Mr. Speaker, I wanted to wait through much of our procedural moment because I have a significant point of order to raise today. It is of some duration and I wanted to allow members who have to go on to other business to do so.
This point of order is in reference to Bill C-45, specifically with the work that was done by the committees, the powers that committee have and the power that the House retains as the place that created our committees.
It is often said that committees are the masters of their own domain. It is an important concept and it makes an important point about a committee's autonomy. Perhaps you will agree with me when I say that this concept gets exaggerated from time to time by committees.
It means that each of our standing committees is in charge of its own affairs. When it is formed by order of the House and when work is assigned to it by the House, it is largely up to the committee to decide how and when to tackle it. However, it is not true, as some suggest, that this means committees can do whatever they want, whenever they want and however they want. There are rules set out in procedural text, Standing Orders and precedents of our legislature and committees cannot simply throw these rules out whenever it pleases them. Each committee may be the master of its domain in many respects but there are clear and distinct limits on those domains that committees must respect, even if it does not suit some members of the majority governing body.
In the case of Bill C-45, the second massive omnibus bill introduced by the government, the government has been stretching the limits of what can and should be tolerated from a majority government in this Parliament. Parliamentary procedural rules are clear that, notwithstanding the opposition's right to delay things that are unacceptable to them, the government must have the right to make progress on its legislative agenda in a reasonable manner.
However, the government has already tested, and we would argue, broken, the democratic limits of our legislature by packing a legislative agenda of an entire parliamentary session into one or two bills and then cynically adding the words “budget implementation” to the front cover.
In the previous incarnation of this tactic on Bill C-38, Mr. Speaker, you heard multiple submissions from opposition members who felt that the government had simply gone well beyond the reasonable limits of what might be honestly included in its budget bill. You disagreed with the interventions of the opposition at that time, but I hope you will conclude, after this submission, that the government has simply played too fast and loose with the rules that must govern the passage of all legislation, whatever its form or title and that such action undermines Parliament's essential ability to do its work on behalf of Canadians; namely, to be able to hold government to account.
Today, I will not discuss the legitimacy or the value of omnibus bills. It is ironic that this government, in its great wisdom, is single-handedly teaching Canadians words and phrases that they would never have come to know without the Conservatives' help.
A few years ago, the government plucked the word “prorogation” from the pages of procedural texts, making it the topic of discussion around the nation's dinner tables and the impetus behind many demonstrations across the country. Thanks to the Conservatives, Canadians have had to learn a new definition of “ministerial accountability” because, unfortunately, under this Prime Minister, ministers seem to have no accountability. And they have turned the word “omnibus” into a bad word. They have systematically avoided Parliament's oversight by using this legislative tool and abusing the power of their government, which barely won a majority.
During the committee process on its most recent monstrosity of a budget omnibus bill, I believe the government has simply gone too far in its casual relationship with the parliamentary rules that govern this place and Canadian democracy, and that the legislation should be thrown out and made to start over again as a result.
I would remind you, Mr. Speaker, along with this House and the Canadians hoping for better from their Parliament, of what has transpired with respect to Bill C-45, the government's second omnibus budget implementation bill for the 2012-13 year.
On October 18 of this year, following the adoption of the way and means Motion No. 13, the Minister of Foreign Affairs moved, on behalf of the Minister of Finance, that Bill C-45 be read a first time and printed. On October 24, the Minister of Public Safety moved that Bill C-45 be read a second time and referred to committee.
After using time allocation to shut down debate again, second reading of Bill C-45 ended with the passage of the following motion on October 30 of this year:
...that Bill C-45, A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures be now read a second time and referred to [the Standing Committee on Finance].
As a matter of record, Hansard on October 30 specifically quotes the Speaker saying, “I declare the motion carried. Accordingly, the bill stands referred to the Standing Committee on Finance”.
The reference of this bill to the committee, as set out in the motion the House adopted, was always to the finance committee and only to the finance committee.
That is an important point. Because the House is master of its own activities, and in order to protect its rights, it must be certain that its orders of reference are complied with. As you know, Mr. Speaker, in accordance with the legislative process adopted by the House, a bill can only be referred to one committee, and this committee must be the one designated by the House itself.
Committees derive their existence and authority from the House of Commons. The House creates committees specifically through Standing Order 104, which further regulates how they are constituted and governed under Standing Order 106. The House also sets out the specific mandate of each of the standing committees under Standing Order 108.
