Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore for bringing the bill forward for debate before the House today. He has my assurance that I will seriously consider his suggestion about speaking to my constituents about this. His latter suggestion was that if we were in opposition to what he was proposing, we should go back and talk to our constituents. Not only myself, but I would suggest a vast majority of members on this side of the House are not in support of the bill.
Bill C-251 raises very important issues for our government and the people it represents. Should members of Parliament be required to vacate their seats if they leave their political party between elections? It is our duty to debate the bill today and discuss its merits for Canadian democracy.
Other countries have struggled with this issue and it has been floated in and out of our Parliament in the form of private members' bills not less than five times in the past few years. Of those times, only once has the issue of requiring a byelection for changing party affiliation been fully debated. That time was when that member's Bill C-218 was debated in the second session of the 37th Parliament.
When we compare the circumstances of that debate and this one, three key differences stand out on whether Bill C-251 should be adopted by the House.
When the crossing the floor bill was last debated, like most private members' business, it was non-votable. In 2003 the entire manner of doing private members' business changed. Now the accepted presumption for private members' items is that they will be votable. This is significant. Individual MPs have more power than ever to influence the legislative agenda, to make law and to create policy.
Through motions, bills and concurrence motions for committee reports, members are acting as independent legislators in the House. In a fair and equal process, individual members get the opportunity to have their items heard through a draw to be placed on the list from which the order of precedence is created. Members can be put on the list regardless of party affiliation or the aim of their motions and bills.
Notably the space that private members' business offers is often distinct from the member's own party's agenda. For private members' business, many local constituency concerns get voiced in legislative form. The ability to address local issues in a national forum is invaluable to complementing the work of the federal government. In addition, individual MPs get to voice their own initiatives and policies that may not be reflected on any party agenda, injecting novel and interesting issues into the parliamentary process.
This difference in the manner in which private members' business works is momentous in the way this place operates. Last time, a significant portion of the speaking time of the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore was spent speaking to the point of non-votability rather than the merits. Today, we get to have a full debate on the merits because the bill has the potential to become law.
Indeed, the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore acknowledged in a recent interview with the Hill Times that “The beauty of private members' business is you don't need caucus consent”. Because it is not dependent on party politics, he or she can bring his or her bill to the House, even though support for it is not consistent in his or her own party or others.
The second difference between today's debate and that of the last Parliament is intimately related to the way in which we do business in the House. In the current minority government context, governing in a common purpose is the best way for all members of the House to transcend party lines to improve the lives of all Canadians. We are each joined by a commitment to unity and an inclusion of all regions and all voices on the national stage.
As such, to complement the changes in the standing orders around private members' business, the government has worked diligently to improve the processes of government, infusing the spirit of inclusion throughout our public institutions. For instance, parliamentarians are increasingly involved in key government appointments and are more empowered to affect the government policy in parliamentary committees. All these measures are aimed at renewing Canadian democracy so we can be effective in representing the people of Canada.
However, Bill C-251 presumes that we operate under a completely different electoral and political framework. By requiring members to leave Parliament if they change their party, Bill C-251 ignores the function of MPs as “individual parliamentarians” and places a primacy on party politics over democratic governance.
Governing in a common purpose should be about seeking to build partnerships and compromises on important issues facing Canadians. In contrast, Bill C-251 seeks to entrench factionalism and create discord between parliamentarians. The bill disregards shifting circumstances that may legitimately drive an MP to change parties between elections.
This disregard is closely related to the third difference between the last debate on crossing the floor and this one. That was a time of great transition in the House. New parties were being formed, membership was splitting and merging, and the degree of party switching understandably heightened. Technically, some members changed their party affiliation more than once or even twice.
Were the provisions of Bill C-251 actually in place, there would not have been enough time to set up byelections between party changes from Reform to Alliance to Democratic Reform to Progressive Conservative to Conservative. The resulting cost to taxpayers and the administrative burden on Elections Canada would have been enormous. Would such byelections have really furthered Canadian democracy? I would suggest no.
Historically, MPs in Canada, as in England, have used floor crossing as a necessary last resort in seeking better ways of representing their electorate. Over time, many parties have divided or transformed as they try to structure the best organization for serving the people. The creation of new parties to accommodate regional or grassroots interests is a primary example of civic engagement and democratic participation.
Bill C-251 would capture all these instances of party changes, expanding the vulnerability of a member's seat far beyond anything that we have ever seen. Currently, aside from death and conviction of a very specific set of criminal acts, members are secure in their elected positions.
This system creates an environment that lends confidence and power to the individual member to act as she or he believes is in the best interests of the people and the people that they represent. Bill C-251 would turn this system on its head, essentially according party leaders the power to eject members from Parliament if they then sit with another party in the House.
Much has changed since this bill was last debated in the House. Changing circumstances are the business of politics. It is what we address and manage to protect and advance the lives of Canadians. Sometimes that change requires changing parties, building new alliances or reorganizing our current ones. For that to entail a loss of our status as a member of Parliament, our mandate from the people, is an unprecedented step that does not strengthen our democracy.
Members have more power to influence government than ever before and we should each be harnessing this power to govern with the common purpose of improving our country. This is why I personally, and as I have indicated the vast majority I expect on this side of the House, cannot support Bill C-251. The issues it raises are important, but the measures it proposes are counterproductive.
Each member of the House wants to strengthen and renew Canadian democracy. This is why we entered politics and came to Ottawa. That is the reason why I came here. Revoking a member's elected mandate because they change parties moves us backwards rather than forward toward this goal. I urge all parliamentarians in this House to reject this bill for this reason.