Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to be here this evening with everyone to discuss Bill S-12 on existing rules for many products and on very specific and even very technical issues.
I will make most of my comments in English and I will try to understand not only the substance of this Senate bill, but also the future process for Canadians who will be affected by this statute.
In general, an important distinction to make is that the official opposition, through the good work of our member for Gatineau, will support the bill through to second reading and study at committee.
Some have called the bill a technical housekeeping bill. It attempts to bring together a number of different ideas and allows for certain powers that are meant to help the Canadian economy, regulatory authorities and government to have some sort of consistent standards.
We heard from my friend from Saanich earlier that there may be some concerns as to the supremacy of Parliament to continue to make standards that fit with our traditions and our cultural institutions.
We have also raised some significant questions that bear consideration at committee as to what “accessibility” will actually mean once this bill becomes law, as it seems it might. We never would want to say a piece of legislation is not of great urgency, but this is one of the pieces of legislation that the government saw fit to begin the midnight sittings.
I know all my hon. colleagues across the way love midnight sittings and are keen for them. They are chest-thumping right now as I speak and it is the more the merrier. Maybe we could see the clock at 11:50 p.m., if there were some sort of consideration to this.
The important thing in looking at the way the bill has come together is that the source has to be mentioned. There may be some openness to my earlier suggestion. We may or may not test the room a little later.
However, the source of this bill is important, as it is comes from the Senate. There is a lot going on in the Senate right now. It is not focused like a laser. The NDP and Canadians might argue that it is having some institutional challenges. Therefore, while the bill itself might seem somewhat innocuous and neutral in tone, its source is given new suspicion because Canada's so-called chamber of sober second thought might not be so sober these days and might not be giving much second thought to things because of the preoccupation of accounting practices and the recent involvement of the Prime Minister's Office in trying to manage certain problems for the government.
The government uses private members' legislation quite frequently to move what are obviously parts of the government agenda. Rather than using the many tools available to it, it goes through a back door, through the private members' bill route.
The government is also increasingly uses the Senate to introduce bills that fit into the government's particular mandate, and the scrutiny, if one can call it that, that goes on in the Senate is obviously much less. The amount of oversight from the public and the amount of openness from the red chamber is greatly diminished.
While this is a technical bill, its implications actually have a great effect on the everyday lives of people and the businesses and people who we seek to represent. It sets out the rules and how rules will then be incorporated from regulations and standards.
With respect to my friend from Okanagan—Coquihalla, over a number of elections there has been much turnover in this place. We sometimes lament that because we lose that institutional knowledge from time to time, the wisdom and experience. However, it also brings in new energy and excitement for particular committees, of which there is little to be found. I am glad we found a new member from British Columbia who brings the rigour and excitement to the regulations and standards committee, a committee wherein sometimes it is a straw-drawing exercise as to who ends up there, yet it is fundamentally important.
The committee is not often fought over, not the way one would usually fight over appointments to committee, but the scrutiny of regulations committee is a vital committee to a lot of businesses that rely on this. There might not be a wide audience for this debate tonight because it is a niche market one might say. However, those who are interested are extremely interested in what Parliament will do with this legislation and that we get it right.
What is important and at the heart of the matter is a bill originating from the unaccountable, unelected and now under investigation Senate causes us to pay a bit more attention. We want to ensure that the way this legislation was put together was done right and that somebody with some seriousness was involved in its creation. This legislation has some iterations, so we will give it the serious consideration it deserves because of the impacts about which I talked.
We mentioned in the earlier discussion this evening what regulations one might extrapolate from this, such as safety equipment, sports equipment, medical equipment. If regulations drawn up in some dusty civil servant's office are done poorly and then complied with, then those regulations come to life and have some effects and in some cases very serious effects.
I had the opportunity to move a piece of private members' business in my first term here. I was early up in the lottery and moved a bill to remove a type of chemical toxin out of a product that was a softener for plastics. Lo and behold, the bill had wide appeal because it was a known carcinogen, it was an endocrine disrupter and it affected children particularly. The bill received unanimous support of the House, passed through the House, but died in the Senate now that I recall the full story.
Going through the process of seeing the legislation through, it was the regulations that industry suddenly became very excited about and it started making patently outrageous claims, as was proven in the end, because it was worried about harmonization.
The chemical we were talking about was meant to soften plastic, as I said, and it was used in the production of blood collection bags and the tubes that connected them to the patient. There was a hue and cry from the Canadian industry that said if my bill were to pass and this chemical were removed, there were no alternatives. The comment from Industry was that people would die on the operating tables in Canada because of the bill. It was a pretty strong claim and it left a number of members of Parliament wondering if they would be committing murder by voting for my bill.