An excellent summary of this regime can be found in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, which I will refer to as O'Brien and Bosc, on pages 960 and 962, which says the following about standing committees:
They are empowered to study and report to the House on all matters relating to the mandate, management, organization and operation of the departments assigned to them. More specifically, they can review:
the statute law relating to the departments assigned to them;
the program and policy objectives of those departments, and the effectiveness of their implementation thereof;
the immediate, medium and long-term expenditure plans of those departments and the effectiveness of the implementation thereof;
and an analysis of the relative success of those departments in meeting their objectives.
In addition to this general mandate, other matters are routinely referred by the House to its standing committees: bills, estimates, Order-in-Council appointments, documents tabled in the House pursuant to statute, and specific matters which the House wishes to have studied. In each case, the House chooses the most appropriate committee on the basis of its mandate.
I make particular note that all abilities cited in this passage flow from the House, not from another committee. It is the House of Commons that authorizes these powers. I emphasize the fact that the reference on Bill C-45 to committee was only ever to the finance committee. The motion passed in the House only referred to that committee.
In other words, this does not prevent other committees from studying the content of different parts of an omnibus bill. The committees always have that right, but this study must be separate from the study carried out pursuant to the order of reference the House gave the committee responsible for the official study of the bill in question.
The only way for other committees to legitimately study parts of an omnibus bill is to divide it into several pieces of legislation and ask the House to issue an order of reference for the new bill or bills to these committees.
The official opposition has been calling all along for this bill to be divided and studied properly by the different committees. Members will recall that the official opposition moved a series of motions in the House to divide this bill, using the same method that was used to divide the budget bill and create and pass Bill C-46 on MPs' pension plan, even though we got Bill C-46 only after the NDP rejected the Liberals' original ill-advised proposal to circumvent the legislative process, not only for the pensions of MPs, but also for the pensions of public sector workers and RCMP members.
We have done this in that exact circumstance. The House of Commons took Bill C-45 and, by the powers of the House, divided out the section that was related to the pensions of members and senators.
There was a mistake made in the original proposition by the third party, I must say supported somewhat happily by the government, which would have brushed through changes that would have impacted more than 450,000 public employees, RCMP members and their families without a minute of study or debate in the House of Commons or at any committee.
The official opposition was actually paying attention to what the Liberals had proposed, while the Liberals themselves may not have, and were resistant to the idea of throwing 450,000 public servants and RCMP members under the bus for political expediency.
We divided out that section of the bill and made a counter proposal to just deal with the pensions of MPs and senators. The government was fine with that as well because that was what was actually called for by all members of the House, as opposed to what the third party suggested.
Here we arrive at the essential problem with the approach of the Conservatives to Parliament and making law. They think the rules do not apply to them and their majority means they can cook up any scheme they want just to meet the communication goals of the Prime Minister's office.
In the Standing Committee on Finance, in response to intense pressure from the official opposition and Canadians from coast to coast to coast, in order to give the “appearance” of due diligence on Bill C-45 at committee stage, here is what the Conservatives cooked up.
I will read from the minutes and will emphasize the part that is important to the future ruling of the Speaker. On October 31, the Standing Committee on Finance adopted the following. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance moved:
That, in relation to the Order of Reference of Tuesday, October 30, 2012, respecting Bill C-45, A second Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures,
(a) the Chair of the Standing Committee write, as promptly as possible, to the Chairs of the following Standing Committees inviting those Standing Committees to consider the subject-matter of the following provisions of the said Bill...
A number of the committees are laid out in this relation from the parliamentary secretary: the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development; the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food; the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration; the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development; the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans; The Standing Committee on Health; the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities; the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights; the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security; and the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
This also shows how wide a net the government cast in this bill.
Here are the important parts in the instruction coming out of the finance committee.
This is the part that we argue the finance committee never had the power to do because only the House of Commons can do such a thing.
With respect to section (b) it states, “each of the Standing Committees, listed in paragraph (a)”, all of those which I just recounted:
be requested to convey recommendations, including any suggested amendments, in both official languages, in relation to the provisions considered by them, in a letter to the Chair of the Standing Committee on Finance, in both official languages not later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, November 20, 2012;
(c) any amendments suggested by the other Standing Committees, in the recommendations conveyed pursuant to paragraph (b), shall be deemed to be proposed during the clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-45, provided that the recommendations are received prior to the relevant clauses being considered, and further provided that the members of the Standing Committee...may propose amendments—
Section (d) states:
the Committee shall proceed to clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-45 no later than Wednesday, November 21...provided that the Chair may limit debate on each clause to a maximum of five minutes...
