I will begin, too, by expressing Samara Centre's gratitude for being invited to testify before the committee today. Dr. Morden has already spoken to some of the challenges that we feel are facing the House of Commons, so I will focus my remarks on how a parallel chamber could be designed to help respond to those challenges.
As Deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton described in his remarks to the committee last month, there are two precedents for parallel chambers that could serve as inspiration: the Federation Chamber in the Australian parliament and Westminster Hall at the British Parliament. Both are supplementary chambers, with neither being used for recorded divisions. Both meet only on days when the main chambers are sitting as well.
Australia's Federation Chamber is used for a variety of parliamentary business, such as constituency statements, member statements and debate on uncontentious pieces of legislation. Rather than adding new functions, it serves as what Mr. Stanton called an “adjacent lane” for House business, with most of its functions also occurring to some extent in the parallel chamber. Moreover, decisions regarding what business goes to that chamber are made by the party whips.
In contrast, Westminster Hall proceedings are distinct from those of the main British House of Commons. Westminster Hall is used exclusively for adjournment-style debates, which can be 30, 60 or 90 minutes long, depending on the issue being addressed and the number of members wishing to speak. The debates are selected through four different mechanisms, all of which are driven by backbench members: Individual backbenchers can apply for a debate to the Speaker's office, which holds a ballot of applications once per week. They can apply to the backbench business committee, which is a committee of backbench MPs that schedules a portion of the debating time both in Westminster Hall and in the main chamber itself. The liaison committee, which is made up of the chairs of the various standing committees, can also schedule debates on committee reports. Finally, the petitions committee of the House of Commons can schedule debates on petitions receiving over 100,000 signatures.
However they are chosen, as Sir David Natzler noted when speaking with you, a fundamental characteristic of Westminster Hall debates is that a minister must attend the sessions and respond to the points made. This requirement allows the debates to be much more influential than is possible through member statements.
Importantly, such debates need not be explicitly critical of the government. Indeed, Westminster Hall is regularly used for debates that mark symbolic days, such as Holocaust Memorial Day, World Cancer Day or International Human Rights Day. Such general occasions allow for Parliament to be responsive to the concerns of citizens without being centred on a specific issue at the time.
Although the Federation Chamber has created more opportunities for Australian MPs to raise concerns from their constituents and participate in legislative debates, we believe modelling a new parallel chamber along the lines of Westminster Hall would better respond to the challenges facing the Canadian Parliament.
While it is not possible to exactly duplicate Westminster Hall in the Canadian context, the Samara Centre nevertheless recommends that any Canadian parallel chamber be designed for the benefit of backbench members, with backbench members being able to schedule business independent of party whips; that participation in a parallel chamber similarly be free of control by the party whips, with no lists developed to schedule interventions by members; that much of the debating time in such a chamber be devoted to general debates like those of Westminster Hall, with ministers being required to attend and respond to the points made; that the topics for such debates could be chosen by applications from individual members, the reports of parliamentary committees or petitions from the general public; and finally, that the chamber be a vehicle for further procedural experimentation.
At a time when both citizens and MPs are questioning the value of parliamentary debates, the creation of a parallel chamber devoted to hearing from the diversity of Canadians through their elected representatives could help to empower both Canadians and parliamentarians themselves. It could help make backbench members more central to parliamentary debates, and parliamentary debates more central to political life in Canada.
Thank you very much. We look forward to your questions.