Evidence of meeting #55 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was opposition.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Anne Lawson  General Counsel and Senior Director, Elections Canada
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Andrew Lauzon
Andre Barnes  Committee Researcher
David Groves  Analyst, Library of Parliament

1:15 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

It's usually about noon. It might be a bit before or a bit after. We would obviously not take advantage of that, but it would be about noon, or somewhere in the ballpark.

Would that be acceptable? We appreciate that, Mr. Chair. Thank you.

1:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Mr. Genuis.

1:15 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Thank you.

As much as I feel that it would do some real good for some of my colleagues to hear the entire Magna Carta....

Yes. Mr. Kmiec, I should start again. Is that...?

1:15 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Kmiec Conservative Calgary Shepard, AB

I missed the first part.

1:15 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Seriously, Mr. Chair, this isn't just a piece of history. This is a document that deeply informs our constitutional traditions.

I'll pause on that, although I may refer to it later, but I think the point coming through that document should be evident to members. It is that the tradition established in the Magna Carta is not principally one of asserting the existence of new rights, or of proposing the idea that the state, or the executive, or some sort of all-wise guardian class is the introducer or protector of rights. Rather, it is to seek to recognize and protect in law the realities of pre-existing notions of rights.

Even at that point, which we can trace back in our constitutional history and which seems to be the beginning, there are references to this idea of pre-existing, evolved notions of rights. Again, this is what paradoxically starts our tradition, but not on a revolutionary footing. It starts our tradition in a way that suggests that it is already up and running.

There are moments in the evolved English tradition that appear revolutionary, yet ultimately were tempered and made evolutionary. This was the success of the continuity of our constitutional framework. Probably one big point in history to meditate on, as we consider this distinction between the revolutionary and the evolutionary, is the reformation. I'll have to be careful as I talk about this, to keep Mr. Kmiec on my side here, but—

1:15 a.m.

An hon. member

He's a tough one.

1:15 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Yes, especially on questions around the reformation.

At first blush, it might appear that the reformation marked this revolutionary moment in the English tradition, and in a certain sense it did. It was followed by some real tension back and forth. You had King Henry VIII, who brought about a certain set of changes. Then you had Edward VI, who pushed those changes further. Then you had Queen Mary, who sought to restore Catholicism, and after that you had Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I ascended to the throne following a great period of religious upheaval. She sought to frame the existence of a new church, which would be a combination of different aspects of past traditions, in a certain sense a compromise between different objectives and tendencies. Obviously, it didn't satisfy everyone. At a theological level, it's not something that satisfies me because I'm a Catholic, but you can see the evolution at the same time. “Evolution” implies a positive. I wouldn't want to imply, necessarily, a positive here, but you still see the relative gradualness of change between what the tradition was and what it ultimately became on the heels of the kinds of changes that were put in place by Elizabeth I.

You had this period of figures who were asserting revolutionary changes and ultimately a great deal of upheaval, but there was this kind of reverting back to the sense that, whether we move in one direction or another, things under the British tradition should move relatively slowly.

The next century had elements of evolution and elements of revolution. Of course, the subsequent century, after the death of Elizabeth I, saw the English Civil War and what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution. Again, this was a revolution in a certain sense.

The way in which Locke justified the revolution was that in his view this was a restorative revolution. In other words, this wasn't to dramatically change the way in which things had always been done but was rather to bring things back to the way they should have been properly done and to respond, from that perspective, to what perhaps were perceived as the quasi-revolutionary tendencies of James II. I don't want to relive those I'm sure painful debates, for some members, as they think about that history.

We can see in our history uniquely this kind of gradualism of change and also ongoing concern about the risks of an overly powerful executive, which might tread on the natural and proper prerogatives of Parliament. These were many of the dynamics here, and this was the justification provided by Locke for the Glorious Revolution: that it was a restoration and a protection of rights that Locke of course situated much further back. He situated them in a kind of evolution out of a state of nature. From his perspective, these were rights that had not been respected by the deposed monarchy.

This is our tradition, one which this amendment seeks to protect, and one not honoured at all by the so-called modernization approach that is advocated by the government in its discussion paper with respect to the Standing Orders.

