Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I think that's a good clarification in terms of what the rules say and what the changes are that are proposed in the context of the proposals that are coming from the government House leader. The government House leader is looking for potential changes in terms of the degree to which the Speaker would be engaged. As you pointed out, Mr. Chair, it would be a pretty substantial change to the way we conceive of the role of the Speaker.
Up until now in our tradition, the Speaker has not been someone to police aspects of content. That includes answers to questions and questions of accuracy. It's not a point of order if someone said something that isn't true; that's seen as a point of debate. The same is true with regard to omnibus bills. It is not the way we generally conceive of the role of the Speaker: to be evaluating and saying, “Substantively I think this is part of one theme and this is part of another theme.” That would involve the Speaker taking a few additional steps down a road which, thus far, the Speaker has not gone down at all: into adjudicating the kind of content that is in front of him or her. That said, I'd like to touch on a number of other different themes.
Part of the question that we need to consider in the context of this amendment is the way the time of this committee is managed and the kinds of other questions that have to come before this committee. This is an extremely important committee, obviously. It's the committee that studies all those kinds of procedural and mechanical aspects of what's happening in the House. The challenge for this committee can be, of course, that sometimes there are a lot of those different issues that are coming forward at the same time. It creates a circumstance in which there is a need for some conversation on multiple different issues. The committee has to grapple with what terms of study, what schedule of study, etc., allow for the committee to grapple with those different issues in the most effective way. These are the kinds of considerations that we have to think about in the context of this study and this amendment.
I don't need to tell anybody this, but we're having a fairly lengthy discussion of committee business in the lead-up to a prospective study. It's important that we have this lengthy discussion because, in the context of that, we in the opposition, all opposition parties, including unrecognized parties, feel that we are fighting for the basic integrity of our democratic system. We are fighting for the fact that changes to the basic rules of how Parliament works should not be made unilaterally. That's what we're fighting for, and it's important that we do. We are going to continue to do so until there is a change in disposition from the government on these issues.
In the meantime, there is a range of other questions of pressing importance that need to be studied by this committee. There is a debate, I presume, going on as we speak—okay, not quite; it's about to start in the House again—with respect to a question of privilege. It's a major question of privilege. As members have pointed out, it has happened a number of times that members of Parliament have been prevented from coming in to vote. It's so important that we get that right, because members are supposed to have unfettered access to the parliamentary precinct. Members didn't have, in certain cases, unfettered access to the parliamentary precinct and were denied their right to vote as a result of it. That was an important question of privilege that was brought forward, and it's being debated in the House right now.
Actually, right now in the House, we're debating a secondary question of privilege and an amendment to that, which deals with both the original privilege issue and also the legitimacy of the government having adjourned the debate on a question of privilege without a vote.
These are critical issues because they deal with the basic rights of members of Parliament to be present, to vote, and to represent their constituents. These are rights that they need to have, and because of an error that took place in whatever form, they have not always had them. That's a potential problem, and this committee needs to study that question.
The motion put forward in the House with respect to that study was to ask that this be made a priority in terms of the committee study. Why is that important?
As members of Parliament, we do lots of different things. We give speeches. We participate in studies. We consult with our constituents. We write letters. But the core of the job of a member of Parliament, the most important thing we can do, which people who are not members of Parliament cannot do, is vote in the House of Commons. That is the core of the job.
When you have an question of privilege where members are prevented from voting in the House of Commons, that is the kind of issue that should be a fundamental point of priority in terms of the discussion that happens at this committee, because it's up to this committee, PROC, to evaluate those questions and to adjudicate upon them.
Yet this whole resistance by the government to move forward on the amendment has created the conditions under which we have less effective work in the House because of a lack of co-operation from the government side with the opposition, and therefore a lack of co-operation all around. That's part of the issue. There is also the issue of the vital work this committee needs to be getting on with, especially those privilege issues.
We have a motion from a member of this committee to do a study of the question of privilege here at this committee. It's fair for members to bring forward motions at this committee, but the process that needs to be followed is for that question of privilege to be voted on in the House. It is of course up to members to vote for or against amendments in a way that one hopes reflects their individual conscience but which is, in any event, how they see fit to vote.
If it is approved in the House, as amended or not, the motion will either be sent here to PROC or not. If and when it comes here, it will then be discussed, considered, and so forth.