Then we found out, through regulations and standards, that the Americans had already moved toward eliminating this known carcinogen and that the Europeans had been for a number of years well in advance of Canada in taking known carcinogens out of the industrial system. In the end, one could only describe it as some sort of apathy and laziness on the part of Canadian industry, which had simply not been forced or required to move to the international standard in the production of these blood bags and the tubes that connected them to patients.
It was a strange moment because it became so technical. We started with a good principle that was supported by the House, but the whole debate boiled down to and hung in the balance over some regulation and standard that we as parliamentarians had little to no knowledge of it. Most of us do not come to this place with the experience and enthusiasm of my friend from Okanagan—Coquihalla, certainly not so specific a knowledge as to know whether this chemical was required.
Needless to say, we brought in some witnesses from Europe and the United States and they corrected our Canadian industry. Our industy quickly replaced the known carcinogen and replaced it with something much more innocuous and nobody died. A few less people might have had their endocrines disrupted and maybe a bit less cancer was caused.
If this is a housekeeping bill, which it appears to be in some ways, then what happens at committee becomes quite important. As members of Parliament, we do not have the wherewithal or the particular expertise to know whether this form of regulation should be moved and whether it is static or dynamic or whether it is good for this circumstance or that. We are going to rely on expert witnesses.
We just recently had the Library of Parliament conduct a study for the official opposition. We asked the library a very simple and specific question. Of all the legislation that had been moved through the House since the Conservatives came to power and until now, not in a majority but the previous minority Parliament, of all the amendments that had been moved by any member of the opposition, what per cent had been rejected?
I thought it would be high, but I did not realize that it would be this high: 99.3% of all amendments were rejected. Some members on the other side, on the blue team, might claim that 99.3% of the amendments were terrible. I see a few votes. I hesitated to ask the question.
We need to understand where amendments come from and the process for a bill. Oftentimes, committee members rely on the testimony of the witnesses in front of us, because 99% of the time, they know more than we do. What we do as MPs is try to weigh the testimony in front of us and understand what is the most credible and what is backed up by the most evidence. We then move that into an amendment and work with the Library of Parliament to construct an amendment that would improve the bill.
If that is how the legislative process is meant to work, then clearly, if virtually 100% of all the amendments proposed and worked on by the New Democrats and the Liberals are being rejected out of hand, the process, for political reasons, is not working very well. It is no great disservice to us in the opposition alone. However, it is a disservice to the members of the Canadian public who sent us here, because we are choosing some sort of political expediency rather than accepting the idea that maybe the legislation as crafted the first time is not perfect. For a bill as technical as this one, I would hope that because it does not stir as many of those ideological and partisan motivations, the government members on the committee, who form a majority, will be open to amendments, regardless of who moves them.
If we have said that the thing is important for industry and important for the consumers who rely on the products, then certainly getting the legislation right is also important. It is important that we hand over powers to move these static and dynamic regulations up through standards, that we not duplicate the process and that we do that well. However, we should not do some sort of roughshod approach to regulations in general because sometimes, and I would suggest that this comes more from my colleagues across the way than it does from our side, in the political dynamic, all rules and regulations are treated as always bad, always inefficient and always cumbersome. Of course, that is not true. Of course, a society without rules and regulations to guide the manufacturing of products and the cleanliness of the water we seek to drink and the safety of our roads would be chaotic.
It may often be politically appealing to suggest that the problem with our economy right now is red tape. I ran a small business before getting into politics, and there were some things I encountered that made no sense. There was heavy duplication or having to answer questions that had nothing to do with the business I was running. However, I understood the general purpose and intent, which was to ensure that it was not caveat emptor only that guided and protected the consumer. It was not simply a case of picking up that package of hamburger or that new car off the lot. If the regulations are not going to protect people, and government is not going to play that role, then it is simply one's own wherewithal and the interest of the producer to always hold to higher standards. Most producers and manufacturers do, and some do not.
I represent a riding that has a large agricultural base. I can sit with the farmers and ranchers in my area, particularly on the ranching side, and they will say the same thing: they need good, solid, clear regulations. Business people often talk about clarity. They want to talk about certainty. They want to know what the rules are so that they can anticipate and make the investments they need to make over the long term so that their businesses are healthy and they can hire more people. What they do not like is uncertainty or rules that change for political reasons or some blowing-in-the-wind, weather-vane approach to the rules that guide us. Business hates that, particularly the larger they get and when they are more capital-intensive businesses.