The most powerful articulation of this reverence for history that we are protecting with this amendment is by someone who is often thought of as one of the founders or framers of the conservative intellectual tradition in the English-speaking world, and that is of course Edmund Burke.

1:25 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

As a point of order, just to give you a bit of a break, if you don't mind, maybe for some levity I'll raise a point of clarification—maybe I'll call it that.

At the beginning of Mr. Genuis's speech, he mentioned that the Prime Minister and minister are fast asleep. I have an email that tells me, “Please remind the member I'm awake and I am listening.”

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Okay. Is that Big Brother, or is that—?

1:25 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Excellent.

1:25 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

There you go; she was listening.

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

If she is listening, I actually should probably go back to the Magna Carta—

1:25 a.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

—because I have a feeling she would particularly appreciate it.

1:25 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

I suspect I'll get another email soon.

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Let me read one more quote from the Magna Carta. If the minister has a specific section she'd like me to read into the record, I'd be happy to do it, so please have her email.

1:25 a.m.

An hon. member

Are you taking requests?

1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Members can name their favourite tract here, and I will read it into the record.

This is a further section of the Magna Carta that I think is important. It states:

If anyone has been dispossessed or removed by us, without the legal judgment of his peers, from his lands, castles, franchises, or from his right, we will immediately restore them to him; and if a dispute arise over this, then let it be decided by the five and twenty barons of whom mention is made below in the clause for securing the peace. Moreover, for all those possessions, from which anyone has, without the lawful judgment of his peers, been disseised or removed, by our father, King Henry, or by our brother, King Richard, and which we retain in our hand (or which as possessed by others, to whom we are bound to warrant them) we shall have respite until the usual term of crusaders; excepting those things about which a plea has been raised, or an inquest made by our order, before our taking of the cross; but as soon as we return from the expedition, we will immediately grant full justice therein.

1:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

I'm sorry, could you just link back to your amendment?

March 21st, 2017 / 1:25 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Yes, absolutely. This section speaks very specifically to the importance of legal judgment by peers, by a multitude of people who are involved in decision-making. That's precisely what we are arguing for in the context of the amendment—the inclusion of a broad range of voices in the discussion—and that is not something the government believes in. It wants to create a system in which we don't have the ability for a broad range of voices to pronounce on questions and directions. What it wants is a deviation from the tradition that I've been discussing and one instead that leaves too much power in the hands of the executive—one that is inherently revolutionary.

I would like to make some more comments on the history. Maybe I'll come back to that, but if members are interested, I may take this opportunity now to share a few thoughts on the discussion paper that has come forward, and why in particular it is important that we have the full range of parties and members commenting on this. I know, of course, that it is important to establish the process point before we go on more fully to a study of the substance, but we do need to establish the importance of the substance as the basis for why we need to have that process discussion.

As I mentioned, the introduction here speaks repeatedly about modernization. It has this sentence that jumps out at me, “As society changes, the demands of our institutions change as well”, but it's not clear at all how there have been societal changes that necessitate the kinds of changes proposed by the House leader and her staff, or by the Prime Minister or whoever is directing this effort. It's not at all obvious that those things have any relationship to changes that are taking place, and this is a concern we have, that in fact what they are trying to do is make changes on the basis, not of any credible account of modernization, but simply at the whim and will of the government to create the kind of system that works to its advantage, which does not sufficiently engage the opposition as a critical and necessary partner in the process of the decisions that need to be taken.

It says:

The impetus of all major reforms has had a common theme: a recalibration of the rules to balance the desire of the minority’s right to be heard with the majority’s duty to pass its legislative agenda.

What the government wants, in the absence of this amendment, is to recalibrate that balance by itself. There is an acknowledgement—at least verbally—in the discussion paper that there is a need for a balance, and I would very much assent to the principle that there needs to be a balance.

What is striking though is that the nature of the effort, the way the government has gone about doing what it's doing, is that it thinks it should be able to entirely define the form, nature, and result of that recalibration effort. It is saying there needs to be a recalibration, but on what basis is not clear. The basis is a generic appeal to modernization with no substantive account of what modernization actually means or entails in the context of the discussion we're having about the Standing Orders, but then the responsibility for defining that recalibration would, in the government's view, be entirely its own. It gets to recalibrate what it acknowledges is a balance.