In the absence of the amendment, it may be that, regardless of what happens in the House, we continue to delay in terms of our ability to have a discussion on that vital privilege issue. We're really missing the necessary opportunity to do the job that this committee is supposed to be doing in that respect, if we don't come to a consensus that allows us to move forward. The way of having that consensus in place, I think, is to have the passage of the amendment which says that all parties will be engaged. It achieves the objective that some members of the government have said they actually wanted all along. They want to have unanimity on a report, but for whatever reason, they are just not interested in passing the amendment. Well, if you want to have collaboration, if you want to have all voices represented in the process of that discussion, then just pass the amendment. In part it's the right way of dealing with the Standing Orders, but it also allows the committee to undertake and respond to these vital questions of privilege.
The other thing that needs to be acknowledged about changes to the Standing Orders is—and someone here is advocating a public referendum on the Standing Orders—that there is not the same breakneck timeline with respect to these changes. We could well agree to a framework by which a study would take place, one that includes unanimity, and also agree that the study could take place in the fall. In the meantime, we could take this opportunity to move forward on these questions of privilege which the House is obviously very much seized with.
I haven't heard anybody say that these questions of privilege aren't important. Members of the government have criticized the opposition, sort of strangely, for making this political, as if they've forgotten where we are, but there's been no denial of the fact that, yes, these are critically important questions that are dealt with in the context of a discussion of privilege. Since there's that recognition, I think we should move forward on this particular motion by supporting the amendment in a way that reflects that recognition, but then we should also move forward with those other studies that are critically needed.
The other issue this committee could be studying is the prospective issues around the Canada Elections Act. There are others who know the details on this better than I do. My understanding is that this committee was asked and agreed to undertake a study this spring on the Elections Act to contribute in a substantive way to what's happening to the Elections Act.
The failure to do that involves multiple problems of unilateral action. There's the question of the unilateral action of the government with respect to the Standing Orders. Then, in the absence of a committee study, which is now prevented by the insistence on a unilateral approach on the Standing Orders, there's a concern of what happens in terms of the process with respect to the Elections Act. It is important for members of Parliament to be engaged in that discussion. There just doesn't seem to be an interest or willingness to establish an agreement that would allow us to move forward.
We hear a lot of talk about conversations from the government House leader. It's often hard to understand in that context what's meant by “have a conversation”. The point of having a conversation should be to come to some form of consensus that allows for action. Generally speaking, a conversation is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. A conversation is a way in which particular goods ought to be realized, which are, generally speaking, goods external to, as opposed to internal to, the process of conversing. In this case, the goods to be achieved through the conversation would be changes to the Standing Orders that reflect the wisdom of the entire House, not just of one or a few people or of one party, but also to allow this committee to operate in a constructive way that then moves on to some of these critical issues that have not been considered yet and very much need to be considered as we go forward with respect to what's happening on the Standing Orders.
Having talked about other aspects of committee business, I want to return to the government House leader's discussion paper. I had an intervention on this a week and a half ago or so, and unfortunately, because of the limitations of time, I didn't have a chance to speak to all aspects of the discussion paper. I want to do that now. Then I want to talk about the Green Party's response, the Green Party's discussion paper on changes to the Standing Orders. I don't agree with all of it. I don't know if I even agree with most of it. I agree with some of it, but I think it's quite provocative.
I think it was Mr. Chan who praised Ms. May for bringing forward that discussion paper. I don't know, though, if the government would be praising it if they'd read it in detail, because it's very critical of the approach taken in the government discussion paper. In many ways it's much farther away from the government, even, than we are as an official opposition party. I don't know if Ms. May has had a chance yet at this committee to actually talk through that paper, but I think it's something that is going to contribute to the discussion around this.
If you look at the government's discussion paper and the Green Party's discussion paper, just as two examples of prospective proposals for changes to the Standing Orders, you see how “modernization” can mean dramatically different things. It can mean the kind of enhancement of the power of the executive to expedite legislation, that kind of so-called reform. It can also mean, on the other side of the spectrum, a change that reduces the power of the centre and strengthens the ability of members of Parliament to be involved in the process.
I should say that it's not as if these approaches are mutually exclusive. There would be proposals that could both strengthen members of Parliament and strengthen the efficiency of the legislative process. In the context of a study that would include the framework established by the amendment where there is a requirement that there be unanimity and involvement of all parties, we could look for those solutions that would actually achieve all of those objectives, that would increase efficiency without derogating from the important role of members of Parliament. It is, perhaps, hard to know exactly what those would be.
