Mr. Speaker, I would like to draw your attention to a situation that, in my opinion, prevents me from doing my work as a member of parliament properly, and therefore is a question of privilege. Incidentally, I did give notice of this question, pursuant to the standing orders.
I am new to this, so I would ask your indulgence and a bit of patience.
On Friday March 15—beware the ides of March, by the way—the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs presented its 48th report, which determined that four items, Bills C-292, C-415, and motions M-414 and M-432 would be deemed votable. The other business from the February 28 draw, would therefore not be votable: motions M-34, M-431, M-329, M-357 and M-435, and Bills C-429, C-304, C-391 and C-407.
Bill C-407 is among this group, and it is a bill that I sponsored. The bill came about as a result of the Montfort hospital saga, this saga has tremendous importance for minority language communities in this country, be they French or English.
Furthermore, I can attest unequivocally that this bill meets all five of the criteria approved by the House in order to be considered eligible for “votable” status.
On March 13, I appeared before the Subcommittee on Private Members' Business and presented a document demonstrating that Bill C-407 met the criteria. The one question that a committee member asked dealt with the substance of the bill, and did not question the criteria. In fact, the chair of the sub-committee, the member for Hull--Aylmer congratulated me by saying:
I must congratulate you, because you are one of the rare members to respect the spirit of the five minutes to demonstrate that your bill is acceptable, rather than selling us on the merit of the bill, because the idea is not to sell us on the merit. The idea is to sell us on the fact that it should become a votable bill.
Then, on March 15, to my great surprise, I learned that Bill C-407 would not be deemed votable.
Despite my dissatisfaction and my frustration with a system that I consider to be cumbersome to say the least, I tried to find out why the subcommittee and the standing committee did not deem it votable.
Before the draw on February 28, one votable item remained in the order of precedence. The subcommittee could therefore add nine, but decided to add only four. Since the refusal to declare votable Bill C-407 and other items, such as Bill C-429 or Motion M-431, which, by the way, I also urge you to review, is therefore not due to a lack of room, it must therefore be because it did not meet the five criteria. If the refusal is not based on these criteria, the situation is even worse than we imagine.
I will not go over the five criteria for the House. They are readily available, and you are probably more familiar with them than anyone, Mr. Speaker.
I spoke with four of the six subcommittee members. I was trying to understand. One told me that he thought that the bill was not federal in nature. Another one said that was not it at all. A third one told me that I should have spoken to him about it in advance, and added that this was not the best way of moving the issue forward, that it would be preferable to refer it to a committee. The fourth one refused to tell me anything at all, even after admitting to a certain incongruity in the situation. The other two people did not return my call.
It was therefore impossible for me to find out why or which of the principles the bill did not comply with.
The reality is this that I am faced with the following situation, along with all other members whose motions were declared non-votable: the decision is one that has been made behind closed doors, with no explanation, and no means of appeal.
Even prisoners who are refused parole can know the reason. The public can take part in meetings where reasons are made public. Any citizen of this country can request information under the Access to Information Act and if this information, or part of it, is refused, the government has to give the reason.
Yet in the Parliament of Canada, in the House of Commons, a member is not entitled to know why his bill or motion is not votable.
This bill addresses something of importance to millions of Canadians throughout the entire country and I cannot be told why it has been declared non-votable. One of my primary roles is that of legislator.
This tool available to members, private members' business, is vitally important. Yet when my bill is blocked and no reason is given, my privileges as a legislator are being attacked. If we are not to be told why it is held up, how can we move a bill ahead? This is where I deem that my privilege as a parliamentarian has been breached.
This past weekend, I read several reports of previous rulings, and came to realize that this is a very particular and very difficult question.
In what I hope is the very unlikely event that you should decide this is not a matter of privilege, I would like to also, with your leave, raise a point of order.
According to the standing orders, private members business is to be determined as votable or non-votable based on merit and not on the number of supporters. In order to determine this merit, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, as well as its Subcommittee on Private Members' Business, have set certain criteria. These were amended in 1999 with the 70th report of the standing committee, tabled in the House on April 20.
Let me quote from the December 11, 2001 evidence of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. It states:
We have the criteria and when I design a bill or motion and have it drafted, I try to have it meet those criteria. Then you find out that the subcommittee on votable items doesn't like it, so they don't support making it votable. To me, if you're going to have criteria, everything that meets the criteria should be votable, or why bother the hell having criteria?
What I sense is that the subcommittee, of which I am part, despite its claims to the contrary, ends up passing judgment on whether the motion or bill that has gone through the lottery, if you're lucky enough to have your name drawn, meets our standards of being worthy of a vote or not. And therein lies the problem. If it meets the criteria, however many criteria there are, it should be votable.
I don't see how you can have it one way or the other. You either throw out the criteria and say this silent group of people is going to be judge, jury and executioner of all private members’ business--because that is what is happening now--or you have criteria and make everything votable if it meets the criteria.
Those were the words of the hon. member for Prince George--Peace River.
My first procedural point of order is whether or not the subcommittee is adhering to the criteria set by the standing committee. In recent times the standing committee has taken to accept without question, in camera and without explanation the decisions of the subcommittee. If the standing committee does not verify that the criteria are properly applied, who does?
Would this fall under the gambit of Standing Order 1? Would the matters I have raised under the question of privilege for that matter also fall under the same gambit?
My second point, and I am concluding with it, is about the way the subcommittee reaches its decisions by consensus, which is rapidly becoming by unanimity. A review of the standing committee's discussions on the matter of private members' business in the fall of 2001 seems to indicate that this is becoming a preoccupation. Yet this practice is not well defined and could lead to problematic situations such as the subcommittee has experienced lately. We all know the power contained in the necessity of unanimity. I think this has to be addressed.
Finally, I do not have any antipathy toward members of the subcommittee. I believe they are caught in a rather awkward situation. I hope that this can be addressed because I now understand firsthand some of the frustrations other members have experienced. I think the system we have for private members' business must be corrected. The way we do it now can lead only to more and more frustration and lack of respect for members of the House.