I would say to members of the government: acknowledge the clear contradiction here. Acknowledge that there is a contradiction between the claim on the one hand that there needs to be some kind of recalibration of a balance, and on the other that the balance should be defined entirely by one actor in the process. This is like asking one team in a hockey game...and I don't mean to liken our politics to a game. It's not a game. We deal with serious issues and it's much more important.

In a sporting sense, though, people would intuitively appreciate that one team shouldn't be picking the referee. One team shouldn't be able to make rules that play to their inherent strengths in the context of the competition. It's just sensible, that in any sense of any rules the calibration of balance between different sides needs to be done, perhaps through some external independent process but more likely, and particularly in this case, through the direct consent of those who are involved in the process of decision-making.

That's what our amendment seems to do, recalibrate the recalibration. It's to say that if there is going to be a process of recalibration between the government in general—this uses language of majority and minority, but more properly, since we're hoping to talk about what these rules would look like over a longer period of time, we can speak about government and opposition—we need to recalibrate the mechanism of that recalibration to ensure that we are not excluding one half of this equation.

If it were just the Conservative Party that had these concerns, you might say that the Conservative Party has its own interests, but everybody else agrees. This is, however, a very clear government-versus-opposition situation, because we have a unity of perspective on this amendment and on the broader questions around the process we have in front of us. We have a unity of perspective between the Conservatives and the NDP. I haven't heard directly from Ms. May, but my understanding is that the third party shares our concerns as well about the government abusing its position to define the way in which these decisions will be made.

I think that should clearly show the Canadian public.... Conservatives and New Democrats don't always agree. I think we'll probably have very different takes on...I was going to say tomorrow's budget, but in fact it's today's budget.

When the government put forward motion number six, which was about the government unilaterally changing the rules of the game, trying to relegate the opposition to a sideshow and making the government the main event instead of letting our system be what it's supposed to be, which is a meaningful exchange between different sides, we had the unification of voices from the opposition coming together and saying that this is not how our system is supposed to work. We have that happening again, because this is a revolutionary change in the way we approach these things. That's the issue of the recalibration.

It's interesting that in the introduction, the discussion paper speaks about the need for politicians to find common ground to ensure robust and effective ways of deliberating on the issues of the day. What is striking repeatedly about this government is the way in which their rhetoric actually gets it right. Yes, we need to find common ground.

As my friend points out, this is the title of a book in whose production the Prime Minister may have had some involvement, yet there are no efforts to find common ground from the government members at all tonight. They want us to gloss over the fact that in the way in which they have set up this study, in the absence of the amendment wisely proposed by my colleague, they are not finding any common ground at all. There is a dissonance between some of this rhetoric and what they are actually doing, which is not at all about finding common ground; rather, it is about trying to take control of the way in which the process proceeds.

Earlier in our discussion we had some specific comments from Mr. Simms about the issue of the number of days that the House sits. This is an important, substantive point on which, wherever we go, there needs to be a consensus. There needs to be agreement from parties about the way in which we proceed. The current system involves a certain balance that has five days a week of opportunities for the opposition to challenge the government.

Now let's be very clear. We all know that members of Parliament don't only work when they're in Ottawa. As members of Parliament, we don't have your traditional nine-to-five job. Sometimes there's work that has to be done at 1:30 in the morning. Sometimes we have events and constituency meetings that go outside of regular hours. Oftentimes we're working regular hours as well. We work when the House of Commons is in session, but we also have preparation involved in the things we do in the House, we have preparation involved in the committee, and we have reading and studying that we should be doing, which informs our understanding and our broader perspective on the issues that are in front of us.

Do I think the only work legislators do is the work we do when we're sitting in the House? No, I don't. That is why, when I spoke about changes to the way the House operates, I proposed a change during the debate we had on the Standing Orders that was a bit different from what many of my colleagues were talking about. It was to say that we can look for a way of increasing flexibility by, say, having another day on which votes don't occur. This would allow members to spend time in their ridings if they need to, but we would still continue to have five days a week on which debate occurs in the House of Commons, on which questions are posed to the government, on which the government is...well, not, I guess, formally forced to answer, but at least expected to respond. That ongoing accountability is important, and we can look for ways of facilitating flexibility for members to spend more time in their ridings, but we have to do that in a way that doesn't derogate from the real important accountability functions of the House.