Therefore, this is a further time allocation, now at the committee stage, and a further shutting down of debate. Section (e) states:
amendments to Bill C-45, other than the amendments deemed to be proposed pursuant...be submitted to the Clerk...
As well, there are other instructions in sections (e) and (f).
Some important facts immediately stand out. The committee did not present its report on the bill to the House by Thursday, November 22 at the earliest. In fact, it presented the report this afternoon. Why? Because the committee violated its own procedural rules when the government ended up in a new mess as a result of communication issues.
I also note that this study, carried out by committees other than the finance committee, is the tactic the third party used to try to improve parliamentary oversight of this bill, from what I understand.
The Liberals got what they wanted, but only because the government was all set to say it was co-operating, when in fact, the entire process was nothing more than a procedural play orchestrated by the government and its unwitting allies in the Liberal Party, who forgot the old saying: be careful what you wish for.
On the other end of this procedural spectrum, the legitimate end, the motions that the official opposition proposed to split the bill in a real and legitimate fashion, which were quickly rejected by the government almost out of hand, would have referred the separate policy areas in Bill C-45 to the appropriate committees for an actual study. Then each committee could held hearings, called a variety of witnesses with critical expertise and then having hearing points of view on the bill, could have create reasonable amendments for debate and decision in a clause-by-clause meeting in each of those committee hearings.
Finally, each committee could then have reported its bill back to the House in due course. This would have dramatically improved a flawed bill, corrected the twisting of the rules from the government and reconfirmed our collective commitment to respect taxpayer money and their Parliament. This bill has massive implications not only in what it sets out to do but its implications on this place and the legitimacy that we hold as parliamentarians to hold government to account.
In the sham of a process that the Conservatives then used, various committees were asked by the finance committee, not the House of Commons, to study and propose amendments to a bill for which it had no order of reference at all. Not only was this a procedural disaster, but because of the impossibly short timelines, there was no opportunity for reasoned debate at the other committees regardless. That last point is a matter of some debate I realize, but it further emphasizes that a process set up by the government was a true disregard for our legislative process. Committees were hearing entire sections of the bill with one or two witnesses and no cross-examination ability and moving through clause-by-clause in minutes with no discussion.
We have been left with an illegitimate process that flies in the face of our procedures and practices, the implication of which is summed up best by O'Brien and Bosc's passage on committee reports, at page 985, where it says:
In the past, when a committee has gone beyond its order of reference or addressed issues not included in the order, the Speaker of the House has ruled the report or a specific part of the report to be ruled out of order.
When committees have gone beyond their mandate in the past, the Speaker saw fit to either reject sections of that committee's report or the entire report.
Mr. Speaker, you yourself referred this bill to a specific committee. I think the Standing Committee on Finance simply did not have the authority to refer sections of Bill C-45 to another standing committee. The committee had the right and duty to examine this bill and report it back to the House, with or without amendments.
Let me review quickly, for those following at home this procedural nightmare that the government has created, a government that seems reluctant or unable to follow the rules that have been set out by this place for many decades, how a committee is supposed to deal with a complex bill referred to it by the House after second reading.
Normally, after passage of a bill at second reading, the committee which received the bill would organize its time, call for a variety of witnesses based on the lists provided by the recognized parties in proportion to their representation at the committee, hear the witnesses, formulate amendments, schedule a clause-by-clause meeting, call each clause, hear the amendments to the clause, vote on the amendments and the clauses and then, finally, vote on the bill. Mr. Speaker, you and I both know this process well. That is not what happened here.
The results of these decisions would then be reported back to the House, where the legitimacy was derived for the committee's studies. This has been a time-honoured practice and, regardless of the bill, the intensity of the debate or the divisions, it has been a process practised by governments of all political stripes.
The House, in its wisdom, has even provided a mechanism to allow for a variation on the normal progress of a bill through committee, which is called a motion of instruction. I will call once again upon the sage guidance of O'Brien and Bosc, this time in the chapter on the legislative process, at page 752, where it states:
Once a bill has been referred to committee, the House may instruct the committee by way of a motion authorizing what would otherwise be beyond its power, such as, for example, examining a portion of a bill and reporting it separately, examining certain items in particular, dividing a bill into more than one bill, consolidating two or more bills into a single bill, or expanding or narrowing the scope or application of a bill. A committee that so wishes may also seek an instruction from the House.