I am now thinking of what has gone on with the Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, which are regulations to guide industry and people to make sure that we try to balance that natural tension between the environment and the economy to ensure that while we are creating prosperity and wealth, we are not downgrading and degrading our natural ecosystem and environment, because over time, we know where that leads. We have enough examples in the world to understand that. However, I do not think, when it comes to climate change, we are taking it at all seriously in this place and perhaps in other Parliaments as well.
The government took a memo from industry, particularly from the oil and gas lobby recently, prior to last summer. The memo included 12 recommendations, requests for changes to the Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, principally. The government moved all 12 through, but not through open debate here in the House. It moved them through omnibus legislation.
I talked to some of the industry reps about this. They had no idea they were going to get all 12 accepted. They were more in a negotiating position. They were offering up their first volley and would get something less back and would negotiate down. They were a bit shocked. The downside for industry, and I would suggest the downside for the government, is that it has eroded the faith of the public as to whether those laws are in place to protect our fisheries and our environment and whether they are strong enough. There are new doubts and aspersions cast upon the oil and gas industry writ large, the good actors and the bad. The companies that keep a good safety record and the ones that do not are all painted with the same brush. That is unfortunate for industry. That creates more uncertainty.
In the attempt to smooth over those rough edges of regulations and standards, the government ended up poisoning the conversation for many Canadians who have natural and normal considerations and concerns when talking about a large-scale development, be it the oil sands or a pipeline out of a particular place or a large mine. That does not seem right to me, and it is not balanced. It has actually drawn back the conversation a number of years, when we have spent decades building up strong and healthy protections for the environment, and almost a century for our fisheries, and they are now gone. Canadians then have to turn to other means and other understandings and conversations, because their voices are going to be heard. Whether Conservatives try to shut us down or not, it is going to happen.
In terms of this legislation and what we do when we get it to committee, it is going to be absolutely critical that the government play nice in allowing witnesses from sometimes both sides of an issue. There may be consumer protection groups, civil liberties groups and accessibility groups, as my friend from Toronto raised earlier, that may have some questions. When we talk about accessible, let us define it.
Official languages groups, I think, will absolutely be interested in this, because generally speaking, and my friend from British Columbia will verify this, international standards are written in the so-called language of business: English. While we are guided by laws in this land that should protect both official languages, there is a bit of a rub. If a consumer or an industry in a francophone community seeks to get a regulation with some clarity, are they going to pay for the translation to understand that? Is the Quebec government going to have concerns? I imagine that it will. It may be well and good to say that we have rules and laws on the books already to protect official languages, but those laws are not being applied.
There is no end to the examples from this government. Just look at the Quebec City marine rescue sub-centre. Today, the government was asked what it intends to do since the Commissioner of Official Languages said that there could be a serious problem for people who end up in trouble on the water. He said that what is in place is inadequate. The government is saying there is no problem.
However, there is a problem when a francophone on a boat has to communicate with an anglophone at a marine rescue sub-centre who knows only two or three words of French. This is unacceptable and against the law, but so it is and so it shall remain unless the government changes its policies. It is imperative that it do so.
It is not good enough to say that we have many laws to protect our two official languages. That may or may not be true. We will see what happens in committee.
I could provide a number of examples of committees where the NDP supported a bill for which the testimony and all the proposed amendments were rejected by the government. The NDP then had to vote against the bill because it was not very good. The government says that the NDP votes against everything, but that is not true. We simply want better.
The consumer confidence impact of the bill is also quite important. Canadian products are known the world over for quality and innovation. We have been on the leading edge of some of the greatest inventions and innovations in history. Yet we have seen a steady moving away from that basic science, which is concerning, both to those in industry and those in science. It is not in every case that scientists sit down in the laboratory and know the product they are going to achieve in the marketplace. That is not the way science often works. There is a litany of examples of things that we now rely upon, such as the computer, the BlackBerry or the automobile that did not start off as inventions. They started off as basic science and understanding. That needs to still be there.
As international trade is so important to Canada as a trading nation, we need to get these international standards aligned properly and make sure that the regulations and standards we design are able to fit yet do not diminish us as a nation. This is important. Everyone should agree that in the pursuit of that trade, we do not diminish ourselves and say that we will accept lower standards for health and safety or for the quality of the products we have. That would be contrary to the aspects of good and fair trade.
In this bill, we have a number of things that are important. Yet it will probably be at the committee stage when we will see the willingness of the government to do what good governments do, which is work with the opposition to make things better. There is no chance, it is just impossible to imagine, that the first incarnation of this bill was written perfectly without a comma or period out of place and without a word that needs to be taken away or added.
The New Democrats will be there to study the bill vigorously at committee and ensure that it is the best piece of legislation possible.