Of course, I should add, the government talks in this discussion paper about the need to move legislation forward, and of course, absolutely, an elected government should be able to pass legislation. I think, as an opposition, our opposition has been reasonable in engaging the government in discussion about the fact that there are some bills we can move forward on more quickly and there are some that require more time. We've been having those discussions and trying to come to agreements, and of course not always coming to agreements, and then the government brings forward closure.

I'll talk about the use of closure. It's striking how the government seems very concerned about the political implications of criticism of closure, yet this was, of course, a political argument that they used repeatedly. They sought to frame the use of closure as a disaster for democracy, and now that they're in government they repeatedly use closure and are so concerned about it that they want to fundamentally change the mechanism. It's striking that they would sort of bemoan public perception and political debate around a particular aspect of our rules that they defined, that they sought.... Well, they didn't define them, but they themselves sought to shape them when they were in opposition. I guess that should be a good reminder to all of us that governments become oppositions and oppositions become government, usually, in the fullness of time, and we don't know exactly when that transition is going to take place.

Speaking to this point about the number of days, the discussion paper implies that, essentially, how important are Fridays really because there are no more than two and a half hours for government orders, and committees do not meet. Of course, the day is not two and a half hours long. There are other things that happen on that day. There are also opportunities to debate private members' business, there is question period, and there are statements by members. The private member's bill debate period, question period, and the statements by members period are the same length as on any other day.

Yes, there is an opportunity for further debate on government orders. There is also an opportunity....

I should mention that on Fridays, of course, we have routine proceedings, an opportunity for members to table petitions, to move motions, to present private members' bills. So many parliamentary functions happen on a Friday. The flexibility of a Friday, where you don't have standing votes but you do have an opportunity for debate, actually allows that accountability function while also allowing many members to spend time in their riding, if and to the degree they need to. If members are able to stay on a Friday, perhaps they have a greater opportunity to give a speech or to participate in the discussion in a way that they might be less able to during other times of the week when more members are there. It gives members an enhanced opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Really, the Friday that we have recognizes the need to have some degree of flexibility, but crucially, it preserves and does not derogate from that important and natural and necessary accountability function. However long the government orders are, we have five days a week on which members of Parliament can bring forward legislation that is specifically important to them and their constituencies. I think we've had many Liberal members use the private member avenue to champion legislation that is not necessarily supported by their front bench but they've been able to champion. If I think about the range of private members' bills, many bills have either passed or at least been advanced onwards when they may not have had the support of cabinet, which does speak to the importance of the private member channel and the way in which Fridays facilitate that.

Now, the discussion paper does refer to the reapportioning of time on Fridays to other sitting days, but it doesn't at all indicate how you would do that while preserving the number of slots for private members' business. You couldn't very well add 15 minutes to the private members' bills slot four days a week and yet divide up that fifth private member's bill by 15 minutes each day. Perhaps they envisioned the extension of that period of time for debate on each private member's bill, which would have the effect of fewer private members' bills.

Perhaps there are ways around that. We don't really know what the government has in mind here. What's clear is that the government wants to put forward these ideas, but not really for discussion. In many ways, the title of the paper is misleading in terms of suggesting that this is a discussion paper. This is actually the basis on which the government appears to want to be able to dictate what a new set of revolutionized, modernized Standing Orders will be that reflects what they want to see. They are not willing thus far, although hopefully they will evolve—let's not call it a revolution in their thinking—to recognize the value of our perspective, which is that there does need to be an assurance that we will have the ability of all parties to have their voices heard, and not just heard but also listened to and protected in the process. That is not what we have currently envisioned by the process.

When they speak of Friday sittings, the government seems to envision an alternative, which is to move to full-day Friday sittings that mirror the hours we have on other days. Of course, members know that the hours of sitting are not uniform throughout the week. On Wednesdays, for example, the House only sits for four hours, I think, which I think is less than or the same as the House sits on Friday, because we have caucus meetings.

The House starts at a later hour on Mondays. It starts at a slightly earlier hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I'm part of a committee that normally meets at about 8:30 on Thursday mornings.

