This is the 52nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.
The first item on our agenda is a continuation of our discussion on the estimates process which Minister Brison briefed us on, on Monday of this week. As we discussed on Monday, the question raised primarily by the government is, what process needs to be followed if a standing order is to be changed? I assured the government and all committee members that I would give you a briefing, rather than bring somebody in from procedure and House affairs, as I was the parliamentary secretary to that committee for nine years and intimately involved in standing order changes.
A few things could be done.
Number one, the procedure and House affairs committee, which I'll refer to as PROC from here on in, is responsible for the Standing Orders. Primarily, they're under their jurisdiction. If any standing orders were to be changed, the change should come as a result of a report tabled in Parliament by PROC.
We can do a couple of different things. This committee could instruct me as chair to write to PROC saying that we wish them to deal with this, and if we have agreement on any changes to a standing order, we could put that in the instructions to PROC. They would then table it in Parliament. If the government sought unanimous consent and received it, the Clerk would be instructed to change the standing order immediately. If there was no unanimous consent, then the government would have to put a motion on the order paper to adopt the report from PROC. That would come back to the House for a three-hour debate and then a vote. If passed, the Clerk would change the standing order.
However, this committee could, to begin with, as an option, refer the entire question of changing the Standing Orders based on the minister's presentation to PROC, and they would deal with the entire situation: debate it, discuss it, probably invite the minister in, and deal with it at that level.
My only point, and I reiterate this and I said this at our last meeting, is it has been the custom that when any changes to the Standing Orders take place, unanimous consent has been sought, and on almost all occasions has been granted. Once again, I will refer to the last time we had any meaningful debate on changes to the Standing Orders.
I chaired an all-party committee on standing order changes, and frankly it was a suggestion that I made and was endorsed and accepted by all recognized parties that any changes we would recommend would have to be approved unanimously by all parties. There were a number of examples, which I don't have to give today, but I will if you ask, where various parties would bring a proposed change to our meeting on these proposed changes. The NDP, I recall, at one time had proposed one or two changes to the Standing Orders. One of the three parties said they didn't agree, end of discussion. Conversely, the Liberals on one or two occasions brought forward a standing order they would like to see changed, and one of the other two parties said they didn't agree, end of discussion.
I recall from our side, the government side at that time, I know I had been spoken to by—and I'm going to give you a specific example here because I want you to understand how I approach this, and I think it was the right approach. A number of our members suggested we make a change to the standing order that now talks about standing five members. We all know if there's a voice vote, and there are yeas and nays, someone has to stand five to force a recorded vote. I know this is public, and I'm going to have to choose my words carefully because I'm going over factual information. On a few occasions, the independents voted to stand five to block a unanimous adoption of a motion or an initiative by the government.
Some members asked—there were only seven of them—why we didn't change the Standing Orders to make it 10 rather than five, because back in the 1970s and 1980s when there were only 230 or 240 members, that's when you stood five. Now, because there are 300-and-some members, it would be easily defensible to say that we want to change the limit from five to 10 because there are more members. I wouldn't take that to the committee because I said, in my estimation, that looks as if the government is trying to use the Standing Orders for its own political gain.
That's simply not what the Standing Orders are all about. They are supposed to benefit all parliamentarians. They are our rules, our guidebook, and they are there for a reason. So they shouldn't be played with by any government, whether by a majority situation or not, to try to benefit politically. So, literally, I just refused to bring that to the table.
That committee worked very well. There wasn't a whole bunch of changes to the Standing Orders and, frankly, that's probably a good thing. But there were a few that we all agreed on, mainly housekeeping and housecleaning types of issues, and it worked very well.
I raise that here because Minister Brison is talking about a change to the Standing Orders. I'm not sure what the government's view on that is, but I can just tell you, historically, that's how things have worked here. There has to be unanimity.
It doesn't have to be that way. Clearly, if this committee or PROC wanted to bring this issue forward, even if there wasn't unanimity, the government, if it could force a vote, could almost force PROC to table a report in Parliament and it could enact changes that way. I just caution you that it's maybe a very slippery slope and you might want to consider before going down that road.
In any event, that's the procedure. That's what could happen.
Again, to recap, you could either refer the entire issue to PROC, let the minister deal with PROC directly, and it could go from there, or this committee could decide we want to discuss the issue and ultimately make a decision. If the decision was to refer this to PROC, then I would write the letter and it would deal with it. But that's the cleanest way.
Go ahead, Madam Ratansi.