on the entire democratic system we are living in? It is totally irresponsible.

We tabled the action plan on democratic reform with the following things in mind. We said that if a member of Parliament is not responsible before his or her population, then something is wrong somewhere. Of course others are saying that if we do not change the way by which people are sent here, maybe that is wrong also.

What we said is simply the following. A number of studies were conducted by many members of Parliament and all kinds of legislators and all parties which paved the way to the need for parliamentary reform. We have started to implement that reform. The other parties have always refused to come onside with us on this issue.

One example is three line voting. We said if a member could stand and vote in the House, not because he or she is whipped but because he or she decided to vote, when that member went back to the riding he or she would be in a position to answer the population as to the reasons that decision was made and, therefore, would be more accountable to the people. They have refused to do that.

Of all the votes that took place in the House since we reconvened, 63%, almost two-thirds, took place on the basis of a free vote for the Liberals. The Liberals have never endorsed hypocrisy, never. Now the Conservatives want to talk about democratic reform. Let me go further and give a series of examples.

Following a decision by the Supreme Court which had to do with the definition of political parties, I personally sent a request to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

I asked specifically for this committee to study this decision for a maximum of one year, and to come back to me with a proposal for legislation, that is, a draft bill. I asked parliamentarians to draft a draft bill for one of the fundamental elements of our democracy, the definition of a political party. They have the opportunity to deal with the issue of voting at a fixed date, and so on, during this study, but they do not want to do that. It is too honest a process.

Asking the parliamentary committee to produce a draft bill that would be coherent and in which each person could take some responsibility does not work. What they prefer is to play politics by taking a little piece of a big jigsaw puzzle and pretending they are in favour of a reform they do not even support.

One topic in the action plan is ethics. We have passed a bill on ethics. I shall let you consider their previous position in this matter, in particular the Conservatives who are behind today's motion.

Yesterday, in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, there was a debate on a code of conduct. They finally agreed to support the adoption of the code of conduct, but they spoke out against it. By what right can they rise to tell us that they are interested in democratic reform and the integrity of this Parliament? They are talking out of both sides of their mouths, hoping that everyone will be confused. I do not know if anyone is confused, in any case we are not and neither is the Canadian public.

In the action plan, we have proposed the creation of a national security committee. In doing so, one must think of the most intelligent way it can be done. I invited them to participate. I should say that the Bloc Quebecois has already submitted the name of someone to sit on this committee, and I thank the Bloc.

As for them, I am still here waiting for their recommendation. They are just pretending. The Conservatives are pretending.

As for appointments, the House knows as well as I do that many parliamentary reports have pointed out the need for parliamentarians to intervene and state their opinions when there are important appointments, for example, a president of a crown corporation or important positions that really affect the public life of the country.

The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was asked what the best process would be in order to avoid defamation of the candidates' character, attacks on their integrity, and disclosure of their identity, while at the same time ensuring parliamentarians a role in these appointments. This is important. Parliamentarians are elected to represent the public. They have the right to intervene in the appointment process that concerns the public. I am still waiting for an answer, but they have never endorsed this process.

If I still have time I would like to talk about the ethics commissioner. We used to have an ethics counsellor who reported to the Prime Minister. We passed Bill C-4, which provides for the appointment of an independent ethics commissioner. What does that mean?

It means that the ethics commissioner no longer reports to a Prime Minister or a government, but reports to the House and all parliamentarians at the same time. He is accountable to all parliamentarians at once. Not only that, but we took this one step further in the bill. We said that in order for the person filling the important position of ethics commissioner to be recognized and for his integrity to be above reproach, we wish to have his appointment sanctioned by a vote in the House.

This process has begun. The bill was passed. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs considered these requests. Leaders were consulted and soon we will have—on Thursday morning if I remember correctly—a vote on this appointment.

Note that that party abstained. It abstained from the process.

How can we take these people seriously? They introduce a motion on fixed election dates. Either they are completely ignorant of the consequences of making piecemeal changes to the democratic system or they are doing this on purpose for reasons that have nothing to do with the substance of the motion, but that have everything to do with petty politics, which I condemn in the harshest possible terms.

There are many other examples. When we adopted our action plan for democratic reform, we said, so members would not feel tied by a vote in principle on a bill before it goes to committee—in other words, before indepth consideration—that it was preferable to send bills to committees before second reading. For laypersons, second reading consists of debating a bill, voting on the bill's principle and then sending it to committee. In other words, it goes to committee for indepth consideration only after it is debated in the House.

We said that this was not consistent because that means that people vote first on the principle before they know if they even agree with the principle.

As a result of the change we introduced in our action plan, an increasing number of bills are sent to committee before second reading. In short, we are asking parliamentarians from all parties on these standing committees to consider a bill and make recommendations before we vote on the principle, in order to give them all the flexibility they need to make the necessary amendments.