Members have a range of responsibilities, and a move to make Friday like the other days of the week would limit the flexibility that members have to spend time in their constituencies. That's a discussion that could take place as long as there's a recognition of the important role of all parties, all members, being involved in the discussion, as is outlined in our amendment.

The other point that's important about Fridays is that there is the issue of the reapportioning of private members' business that I spoke about, but also a question of time lost for question period. Already we know—and I'll talk about this because it's later on in the discussion paper—the Prime Minister is not interested in being in question period every day. He's not interested in participating in question period more than one day a week.

Our view would be that it's important for the Prime Minister to be accountable five days a week. There is the possibility, alluded to in the discussion paper, of reapportioning the times perhaps. Right now, question period is 45 minutes, so you would divide that up and add 10.25 minutes to question period on each of the remaining four days.

That would preserve the amount of time for question period, but it would not be nearly as effective from an accountability perspective, because it would not involve the government being accountable to the legislature, to the people of this country, five days a week. The adding of time to question period is not as important, from my perspective, as the fact of regular accountability created by the presence of that regular question period as it presently exists.

I think the government knows this. I think they would make exactly the same points were they in opposition and were a government trying to make those changes. I think, by the way, the things that Stephen Harper was accused of when he didn't come close to trying to eliminate a key venue for accountability like this.... You know, the names he was called for proroguing parliament. Of course, we can have a discussion about that, but it's something that has been used many times throughout this country's history. Yet what is revolutionary, highly uncommon, is a government that wants to completely rewrite the rules to its own advantage by eliminating that crucial venue for accountability. They want to do that in the absence of the passage of our amendment. They want to do that without allowing a protected role, a protected voice, for the opposition in the context of that discussion.

These are concerns that I have about their proposal to remove Friday sittings. I would not want to proceed down that road unless we had assurance that we could look for what my colleague Scott Reid correctly called these Pareto optimum improvements—improvements every party sees as being fair to us and beneficial for our system. I would not want to go down this road unless we had the protection in terms of a process being followed that would be fair and just, the engagement of all those who have an interest, in a way that would ensure we are not getting ourselves out of balance as we would move forward down that road.

The discussion paper speaks, as well, to the issue of electronic voting, and it suggests that maybe there's an opportunity, because of this massive renovation going on, to implement a system of electronic voting. Even here, the sort of revolution-oriented language is striking: “implement a system of electronic voting as a pilot”.

This is our Parliament. To start doing something completely different and call it a pilot.... I think we should be sure we're covering all aspects of potential pros and cons before we go down that road and not just say let's try it out as a pilot project. If we implement it and it has some real unconsidered problems, then I think we're going down a road that we shouldn't unless we are sure it makes sense to proceed in that direction.

I'm certainly not opposed to having the discussion, but I would not want to cede full control to the government and allow it to dictate to us what should be happening on the question of electronic voting. I think there are some legitimate questions about the kind of process that would take place.

If it's envisioned that members would be voting remotely, electronically, there certainly are some major questions that are raised by that, verifying that the vote was actually cast by the member. There is also a sense in which the presence of members at the time of voting is a way in which they signify that they have been present for the debate. Of course, it's not necessarily the case that members are present for the entirety of a debate on every question they vote on, or even any of the debate, but the fact that they are currently expected to be present at the House at the time of the vote to hear the question read out and to respond to the question speaks, I think, to the kind of responsibility we have invested in us.

The idea that members might not even be present for a vote raises some concerns. There are different ways in which voting is done. In the British House of Commons, my understanding is they don't vote the way we do, and in part it's a space issue actually. All the members of Parliament don't fit in their House of Commons, whereas ours is structured differently. We do all fit for the time being, so we vote in a different way.

Of course, we also apply votes. We apply past votes as a way of speeding up the time, but at least for every block of votes there is a point at which members stand up, are seen to stand up and take ownership of the position they are taking as an individual, and are accountable to that.

One of the questions I would like to probe on this is what the ways are in which electronic voting impacts accountability, because it has the potential to be somewhat more impersonal. Also, what are the effects of that on party discipline? Are members who are less concerned about the visual of them standing up to vote a certain way more likely to vote against their party, or are they more likely to vote with the party?

