Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise today and add some comments on Bill C-63. As we have just heard from the minister responsible, the deputy House leader for the government, Bill C-63 is a response to Bill C-3, adopted in the third session of the 37th Parliament, which replaced the Elections Act requirement that a party field 50 candidates in one election in order to qualify for party status in the next election.
With much more relaxed criteria for the establishment of party status, Bill C-3 was a response to the Supreme Court's 2003 Figueroa decision which ruled that the 50 candidate requirement was indeed unconstitutional.
Bill C-3 was intended to be temporary and therefore included a sunset clause that will cause the law to cease to be in force on May 16, 2006, as we have just discussed. The purpose of Bill C-63 is to replace the sunset clause with a comprehensive review of Bill C-3, to take place within two years of the passage of the new law.
I have my doubts as to whether or not we can trust the government to ensure that this review takes place. On September 12, the Ottawa Citizen reported that under the stewardship of this Liberal government Parliament is breaking its own laws while shirking self-imposed obligations to watch over rights and freedoms of Canadians.
The article disclosed that Parliament sometimes fails to make a timely study of contentious and sensitive statutes, which the committees of the House of Commons or Senate are legally obliged to review within a set timeframe, usually within three to five years. A spokesman for the Canadian Bar Association was quoted in the article as saying, “If a review has not been undertaken as required by law, one must question the value of the oversight mechanism”.
At the same time, a House of Commons official was quoted as saying:
Everybody has got egg on their face. Even if (a mandatory Parliamentary review) is in a statute, it's virtually unenforceable. If you or I broke a statutory provision that is mandatory, the forces of law and order would come after us and probably inflict some penalty, but in fact with the Senate or the House no one can inflict any legal penalty.
The article pointed to a number of specific examples, including the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, whose five year review was supposed to begin in a committee of either chamber by last July. The mandatory five year review of the new Canada Customs and Revenue Agency's operations also began six months late.
The justice minister has yet to refer for legislative scrutiny the bill that gave police what is arguably the western world's most sweeping immunity from prosecution. Even the parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister made the following admission in the article in regard to a mandatory review of new powers given to the RCMP when he said:
I can't justify the unjustifiable. Clearly if the act, which is an Act of Parliament, says that it has to be reviewed within three years, we should be doing that.
Thus, while ministers are ignoring laws left, right and centre, the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, in response to a question about the Chief Electoral Officer suggesting that he might violate the Canada Elections Act, preaches to the House that no one is above the law; maybe he meant to say no one who is not a Liberal cabinet minister.
There is another contrast. While the government pitches these mandatory reviews, the parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister told the Ottawa Citizen :
Frankly, and this would be my personal opinion, I think that sometimes it's a bit of a cop out to say we will review (a given law) in three years. If (a bill) is right, then it's right.
Then we have the NDP. That party supports the government and is responsible for its continuation in office, making a mockery of Parliament and the doctrine of responsible government. At the same time, the member for Ottawa Centre accused the Liberals of backing down on a promise to launch consultations this fall on electoral reform. On September 28 he stood in the House and asked:
Is this not another extraordinary example of the cynicism and empty rhetoric of the government that the people of Canada want removed...?
I think the member for Ottawa Centre should direct that question to his own leader.
The Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons has known for a year about his obligation to come before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, yet he has done nothing, nothing, I might add, other than revealing that he did write a letter almost a year ago. Either he has been knowingly in dereliction of his duty or he has just been unaware that he had to do this, which arguably is even worse since it betrays a lack of competence.
In his annual report to the House of Commons, the Chief Electoral Officer endorsed the idea of a new bill to put off the expiry of Bill C-3. However, his report states that it is only because there has been no action that a rush bill to cancel the expiry of Bill C-3 is necessary.
The minister may suggest that it is the obligation of the committee to initiate new legislation, which I suppose would free him from taking responsibility for having failed to act for a year; however, the minister's parliamentary secretary sits on the committee, so why, for a full year, has the parliamentary secretary failed to point out to the minister that nothing is happening at the committee, at least nothing on this issue, or to remind the committee that the minister would like something to happen?
The fact of the matter is that this government has a terrible track record on following through with meaningful democratic reform, whether it be electoral or parliamentary reform. Even more disturbing is the fact that the Liberal leadership cannot even respect the rules that are currently in place and is making a mockery of Parliament on a daily basis.
Let us remember what took place in the spring session, when the government House leader held back scheduling opposition days because he was afraid we might hold his government to account. We suspected that they would try to break from past practice of generally scheduling one opposition day per week, so I presented a motion on April 18 that essentially scheduled one opposition day per week. When the government House leader got wind of my intentions, he immediately rushed into the chamber, cancelled the day and refused to schedule another opposition day for something in the order of five weeks.