We told ministers and parliamentary secretaries that more work would have to be done. We cannot take it for granted that everything will be adopted because a whip says so. It will be essential to work with parliamentarians to convince them and build consensus, so that the bills are the best they can be. Bills serve neither a government nor one political party over another, they serve the public. So, the better they are, the better the public is served.

I have asked for their approval on this issue, and I am still waiting.

They are absolutely not serious. They are focussed merely on narrow petty politics. What I deplore, and what they seem not to realize, is that by taking this approach they are discrediting all politicians. This is a serious matter.

For political, partisan, and extremely short-sighted reasons, they are challenging a fundamental system of democracy that has proven itself everywhere. No system is perfect, there is no such thing. There is no perfect government, no perfect opposition, there is no such thing. But at least, with good faith and good intentions, I feel we can always manage to do better. Doing better requires some higher mindedness and perspective on the consequences of one's actions.

I feel this motion is totally irresponsible. Not that having a set date for elections is a good thing or a bad thing, but rather that this cannot be decided in isolation from all the rest of the democratic pyramid of our system. Moving such a thing today is not, therefore, motivated by any concern to enhance democracy, but rather by a lowly desire to win votes. This is deplorable and I will vote against the motion this evening.

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1:05 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Stockwell Day Okanagan—Coquihalla, BC

Mr. Speaker, my friend used the word “today.” Today, the federal debt is higher than in 1993 when the Prime Minister was finance minister. Today, the democratic deficit is higher than in 1993.

Six months ago, the Prime Minister promised free votes for his MPs. Nevertheless, 48 hours after the Speech from the Throne, he broke his promise. Six months ago, the Prime Minister promised to give all members an opportunity to meet the nominees for positions such as Supreme Court justice. Several days after the throne speech, he broke his promise.

Today in the Senate, there is a vacant seat for Alberta. The Prime Minister refuses to recognize the choice of the people of Canada. Today, the Prime Minister refuses to give his support for fixed dates.

Most countries in the world and the UN accept the idea of fixed election dates, as do communist states and dictatorships. Why does the Prime Minister refuse to accept the idea of fixed election dates? Is it because he is a bigger dictator than the ones who rule in dictatorships?

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1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Jacques Saada Brossard—La Prairie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I cannot believe what I am hearing. This is the party that had put us in debt, to the tune of $42 billion annually, when we took office in 1993. We are the ones who corrected the situation. This is the party that put us in debt. By contrast, we have produced seven surplus budgets in a row. These people are not in a position to give advice on government management.

The issue of free votes was raised. Let me point out that, so far, two thirds of the votes were held as free votes for our party. How many such votes did they have? Zero, and they are the ones talking about free votes.

As regards the Senate, the Prime Minister has said—and I am serious about this—that the Senate is an issue that concerns some provinces, particularly Alberta. It has an important symbolic value. The Prime Minister made a statement in which he invited the provinces to arrive at an agreement and to get back to him regarding this issue.

I have one last point. As regards fixed election dates, the Lortie commission, which—I should point out—was not a Liberal commission, wrote a report in 1992 in which it said that having fixed elections dates in Canada was not desirable.

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1:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

I do not know if hon. members agree, but I think we are getting off the topic. Therefore, I would ask hon. members to get back to the relevant issue.

The hon. member for Fraser Valley.

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1:10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Chuck Strahl Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is interesting that the government House leader spoke for approximately 20 minutes, but he did not say much on the motion today. He mostly went off on grand rhetoric. Even the parts that he addressed in today's motion are incorrect.

It does not take a constitutional amendment or change to have a fixed election date. Ask the Premier of British Columbia. The day after the last election in British Columbia, he said that the next election would be four years from that date. That is no secret.

What do they do in Australia or New Zealand? Those countries have the same system of accountable, responsible government as we have. They have a fixed election date. There is no crisis. There is no problem. The government only has to stand up and agree to do it. It is the same as free votes. It is not a constitutional amendment. It is something the Prime Minister could do with the consent of the House. It is easily done. In fact, once he declares a fixed election date four years hence, nothing will change it. It would be political suicide to change it. It becomes de facto four years after the fact.

I remind the House leader that he says that we cannot change this because this is a piecemeal approach to changing the democratic deficit. I have heard both sides of the argument right from the chair in which he is sitting. Sometimes the Liberals say that we cannot change it piecemeal because we have to do it holistically. Then the next time they say that we cannot do it all at once, that it is too big a job and that we should do it piecemeal.

The ethics commissioner is one piece of legislation. This is one idea. It is a good idea. It should be supported on the basis of the one idea. It is not enough just to say that everything is wrong with it and that we have to do it all together.

I will remind him of this in closing. He talked about free votes. Last week we had free votes, again, on this side of the House on the Westbank Indian land claim, on the Armenian-Turkish issue that--

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1:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order, please. The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.

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1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Jacques Saada Brossard—La Prairie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I find what was just said to be incredibly inconsistent. I will explain why.

When we talk about appointing an ethics commissioner we are talking about something fundamental to democratic reform. We are talking about something fundamental with respect to the relevance of the House of Commons, something quite significant. Ethics is rooted in the fact that the public must have confidence in elected members from all parties. This is not insignificant. That is one factor.