We have seen recently—finally—some Liberals take action in voting differently from the government on some transparently good legislation that they were right to support. Mr. Chair, one of those bills was your bill. Even though people in the front bench of both major parties were opposing it, we had many members in both parties who supported it, and I was proud to be one of them.

What would the effect of moving to electronic voting be on that aspect of party discipline? Would it be easier for members to do the easy thing and toe the party line instead of recognizing the visual associated with a public vote and stand up and be counted? It might seem like a small point, but these are distinctions that can matter. They require detailed study and the input of a full range of voices.

Part of the value of the unanimous provisions that are put forward here is that it's not only a matter of having unanimity, as in including multiple parties. Members across the way should think about this. The unanimity provisions provide a greater degree of leverage for individual members of the government who may actually have different views on the Standing Orders than the government itself.

I shouldn't say members of the “government”; I should say members of the “government caucus”. They may realize, through this process, some of the ways in which the proposed changes to the Standing Orders—the elimination of Friday sittings and the changes to question period are among them—would have the potential to weaken the ability not just of the opposition but of others within the government to be holding their government to account, to be exerting their influence on behalf of their constituents. This is something that the government would do well to be mindful of, and it's another argument in terms of illustrating the clear benefits of the amendment that we have put forward.

There are other things that I could draw out in the meantime. With the House calendar, the changes to routine proceedings, and so forth, I think there are certainly some issues there. One of the frustrations I have is that there was a time a couple of weeks ago when the justice minister proposed a unanimous consent motion on a substantive issue in the middle of debate on another issue. I think there should be a discussion about how we handle unanimous consent motions, that we would only see substantive unanimous consent motions at certain times and have a built-in requirement for engagement and consultation on those before they could be moved.

This is another way in which the protection of the prerogatives of individual members of Parliament is at stake. If a unanimous consent motion is moved when a member is not in the House, and it is then reported that this was a unanimous decision of the House, when in fact the member.... For unanimous consent motions there are no bells. There is no advance notice required. There are some real issues and concerns around the protection of the privileges of members, and they need to be discussed.

Part of the protection that's provided, when you have provisions around unanimity, is that you have the engagement of all issues. There are issues that are raised in this discussion paper. There are also issues that are not raised in this discussion paper. When you have the requirement that changes happen unanimously in the committee, you might end up with some horse-trading. You might end up with members saying that they can enhance the role of the opposition here, enhance the role of the government there, and on balance agree to those things. But in the absence of the passage of this amendment, you don't have the opportunity to address many of those important issues that I've highlighted. Instead, you find yourself in a situation where the government just gets to go out and do whatever they want. They can use their authority to impose things on the committee.

Now, there's a crucial theme in this whole discussion. It's one of the biggest concerns we have about what the practical effects would be if we were to move forward in the absence of a clear signal from the government that, yes, unanimity will be protected. One of the concerns we have is found under “Theme 2”, which deals with the question of time allocation.

This is one of the many ways in which we see the clear political nature of this document, by the way, that in the midst of supposedly creating a discussion on modernization, this government just can't resist throwing these totally unbalanced, partisan barbs into their comments by talking about, for example, the use of closure in the previous Parliament. Closure was used in the previous Parliament. It's also been used many times already in this Parliament, by many of the same members who themselves decried closure as being a dire moment for democracy. This is a political rebranding exercise, though, for closure.

What we have here in its wisdom is the discussion paper proposing to call closure by a different name. To paraphrase Shakespeare, closure by any other name—I don't know if it smells sweet or not, but I guess that's up to your perspective—is the same whether you call it “closure” or “programming”.

To be specific, this document envisions what it calls an alternative to closure, which is actually just the rebranding of exactly the same thing. It just changes the timeline along which it would be done. It says the idea is that:

Following discussion with House Leaders—

There is no requirement indicated here of their buy-in, and certainly we don't get the impression that the government is interested in securing the buy-in of the opposition. They certainly aren't doing it with respect to the motion that we have brought forward, and they're not thus far interested in an amendment which would protect the input of the opposition. The programming following that discussion among House leaders would involve the government giving notice of a motion following...and I'm quoting exactly here:

—the Government gives notice of a motion following second reading of a bill to allocate a specific number of days or weeks for the committee stage, and the time needed for debate at report stage and at third reading.