It then became clear: there was enough evidence that the government might not enjoy the confidence of the House and, as a result, the matter of confidence had to be settled. We made several attempts, in committee and later through the adoption of committee reports in the House, to try to place a motion of non-confidence before the House. Through procedural tactics, the government avoided a vote until May 10.
The May 10 confidence vote took the form of an amendment to a motion to concur in a committee report. It carried by a vote of 153 to 150. It was similar to an amendment moved in 1926 against the government of Mackenzie King. The Mackenzie King situation was considered a matter of confidence. Even the Speaker ruled that our May 10 amendment and the 1926 amendment were not significantly different.
Notwithstanding that fact, the government ignored the outcome of the vote. It was absurd, and if it were not so serious, it would have made a wonderful comedy skit.
Come to think of it, I believe that skit has already been done. Did it not remind members of the dead parrot routine from Monty Python? When the government was defeated, its House leader tried to pull the wool over everyone's eyes by saying, “No, no, the government is not dead. It is just resting”.
The public and constitutional experts then said, “Look, we know a dead government when we see one and we are looking at one right now”.
“No, it is not dead; it is resting. There. See? It moved,” said the minister.
“Now look here,” we said, “we have definitely had enough of this. This government is definitely deceased. We discovered that the only reason it has been sitting on its perch in the first place is that it has been nailed down”.
“Of course it was nailed down”, said the government House leader. “If I had not nailed the government down, it could have exposed its members to an election”.
In the Monty Python skit, the humour was in the audacity of the salesman thinking he could get away with selling a dead parrot. The government House leader expressed the same boldness in pretending that his government was not defeated, but Canadians know better.
The government House leader finally got the message and the drama ended on May 19, when the government promised that it would respect the outcome of confidence votes on two budget bills. Of course by that time a certain member was enticed to cross the floor to sit as a Liberal cabinet minister, and the NDP was bought off with billions of Canadian tax dollars.
What was alarming about the whole affair was that the government acted illegally for nine days, from May 10 to May 19, and used that time and Canadians' money to secure enough votes to win the second vote.
The scenario of ignoring the outcome of a vote and waiting for another opportunity is discussed in Eugene Forsey's “The Question of Confidence and Responsible Government”, where he states, “to allow such a principle is to make a mockery of the doctrine of confidence”.
The government House leader is once again making a mockery of Parliament this fall. He is using the same tactics he used in the spring. The only thing new this time around is his excuse. He said that the Prime Minister had fixed a date for the election, which he promised would be called 30 days after the final report of the Gomery commission expected in February. Obviously the minister does not understand the parliamentary system of government. Even if we had fixed election dates in this country, in a parliamentary system there is always the potential to trigger an election outside of a fixed date due to the government losing the confidence of the House. Furthermore, the government House leader has an obligation to provide the Leader of the Opposition with the opportunity to put that to a test.
The 22nd edition of Erskine May states:
From time to time the Opposition put down a motion on the paper expressing lack of confidence in the Government--a 'vote of censure' as it is called. By established convention the Government always accedes to the demand from the Leader of the Opposition to allot a day for the discussion of such a motion. In allotting a day for this purpose the Government is entitled to have regard to the exigencies of its own business, but a reasonably early day is invariably found. This convention is founded on the recognized position of the Opposition as a potential Government, which guarantees the legitimacy of such an interruption of the normal course of business. For its part, the Government has everything to gain by meeting such a direct challenge to its authority at the earliest possible moment.
While it is the government's prerogative to schedule the business of the House, it would be unethical and against convention to suggest that the government could abuse its authority in order to avoid a confidence vote and govern illegally. If the Leader of the Opposition feels that the government has lost the confidence of the House, the government is obliged to schedule a day to settle the matter. We cannot have another situation like we had in the spring. It was a sham and should never be repeated.
When the government responded to the 43rd report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs called “Democratic Renewal”, it indicated that the committee's recommended timeframe was unrealistic. The government then suggested a timeframe that will not allow this special committee to finish its work. The Liberals forgot that they have a minority and that this Parliament is not long for this life. In fact, it already technically died once.
The response also attempts to establish some government achievements that have been made in strengthening the role of Parliament, including the creation of an independent ethics commissioner reporting to Parliament. The Prime Minister sat on that promise for over 10 years. He even voted against an opposition motion that called on his government to implement that very promise which came straight from the Liberal red book. The Liberals had to be embarrassed into implementing that change and only after being pressured by the opposition for over 10 years.
The government also crows about its commitment to democratic renewal that was set out in the October 5, 2005 Speech from the Throne where it pledged “to examine the need and options for reform of our democratic institutions, including electoral reform”. What about the commitment in the Speech from the Throne that promised to allow members an opportunity to consider all public information pertaining to the missile defence agreement and to vote prior to a government decision? The government completely ignored that commitment.
