House of Commons Hansard #46 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was international.

Topics

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a somewhat sad moment as I have to rise on this question of privilege. Obviously I do not take this course of action very often in this place, yet what occurred at the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development yesterday causes me and others within this place to worry about both the ability of members to do their business in this place and the ability of committees to do the work that the House has commanded them to do.

Yesterday, at the meeting of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, a motion of mine that called on the Government of Canada to remove the environment minister from her cabinet post due to gross incompetence was to be debated.

The Conservative chair of the committee, after consultation with the clerk of the committee, and even invoking an apparent consultation with yourself, Mr. Speaker, ruled that the motion was in fact in order.

NDP members were very careful in crafting this motion. We took the time for due deliberation and consideration in making sure that all was correct so we could debate the issue that we wished to present to the committee, with some hope of bringing it back to this place so that all members could debate its merits. The Conservative members challenged the chair for partisan reasons and, in an ironic twist of events, something that still to this moment confuses me, the Liberal members on that committee sided with the Conservative members, voting against a motion that was clearly in order.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

An hon. member

They sided with the Conservatives in the last election.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Being partisan is not part of the business of this, but the travesty of what happened at the committee raises larger questions surrounding the fundamental rights of a member in committee.

I do not dispute the notion around here that “the minority has its say and then the majority can have its way”. That is a fundamental principle of democracy. The problem here is that the government and the official opposition have decided that the majority should be used to deprive the minority of its right to speak. That is a violation of my constitutional rights in this place.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

Gary Goodyear

You're speaking right now.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

This point seems to cause incredible derision. I note that if the members of the committee do not agree with my motion they can vote against it, as is clearly their right.

I believe that this place is for reasoned debate and informed decision, but what happened yesterday in the committee was the use of procedure to declare a clearly in order motion unilaterally out of order. That denied me my right to be heard and to have the voices of those who sent me here heard. The majority of the committee denied me the ancient right of free speech, a moment to debate the issue before us, a motion that was clearly in order, as the clerk and the Conservative chair chose.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

Omar Alghabra

That's called democracy.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

It seems that the continuation of the prohibition of my right to speak is being enacted yet again by both the official opposition and the government trying to heckle down what is a reasonable point.

When a motion is brought forward and is in order, as was ruled by the Conservative chair of the committee and referenced by the Speaker of the House, and then is ruled out of order by some sort of partisan collaboration, it is unappealing, to say the least.

I am appealing to you today, Mr. Speaker, to stand by your advice to the chair of the committee, declare my motion in order and ask the committee to consider this motion at its next meeting. Let the members of the committee actually debate the subject, if they will and, at the very worst, they might even learn something.

Parliament is a place where we need to be able to exchange ideas and represent the views of those who sent us here. The Speaker's role is partly to defend my ability as a member of this place to speak for my constituents.

Your role, Mr. Speaker, is also to follow the spirit of the rules we have adopted for ourselves. All members in this place adopted those rules in order to conduct themselves in a way that Canadians would wish.

Standing Order 117 states:

The Chair of a standing, special or legislative committee shall maintain order in the committee, deciding all questions of order subject to an appeal to the committee;--

Mr. Speaker, if you were to look at the blues from yesterday's committee hearing, you would clearly see that the chair decided the motion to be in order. The committee then decided that the chair's ruling should be overturned. I am left in limbo by this procedural tactic.

I can see how the general application of this standing order is there to protect the committee from a bad chair or to allow a committee some latitude, but I refer the Speaker to Standing Order 116 as well, which states:

In a standing, special or legislative committee--

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:05 a.m.

Omar Alghabra

Let's call an election.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:10 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

The members of the official opposition can continue to heckle and prevent me from simply stating a case. It is quite remarkable.

--the Standing Orders shall apply so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the election of a Speaker, seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.

I cannot see how this standing order would allow a committee to deny a motion that meets all the procedural tests of Marleau and Montpetit or the 6th edition of Beauchesne or the standing orders themselves and for it to be unilaterally declared out of order.

I believe that Standing Order 116 clearly would suggest that what is procedurally acceptable as a motion should meet the standards of this chamber, not the star chamber that my committee became yesterday. I therefore ask for your assistance, Mr. Speaker.