This is interesting because you see the closure effectively being automatic, saying that from now on—not just on some bills, not just when the government House leader alone decides for whatever reason to proceed in this direction—it would become a matter of course that on every single piece of legislation, the government would say right up front, “We're doing closure after this number of days.” This would not just be in the House, but also it sounds from the language here that there would be a prescription of a certain number of days at the committee stage.

I say to this committee that this is, of course, a significant deviation from the normal practice of committees. The normal and proper practice of committees is for committees to be the masters of their own domain.

There are certain provisions in the Standing Orders for the automatic referral back of private members' legislation after a certain period of time. This is designed to protect the important role of private members, so that government majorities can't simply hold up and sit on private members' bills at committee. With the exception of private members' business and certainly when we're talking about government legislation, the committee is master of its own domain. It is up to the committee how it manages the study of that legislation.

This discussion paper would pull us in a dramatically different direction. It would effectively create an automatic procedure for the invocation of closure. Surely this is something that should only be done if there is a consensus of other parties.

There are many other alternative models that could be considered if the government feels that change is needed. You could envision a system in which days were set and publicly announced with the consent of opposition parties. Such a system would, I think, be more fitting to the word “programming”. It would involve the collective efforts of the House to decide on the number of days that were appropriate for a bill.

Importantly, the number of days that a government thinks are appropriate for discussion or debate on a particular bill might be different from opposition parties. The number of days that a particular opposition party feels are appropriate might be different from another opposition party. There might be a bill on which the NDP feel that they need to make a stand and all of their members care very much about, but that Conservatives have fewer people interested in speaking on. On other cases you might have the inverse—bills where more Conservative members are interested than NDP members.

That's why we currently have a system where House leaders sit down and have a discussion. They talk about the number of days they think are appropriate. Of course, there's give and take and hopefully then the opportunity to come to agreement.

The current rules provide for, yes, a vehicle for the government to move their legislative agenda forward if they are unable to reach an agreement, or really for whatever other reason the government chooses to put forward that motion. I don't think the system is perfect now, but as this discussion paper points out, there is a certain mechanism of political accountability. Under the current system, any time a minister moves a closure or time allocation motion, there is a period of questions and answers—maybe not answers, always, but questions. Members can spend that period of time, not question period but a period for questions, posing questions to the minister that can and often do reflect the substance of the legislation, and speak to the reasons why that particular minister has put forward a closure or time allocation motion. There is a vote, and then there is further discussion.

Yes, when votes that happen in the House are not at a time that has been agreed on by House leaders, of course that process is disruptive. Many provisions—motions that a member be heard, for example—are not used all that commonly. Yes, they involve votes that happen at different times of the day, and they interrupt committees that are in progress. Of course that can happen. That can be disruptive, but that actually is precisely why it is good for House leaders to be able to operate on a consensus basis, and certainly why our House leader works very hard to collaborate with the other House leaders to develop a consensus around the amount of time that makes sense.

This change to the way in which time is set, is managed, and is controlled would be truly revolutionary. The presumption throughout much of our history, indeed perhaps going back almost to the Magna Carta, is that members are given the opportunity to speak on issues that are important to them and that debate proceeds on an issue as long as there are members who are interested in speaking. That's important, because members who speak in the House of Commons don't just speak based on what they think is important or interesting. Members of the House of Commons are here as representatives, as trusted leaders, and in some sense, though it's not a fully exhaustive role, as delegates of the interests and values of their constituents.

We have this accepted tradition that, yes, members should be allowed to speak. Why? Because the people they represent should be allowed to speak. Members need to be heard not because there's anything particularly unique or special about me or anybody in this room, but because we are here on behalf of people back home. We have a right to speak because they have a right to speak. They have a right to have their interests, their values, and their priorities respected. That's what's at stake here when we talk about the engagement of the opposition in the process of changes to the Standing Orders, and specifically when we talk about the implications of that for the discussion of the way in which time is managed.