The response also stated:
In February 2004, as the Prime Minister's first order of business, the Government tabled its Action Plan for Democratic Reform. The initiatives outlined in the Action Plan were developed to ensure that Members of Parliament play a significantly larger role in the decision-making process.
Those are nice words, but as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said”. How does ignoring the wishes of the majority of members help the government play a significantly larger role in the decision making process in this place?
We all remember when the Prime Minister was running in a leadership contest and portrayed himself as the man who would slay the democratic deficit. He was successful at creating and popularizing the phrase “the democratic deficit” but that was his only success. He created words and expectations. That was it. He had no intention of slaying the democratic deficit, nor did he have any plans to respect this House and its members.
If actions speak louder than words, let us review some more of his actions. On November 30, 2004, the House supported a motion sponsored by the Leader of the Opposition that called on the government to take the appropriate measures to sell the 11,000 acres of arable land back to families and farmers whose land was expropriated to build the Mirabel airport. The Prime Minister refused to comply with the wishes of the House.
This affront to Parliament was repeated on February 8 regarding a motion to farmers.
I could go on and on listing other motions. Indeed, I have questions on the Order Paper now dealing with the inaction of the government in respecting the wishes of Parliament as expressed by the majority of members when they voted on these motions.
I want to get back to Bill C-3. The need for such a bill is a mystery since there is plenty of time, as my colleague from Lanark—Carleton pointed out, for the committee to draft replacement legislation between now and when Bill C-3 expires on May 16, 2006. Moreover, an election in the intervening period would not throw off this process, as my colleague just pointed out. The sunset clause in Bill C-3 states that in the event that Parliament is not in session when the bill expires, the bill will continue to function for an additional 90 days after the first sitting of the new Parliament. Thus, a new Conservative government could easily deal with this legislation if an election were to take place prior to May 2006.
There is no reason that we cannot provide Canadians with a Parliament and an electoral system they can be proud of. It has so much potential and so much to offer. Unlike the Liberals, the Conservative Party has clearly shown that it respects and recognizes this potential. It demonstrated that it is prepared to diligently and aggressively create more opportunities for democracy within the parliamentary structure. No party has pursued democratic reform in Parliament more than the Conservative Party in the last 10 years.
We have been successful at making improvements to private members' business, accountability in getting questions answered by the government, secret ballot elections at committee and democratic selection of senior officers of Parliament, such as the Privacy Commissioner, the Access to Information Commissioner and the Clerk of the House of Commons. Thanks to the initiatives brought in by the three opposition parties at the beginning of this Parliament, recommendations that flow from committee reports will no longer be shelved by the government but instead will be taken up by the House. We now have more opposition members chairing standing committees. The nomination of the Deputy Speaker is no longer selected by the Prime Minister but is now the prerogative of the Speaker himself. We now have question and comments that follow every speech, including speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
Many of these successes did not come easy. When the Liberals had their majority it took 10 years of persistence to change the process for private members' business. First, the Liberals ignored our suggestions, then they ridiculed them, and then their own backbench began to embrace them. Then the fight was on with the front bench. They were eventually outmanoeuvred and proposals were reluctantly adopted.
The issue of secret ballot elections at committee followed a similar path but did not take quite as long. We managed to get support of some Liberal backbenchers after we reminded them that in the 19th century, prior to secret ballot voting in general elections, all kinds of methods of coercion were used to influence voters. Parties often hired bullies who moved from riding to riding in fact.
The government then realized that was exactly what the government whip did each September during the chairmen elections at committees. The chief whip, his or her deputies and staff, moved from committee to committee to ensure their members voted the right way. The tactics used by the government whip during the election of chairmen and vice-chairmen of committees were not that different than those tactics used to influence elections in the 19th century.
Who in their right mind would not want to change that? Against all rational thinking and common sense, the front bench of the Liberal caucus fought tooth and nail against any such change.
The then government House leader, after we had introduced a motion that would have allowed for secret ballot elections at committee, performed procedural aerobatics and employed shameless bullying tactics, much like what is taking place today with the current House leader. Once again their motives are to hold on to power at the expense of democracy.
Nothing positive has changed under the Prime Minister and the leadership of the House leader and deputy House leader. If anything, the situation has grown worse. The democratic deficit is greater today than it was under Jean Chrétien.
On the inevitable day when the Prime Minister must let go of the reins of power, he will wake up in a cold sweat and plead, “Don't let it end like this. Tell them I did something”. However it will be too late.
In summary, Bill C-63 is an affront to the House and its members. It is a perfect example of how not to legislate and is indicative of the way Liberals manage the business of Parliament. They give themselves a deadline, ignore the deadline, wait until the last minute and then declare an emergency. That is no way to legislate or to govern.