moved that the bill be read a third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to debate Bill C-586, the reform act.
I would first like to thank the members of the procedure and House affairs committee for their work on this bill with respect to all the witnesses they heard from and all the testimony they received. In particular, I want to thank the chair of that committee, the member for Elgin—Middlesex—London, for helping shepherd the bill through committee before the Christmas adjournment and reporting it back to the House as soon as possible after we resumed sitting in January. Therefore, I thank all members of the committee for their work in that regard.
As was mentioned at report stage, the bill has been amended. However, I put it to the House that the bill remains true to the principles upon which it was based when I originally introduced it last April.
The amended bill incorporates the same principles as the original. It makes it possible to give the responsibility for nominations back to the riding associations; it stipulates that caucuses must vote to choose their chair and to expel members; and it sets out the rules that a caucus must follow for a leadership review.
The bill in front of us, as amended, does keep the principles of the original bill.
There has been much debate about the bill and the amendments to it. To those who would say that the bill should not have been amended, I say this. The bill, as amended, is not perfect but it is still very good. In this case, if not amended, the bill would not pass the House. The important point for people to know is that in this case perfection would have been the enemy of the good, because it is clear, and I think all members of the House will acknowledge, that had the bill not been amended it would not have any chance of passage through the House of Commons or the Senate. As it is stands before us today, as amended, the bill has a good chance of being passed through the House, through the Senate, and becoming law before the dissolution of Parliament and the next general election.
I would like to take some time to dwell on what the amended bill would do. For the first time in 45 years, since October 1970, the bill would remove the statutory requirement that party leaders approve party candidates in general elections. It would also mandate that after each general election, each House of Commons caucus, as its first item of business, would vote on the rules that govern that party caucus. In other words, after the next general election, MPs will be given the vote in respect of their role as elected members of caucus in this Parliament. With that vote, elected MPs can choose to empower themselves or choose to give that power to party leaders. If the bill becomes law, our first item of official business when we first meet as party caucuses will be to vote either to adopt, reject, or modify four sets of rules that will govern party caucuses, the first being the election and removal of the caucus chair, the second being the expulsion or readmission of caucus members, the third being the review and removal of the party leader, and the fourth being the election of the interim leader.
Throughout the life of this Parliament there have been examples of these rules being utilized in the last four years. However, they have never been clear in their exercise and seem largely based on circumstance rather than clear guidelines and clearly defined rules.
It would be a significant change from the status quo to remove a party leader's veto in the Canada Elections Act, which has been in place since October 1970, and the empowerment of caucuses to decide, as their first order of business after each and every general election, how they will structure and govern themselves.
I would like to dwell a bit on why I believe this legislation, as amended, is so important.
It is clear that we have a problem in Ottawa. We have a problem in Parliament. We have a problem in the House of Commons. This should not be news to anyone. The fact of the matter is that over the last number of decades, barrels of ink have been spilled documenting this problem. The problem quite simply is the following.
There has been a change in our Westminster parliamentary system of government, a change away from a legislature and a House of Commons that was empowered by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, a change away from the principles of responsible government that the Governor in Council was not accountable back to colonial masters in London but rather to an elected legislature in this House of Commons.
Those rule changes have created a fundamental problem, and that fundamental problem is the centralization of power in party leaders. This problem is not the result of any one party or any one leader. There is plenty of blame to spread around in this regard. It is not a problem that has been in the making in recent years, or even the last decade. This problem has been decades in the making. I referenced October 1970. It was one little change innocently taken in that year that amended the Canada Elections Act and gave party leaders the unprecedented authority to approve party candidates in general elections. Today, to my knowledge, there is no other western democracy where party leaders by law have the power to approve or to veto party candidates. It is an astounding power that we have given to party leaders, and this is just one of a myriad of examples of changes to our system that have taken place and created this problem of centralization.
As I mentioned, we have come a long way from the loose fish of Sir John A. Macdonald's era, the loose fish that he referred to in referencing his fellow elected members of Parliament in the legislatures post-1867.
Party leaders themselves have acknowledged this problem of the centralization of power. John Turner, a former prime minister, at the most recent Liberal policy convention talked about the need to remove the statutory veto power of party leaders over party candidates. He supported a resolution on the floor of the convention. That resolution did not pass but he spoke strongly in favour of removing that statutory power.
Preston Manning is another party leader who has long advocated for democratic reforms to this place. Leaders like Paul Martin campaigned in 2004 on addressing the democratic deficit and Joe Clark long talked about the need to respect the parliamentary process in the House of Commons. Former MPs, like the former occupant of that chair, former Speaker Peter Milliken, have spoken in favour of the reforms in the reform act.
As I mentioned, despite all the barrels of ink spilled on documenting this problem, all of the columnists who have written about this problem, all of the academics like Donald Savoie or Ned Franks, all of the political parties that have promised change, little if anything has happened. The time has come to act. We must act because Canadians are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the state of our democratic institutions.
This bill is so important because if we look at the prosperity that we have inherited, if we look at the stability of our society, if we look at the justice in our society, if we look at the social outcomes, they are not an accident. I say this because if we look around the world today, the societies that are the most prosperous, the most just, the most stable, the societies with the best outcomes, are all democracies, and that is no accident.
The very foundation of all this prosperity and stability is our democratic institutions of government. If we are going to preserve this prosperity, if we are going to sustain it against the rise of semi-totalitarian states like China, against the rise of energy powerhouses like Russia, against the rise of many other developing economies, it will start with reinvigorating the foundations of our society.
At the heart of these democratic institutions is a series of checks and balances on power.
I read an op-ed piece by Stewart Prest, who is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. I want to quote him, because what he said is so succinct and important as to why this bill should be supported. He said:
Politics is not simply about the pursuit and exercise of power; it is about its regulation. Democracy is as concerned with the presence of effective checks on the use of political power as with the occasional elections that determine who wields it.
That is why this bill is important. It is because, at its heart, it proposes to strengthen the checks and balances in our system of government. It proposes to rebalance power between elected MPs and party leaders.
Recently in the media there has been talk about the need to strengthen parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and I agree. We need strengthened oversight of these institutions of state that are going to surveil and monitor terrorist activities, but strengthened oversight starts with the reform act. Standing committees cannot be providing proper oversight of government institutions of state in respect of surveillance and security if those parliamentary standing committees are being controlled, through the whips' lists, by party leaders. There cannot be proper parliamentary oversight if the membership and chairs of those committees are appointed through the whips' lists by the party leaders.
If we want to have proper parliamentary oversight, as many have suggested, as they do in the United Kingdom through its standing committee system, there needs to be the secret ballot election of committee members and the secret ballot election of committee chairs. Then there will be truly independent legislative standing committees that will provide that check and balance on the power of the state.
However, to move to that system of secret ballots for committee chairs and committee members, we need to rebalance power between the party leader and the party caucus, and that is why this bill is so very important.
On this 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, on the eve of a springtime when the House is very likely to adopt Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism act, which I support, on the eve of the dissolution of Parliament for a general election, when we will be adding another 30 MPs to the House of Commons, we need to restore the balance of power between elected MPs and the party leader.
I encourage all members to support this bill at its report stage and third reading vote, with their colleagues in the Senate, so that we can ensure that this bill not only passes the House and the Senate but becomes law before the dissolution of Parliament and the next general election.