You would need to hear from experts about what the implications of different changes are. The government discussion paper may well point to some things that ultimately do achieve that objective of strengthening the role for members of Parliament and addressing the efficiency of the legislative process. However, in the absence of an agreement up front for how that would work, we can't be confident that the government would draw the right conclusions from the witnesses we hear.
If we go into a study without the amendment and the government hears witnesses who say that if we do x, y, and z, the government is going to increase its power, government members may think that's great and want to do x, y, and z, rather than drawing the right conclusion from that testimony. The right conclusion would be to hear all those concerns and say that we have to be cautious about doing something that increases the power of the government unless there is some compensatory change on the other side.
It might be that through unanimity you actually have some horse-trading with respect to the Standing Orders. You might have agreement to support some provisions that do concretely enhance the power of the government, while other measures concretely enhance the power of the opposition. Members might agree that those proposals kind of balance each other out and in the end are, in totality, beneficial for the entire institution.
That's the kind of discussion, the kind of framework, that is rendered possible in the event that we have a clear requirement up front to engage all voices on all parts of that conversation. That's something we'll be missing if we don't have the amendment. That's a bit of context for the next steps that I want to take in the context of this discussion.
For those following along at home, where I left off before was under theme three of the discussion paper where it speaks about the management of committees. It's interesting in terms of how it talks about the kinds of changes that could happen with respect to the structure of committees, and the relative balance between committees and the government and other actors within this institution. There are some important and interesting proposals for changes here, although I have some pretty substantive concerns about, especially in the discussion of committees, what I see as some sleight of hand, some arguments being made that suddenly go off in a different direction from the one expected.
Before I get into the management of committees, I should review the section on omnibus bills, so-called, because it's right before it. It's relatively short, and it speaks to what I was talking about before, especially in the context now of what is a very substantial omnibus bill that the government has put forward.
It says, “The Government committed to end the improper use of omnibus legislation.” I don't actually think that was what was in the Liberal platform. I think they said that they would get rid of omnibus legislation. Maybe there are members who can correct me on that, but we see these subtle shifts in language that are sort of the road to a broken promise. First, they're going to get rid of omnibus legislation. Then they're not getting rid of omnibus legislation; they're just getting rid of the “improper use of omnibus legislation”. It seems that, in their minds, when they say “improper use of omnibus legislation”, what they mean is the Conservative use of omnibus legislation. I would say that omnibus legislation should be used conservatively, in both senses of the word.
In any event, the section continues, “Omnibus bills can be defined as a bill that contains separate and unrelated themes packaged into one bill.” In reading that definition, “separate and unrelated themes packaged into one bill”, an omnibus bill could be any bill, because any bill contains distinct themes. Then, of course, if you consider the meaning of “unrelated”, there is no such thing as an omnibus bill if a bill contains unrelated themes, because all bills, all themes that we deal with in this place, can be seen as having some relationship to each other. Is there a relationship between immigration and health? Yes, of course there is. Is there a relationship between criminal justice and finance? Yes, of course there is. Even disparate policy areas have relationships between the two of them. This is a definition without a definition.
It essentially goes on, “Members are then forced to vote for or against a bill that could have elements that Members would support or oppose.” That happens all the time. Basically, the process that is normally followed is you would look at the principle of a bill at second reading, and you would maybe vote for a bill at second reading, even if you have substantial objections to certain parts of it, because you think that those sections could be removed at committee.
Mr. Blaney had a private member's bill that introduced higher mandatory minimums for drunk drivers and also introduced mandatory screening so that basically police could ask anybody for a Breathalyzer test as there's no requirement to establish probable cause. Those are two very different kinds of provisions contained within not just the same bill but actually contained within one private member's bill. I was very supportive of that bill and I encouraged members to vote for it. Even if you are against mandatory minimums but like mandatory screening, you should vote for the bill so that you can support mandatory screening. Even if you're for mandatory minimums but against mandatory screening, you should support the bill as a way of showing support for mandatory minimums. That makes sense at second reading, because then you're advancing that bill on to a committee study, and then it's up to the committee to wordsmith and decide which parts of the bill should move forward or not. Maybe that's a bill that could have been split, but of course given the limits with private members' business, it makes sense for individual members, who already have a very limited opportunity to bring forward legislation, to try to deal with different elements of legislation in a similar format.