This is the power of the House of Commons. The House of Commons can send this motion of instruction to any committee to divide a bill, to bring a bill together, to study it in its most logical and proper way. That power rests solely with the House of Commons. No committee can take upon any of those actions themselves. They are not the masters of that fate.
If the government were interested in following the rules of this place and wanted to have a variety of committees study the bill, then it could have moved to instruct the committee to do so, what it should have otherwise been powerless to do. In this case, that is to have other committees conduct a review of the portions of the bill that dealt with their policy areas, transportation, Indian affairs, the environment and fisheries and oceans, and to allow amendments to those portions and to report them separately. The committee, if it felt incapable to deal with the sections of the bill that had so little to do with finance and the budget, could equally have asked the House for instruction.
However, the power to authorize this variance in the legislative process rests only with the House of Commons and not with the finance committee.
In your final judgment and assessment on this point of order, Mr. Speaker, one has to not only look at the case in front of us on Bill C-45, how the process has gone completely off the rails, but project forward that if we allow committees to start to make these types of decisions without any authority whatsoever derived from the House, masters of their own fate takes on a more perverse nature, a more politically inspired nature and one that governments of all political stripes would abhor.
I am going to begin to wrap up in a minute.
Because no other committee was given an order of reference by the House to examine Bill C-45 and because the House did not pass a motion of instruction to complement the order of reference, I find it unacceptable that a committee other than the Standing Committee on Finance held votes on the amendments to Bill C-45, which is exactly what the Standing Committee on Finance allowed. Votes therefore took place and, as the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Finance's motion clearly indicates, the decision of these other committees had a binding effect on the work of the Standing Committee on Finance. Yet, this is a right that only the House lawfully possesses.
To be clear, any committee has the right to initiate a study on the subject matter that applies to their policy area, including on the elements of Bill C-45, that the government should have included in a separate bill. Though, even then, those committees cannot report back to another committee. Mr. Speaker, you know this well. One committee cannot just choose to report their amendments and clauses back to another, but rather back to the House of Commons from which the committee derives its power and to which it is accountable, not to another committee but to this place.
Committees also have the power to meet jointly with other committees, but there again a report from a joint committee can only come back to the House of Commons not to another committee. This point is addressed by O'Brien and Bosc, on page 983, where it is referring to a joint committee. It says the following:
If a report is adopted during a joint meeting, each committee may present to the House a separate report, even though the two reports will be identical.
I will also refer to the same chapter, on pages 984 and 985, where a committee report to the House is covered. It says the following:
In order to carry out their roles effectively, committees must be able to convey their findings to the House. The Standing Orders provide standing committees with the power to report to the House from to time, which is generally interpreted as being as often as they wish. A standing committee exercises that prerogative when its members agree on the subject and wording of a report and it directs the Chair to report to the House, which the Chair then does.
Like all other powers of standing committees, the power to report is limited to issues that fall within their mandate or that have been specifically assigned to them by the House. Every report must identify the authority under which it is presented. In the past, when a committee has gone beyond its order of reference or addressed issues not included in the order, the Speaker of the House has ruled the report or a specific part of the report to be out of order.
We have rules for committee which show that they receive their authority from the House and which also say the committees report their work back to the House and only to the House.
In conclusion, the other committees of the House should never have accepted the request of the Standing Committee on Finance, which made them a type of subcontractor to what can only be described as the sloppy work of the Minister of Finance and his parliamentary secretary.
I think that other committees could have easily examined certain parts of Bill C-45.
These committees could have heard from witnesses and reported their findings to the House.
However, because the House referred the issue only to the Standing Committee on Finance and the government minimized the importance of our rules of procedure in order to serve its own communications purposes and appear democratic even while introducing an omnibus bill, I think, Mr. Speaker, that as the guardian of the rules that protect the integrity of this venerable institution, you should reject the committee's report and remove it from the order paper.
Mr. Speaker, I look forward to your ruling on this.
On one final note, I realize without a doubt that a ruling in favour of this submission would be a strong indictment of the government. However, after all of the legislative and procedural corners the Conservatives have cut since getting their much-coveted and very slim majority in the last federal election, perhaps this would be a healthy reminder to all concerned that their power is still limited by the rules of our parliamentary democracy. Perhaps they could use this as a wake-up call. They are not the kings that lord over this country, but just servants to its people.