The other factor involves the electoral process and parliamentary reform. I am sorry, but no matter how you slice it, a fixed election date is only a small part of a much bigger picture based on the very principle of the Westminster constitutions, which are aimed specifically at accountability.

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1:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh.

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1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Jacques Saada Brossard—La Prairie, QC

I am trying to answer the question, or pseudo-question I was asked, but they are not listening to my response. I suppose that is what they call respect for parliamentary life.

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1:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have two comments that I think Canadians deserve to hear.

First, when listening to the members opposite, they are saying that we have less democracy when we have fixed elections. I heard that over and over this morning. Second, a fixed election demands constitutional change.

Those two points are dead wrong. Canadians from coast to coast know their government is dead wrong. Could the minister explain why many countries have fixed election dates and because of that they have no democracy?

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1:15 p.m.

Liberal

Jacques Saada Brossard—La Prairie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I explained this earlier, but I will happily explain it again. I think that my message was not understood, and I will not attach any meaning to this.

When a new prime minister takes office, for example at the wish of members of a party with a majority in the House, the arrival of that new prime minister is therefore motivated by a decision made by a political party and not by the public. So, sometimes that prime minister decides to ask the people for the mandate to govern. Preventing him from making that decision means preventing the public from being consulted about the new responsibility he has just been given. A system that does not allow this is, in my opinion, less democratic than one that does allow it.

As for the second point, I gave other examples, including a serious crisis. Can the public not be consulted on this? If we cannot consult the public because it is not election time, we are being denied the right to consult the public. If there are fewer public consultations, things may perhaps be less democratic.

I also mentioned a final element that was extremely simple. From the moment we want to maintain the confidence of the House—I can use the budget as an example—if the majority of members in the House vote against the budget, it becomes a vote of non-confidence and the government is defeated. The Governor General dissolves the House, and an election is automatically called.

This can no longer be possible if election dates are fixed; or else, there is a fixed election date, plus an election call when a new prime minister wants to consult the public or when there is a vote of non-confidence. There is no more fixed date, so that is a myth.

I maintain that our current system gives many more tools with which to consult the public and that, in my opinion, is the best way to preserve democracy.

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1:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Chuck Strahl Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I will be dividing my time with the member for Calgary East.

Following that presentation from the government House leader, I fear for the future of this Parliament. Maybe we better have a quick election. His understanding of this issue is incredibly weak. If he is truly giving us the best of his knowledge, then ignorance is bliss and he must be one of the happiest guys in the House of Commons.

What he has come up with as an excuse list is preposterous. It is like he has never read the private member's bill brought forward by the leader of our party. It explicitly states that an election should be held four years after the last one unless a motion of non-confidence passes in the House at which time the Governor General would dissolve the House and call an election. It is constitutional. It is in that private member's bill. It is consistent with what is done in other countries that have the same Westminster style of government. The government House leader either has not read the bill, or does not understand it, which is probable, or he just does not want to discuss it seriously. All three of the above may be true.

I hardly know where to start because I am still upset by all the nonsense spewed during that tirade.

The government House leader mentioned some nonsense about the ethics commissioner. I was at the meeting yesterday with regard to the ethics commissioner. I asked the ethics counsellor if he thought the legislation was good. I asked him what he would be administering since no actual code of ethics had been passed. It is not attached to the bill. It has never been passed by the House. He said that was a real problem. He will not have any ethical code in front of him and will sit in his office waiting for the phone to ring. That is preposterous. I have to get off this subject because it is so much nonsense. I can hardly stand it.

Let me talk to the motion before us today and why I believe it is a good idea.

Having a fixed election date would allow the government to govern properly for four full years. This will be my fourth election coming up. Every time an election is called, it is at a time when the government thinks it is most fortuitous. The writ is dropped and off we go. This is done a little over three years into the cycle.

A four year cycle would allow people to plan their lives. It would allow provinces, ministers, governments and prime ministers to put together a legislative package and metre it out for the course of their four years. It would allow them to get something done.

What have we done here in the last six months, since the current Prime Minister has taken over? We have spun our wheels. Where is the new legislation? There is none because the Prime Minister is not sure when he will call the election.

The Prime Minister said a while ago that the Liberal's number one priority was to govern. That is what the House leader has said. The government has to govern unless it has to go to the people for a mandate, or unless the polls look bad, or unless the crystal ball does not look right. None of that is a legitimate excuse for calling an election. An election should be called every four years. That would allow the government to govern for four full years. There would be no ifs, ands or buts.

There should be a democratic reform package in front of the House right now. The House leader talked about that. That should be decided before next October when the election should be held. We could have it all done.

I am on the committee that is reviewing the Prime Minister's democratic package, and nobody is doing a darn thing on it. Everybody on that committee has said that we could start this, but what the heck, an election will probably be called--

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1:15 p.m.

An hon. member

Maybe.