When a majority is used to abolish the rules and deprive me of a fundamental right to hold the minister to account, our system has fallen into disrepute. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to see the prima facie case in my question of privilege, have the committee look at the motion, have the system that has allowed this travesty to be reviewed at the procedure and House affairs committee, and help restore my faith and that of the people who sent me to this place.

I am prepared to move the motion mentioned in my letter or whatever appropriate motion you advise if you decide my case is just.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:10 a.m.

Niagara Falls
Ontario

Conservative

Rob Nicholson Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

Mr. Speaker, my comments will be brief, because what has just taken place here is clearly neither a question of privilege nor, for that matter, a point of order, but simply a grievance by the hon. member who is unhappy with a decision that was properly taken at the environment committee. I will make just the two points.

First, it is well established in the procedure and practices of the House that the rulings by committee chairs can be appealed and overturned by the committee. The hon. member just mentioned Standing Order 117, but Standing Order 117 also states that the chair shall decide “all questions of order subject to an appeal to the committee”. So in this respect there is nothing objectionable about a decision taken by the environment committee yesterday.

Second, Mr. Speaker, you have commented on many occasions that you are very reluctant to intervene in the affairs of committees, as committees are masters of their own proceedings and only in extreme circumstances would the Speaker want to intervene in committee decisions. I would submit that this issue certainly does not meet that standard, as this decision taken by the committee is clearly consistent with the procedures of the House.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:10 a.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate today about what happened yesterday in the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

I have been on the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development for nine years. Never have I seen such a disgraceful scene in that committee. My colleague introduced a motion that the clerk and the chair of the committee had deemed in order. The Speaker of the House of Commons was also of the opinion that this motion was in order.

There are limits. The government, with the complicity of the Liberal Party of Canada, in a highly partisan move, decided to use unacceptable means to ensure that this motion, which the Speaker of the House of Commons and the committee chair had decided was in order, would be overturned by the government, with the help of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In my opinion, this is a partisan tactic. Some parliamentarians used it to avoid expressing their opinion and their views on the substance of the motion. Their purpose was to use the procedure to avoid having to speak about the substance of the issue.

This creates certain precedents. We could review a bill, and an opposition party could decide to introduce amendments that the Speaker, the clerk and the committee had decided were in order. The government could decide that these amendments were not in order and, with the help of some opposition parties, could overturn that decision.

What is important is that the chair should uphold our rights. What happened yesterday is not acceptable. I feel that the hon. member has the right to make his motion, whether or not we support that motion. That is not the issue. I feel that when, in a parliamentary committee, a member introduces a motion that the clerk, the committee chair and the Speaker of the House have decided is in order, the member's most fundamental right is to be able to debate that motion in committee.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

John Godfrey Don Valley West, ON

Mr. Speaker, in terms of the content of the motion, we certainly had no argument with it. We would not defend the competence of the Minister of the Environment to any degree. However, there is nothing special about the Minister of the Environment when it comes to the incompetence of ministers of the government. We would be spending all our time in committee dealing with those sorts of issues if that was what committees were designed to do.

Nor are we convinced that replacing this particular incompetent minister with another incompetent minister--

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Order, please. The hon. member for Don Valley West is rising to address the question of privilege that came up. Discussion of the merits of the motion or the competence of ministers is irrelevant at this point. I want to hear his comments about the question of privilege that has been raised by the hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, but I think we had better stay away from the other stuff.

Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
Privilege

10:15 a.m.

Liberal

John Godfrey Don Valley West, ON

Mr. Speaker, our view is that it is not the role of parliamentary committees to determine which minister shall survive and which minister shall go. It is the role of parliamentary committees to have a principled, serious look at the work of the government and, through that, judge the competence of the ministry and the minister.

That is what we were doing yesterday afternoon. We were reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, an incredibly important piece of legislation that we have to look at. It is not our job to indulge in end of term gimmickry. Our job is to be there to do the work. If the chamber wishes to pronounce on the government, if the House wishes to do that, there should be a motion to that effect.

We think that is the role of committees, not this end of term stuff.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, there is no appeal to you on this because there is no report to you from the committee on this. You have nothing to judge. Had you had a report from the committee, you might have something to judge, but I maintain that the committee is master of its own affairs and its own business. A ruling of the chair was appealed and the appeal was upheld. End of story. We have no business discussing this matter further.