My own private member's bill, Bill C-350, which I just had a chance to table this week in its entirety, is a bill that was put forward for first reading by Irwin Cotler, a Liberal MP in the last Parliament. It was seconded in this Parliament by Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, the member for Etobicoke Centre. It's good non-partisan legislation.
I wouldn't call that bill an omnibus bill, but it does include different elements within it, but all to deal with organ harvesting without consent. It deals with Canadians who might go abroad to try to get an organ and how they establish consent for that organ when they come back, but it also deals with the inadmissibility of people to Canada who are involved in this kind of organ-harvesting activity. It deals with immigration in terms of admissibility to Canada. It deals with health because it deals with the kinds of reporting structures that would be in place with respect to someone who is getting an organ. It deals with a question of criminal justice. It is fundamentally a justice bill because it deals with the criminal penalties that would be put in place for those who are involved in this terrible human rights violation involved in organ harvesting.
That's my bill, Bill C-350, and we already have, related to a similar theme, key elements of criminal justice, health, and immigration issues. It might well be that members say that they, for whatever reason, don't like the inadmissibility provisions of it, but they are supportive of the requirement that Canadians get consent when they get an organ. I think members should support my bill in its entirety because it's really a great bill, but it might be that members like some parts of it and not others. That doesn't make it an omnibus bill just because it deals with a number of different aspects of the same issue. Even the way in which omnibus bills are explained and described in this discussion paper is totally at odds with how they're usually described in the public debate.
By this definition, you could say that almost every bill is an omnibus bill. I mean, there are some bills like Wynn's law that really only changed one word in the Criminal Code. That bill is uncomplicated enough that you can very clearly say, “ Yes, that's one word”, and you're either for it or against it. There's not the complexity of, say, being for parts of it but against other parts of it. That bill was about whether certain evidence would be brought forward about someone's past convictions in the context of a bail hearing. The law now says that evidence may be brought forward. The new provision would say that evidence shall be brought forward. That's the kind of bill that, yes, on the surface, if you were to come up with a scale of “omnibus-ness”, a relative degree of “omnibus-ness” in a particular bill, it would be at the low end of the scale. Almost any other bill, including private members' bills, will touch on different elements.
Some members choose to vote against bills, even if they're fairly small or simple, on the basis of the whereas clauses. My approach is to vote on the basis of the substantive provisions, not the whereas clauses, but we've had members say, “I cannot support that bill, not because of what's in the bill itself, but because of the affirmations that are contained in the whereas clauses”, the perception being that, when you vote in favour of a bill that has certain whereas clauses, you're endorsing the ideas behind the whereas clauses. There are some members who take that approach. I don't, but even for very small, very simple legislation, if you are going to vote for or against it on the basis of the whereas clauses, then definitely you find yourself in a situation where members are forced to vote for or against a bill that could have elements the member would support or oppose.
The discussion paper goes on with respect to omnibus bills, “The only recourse for Members has been to seek to divide omnibus bills in committee, but these motions rarely come to a vote or are agreed to by way of unanimous consent.” That's true. It is quite rare that there is division of bills. There are potential issues with division of bills, obviously, in terms of efficiency and also in terms of private members' business. There are some bills that, even if they deal with different kinds of provisions, don't need to be divided. I don't think my bill needs to be divided into five or six bills just because it addresses a number of different aspects of the question of organ harvesting. I think it makes sense together thematically. It's still relatively short. It's a couple of pages, not 300 pages like the budget implementation bill, but it does deal with different areas of policy and the interaction and relationship among those areas of policy.
The proposal here is that, “Since the Clerk of the House has the power in Standing Order 39(2) to divide written questions, a similar approach could be used by the Speaker to divide omnibus bills.” I don't think this point has been made before, but it's quite a stretch to say that because you can divide written questions you can divide bills. Bills are not written questions. There are very substantial differences. Of course, yes, members have a limit on the number of questions they can have on the Order Paper, so having a division of written questions has some substantive effect. The substantive policy implications, the importance and potential controversy around a decision of a Speaker to divide a bill, far outweighs the kind of concern that might be associated with dividing an Order Paper question. The size and scale of that are very, very different. It's striking that there isn't an acknowledgement of that—