The rebranding of closure or time allocation, not the fundamental changes but the rebranding so that the government can use it more often as a matter of course automatically, and the application of time management, so-called, by the government to committees, are revolutionary changes that should not be the sort of thing the government imposes unilaterally. It is not in keeping with our traditions. It is not just. It is not just in terms of a proper appreciation of the rights of the people who sent us here, never mind the traditional prerogatives and privileges that we understand for members of Parliament.

I'm struck by the use of buzzwords in this discussion paper to cover what the government is doing, and their refusal to ensure that opposition will have a voice. This discussion paper speaks “of a 'Made-in-Canada' programming scheme”—scheme is the right word, at least—for government bills and motions, and for the handling of Senate amendments.

We have a made-in-Canada process. It's our existing Standing Orders. Sure, we're talking about a made-in-Canada approach proposed by this, but we're actually talking about made-in-the-Prime Minister's office. We're talking about a made-in-Canada—but made by a very small number of Canadians—scheme that involves a very small number of Canadians completely controlling and setting the agenda, completely responsible for deciding the number of weeks, the number of days, and the number of hours spent in a discussion of legislation, not just in the House but also in committee. This is something that particularly the members who care about parliamentary committees should be seized with—the idea that the House leader would say right off the bat, “Hey, this is how much time your committee has to study it.”

Committees, by the way, are supposed to be the experts. We're supposed to be the people on committees who understand the topics. Surely you can envision a situation in which members on a committee would say, “We really need more time on this issue, because with our understanding and the witnesses we're hearing, we realize we need to hear more from more witnesses.” Yet you've already had this preprogrammed motion from the House leader saying when the discussion has to end. That is limiting the ability we have to speak for our constituents and also to do the kind of study—to hear from experts, to hear from witnesses—that is so important to the process of legislation.

I am very concerned about the way this is set up. Does this mean we can't have a conversation about looking at improvements that could be made to the way the legislative calendar is managed? No, it doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't have that conversation. It doesn't mean that it would be impossible to have those conversations, but those conversations have to happen in a way that is respectful for the role of all parties, even for the fact that in a majority government legislation is probably going to pass anyway. It is not infrequent that amendments to government legislation are put forward and successfully passed. It happens, and it should and could happen more.

It shouldn't be considered automatic that as soon as a bill is put forward by the government it's going to become a law and that's that. We should respect the parliamentary process, recognizing the insights through the speeches that members give, as well as through the expert input that is provided at committee. We should acknowledge and expect there to be refinements.

I know there were cases, in fact in the previous government—one in particular, and I won't discuss the example because it might be a little painful for our side—in which legislation was put forward, but because public concerns were raised, the legislation did not proceed. This speaks to the importance of the parliamentary process.

There are reasons that we have multiple stages—we have committee study, the House, and the Senate—and it is out of, I think, respect for traditions and the value of moving slowly through the legislative process, through changes that are made, yet we don't see that respect for tradition, either in what seems to be the desired system by the government or by the process by which they are proceeding. They want this to be able to come forward quickly and for the government to be able to entirely control the discussion, and to not have a protection for the role and involvement of the opposition. That would be a significant shift from what has been our normal operating procedures in the past and what has been characteristic of the traditions that we have and that we work under in this place.

Now, the discussion paper speaks of reforms to question period. This government is talking about changes to question period, of course. We had a private member's bill put forward by Michael Chong in the last government that was about reforms to question period, separate from the Reform Act.

I think many Canadians would like us to be open to having the discussion about what question period will look like as we continue into the future. There can be no disputing the importance of question period as a unique feature of the day. Most of the time we spend here is under the reasonable and important general presumed equality of members of Parliament, that members each have an opportunity to speak to questions and to debate back and forth as members of Parliament.

It's the same in committee, where we have members of different parties but they act together as committees, hearing from witnesses, debating and discussing legislation, etc. But question period is that period in the day when we step into a bit of a different position from our tradition of us debating, as members of Parliament, into a more clearly demarcated position of government and opposition. We pose questions as opposition to the government about the business of the day.

Of course, question period isn't just for members of the opposition. Question period provides an opportunity for members of the government party caucus to pose questions to members of the cabinet and parliamentary secretaries about the operations of government. I think those questions could sometimes be used better to actually challenge the government about things that are important in individual constituencies.

Nonetheless, we recognize the importance of question period and the unique way in which question period does provide a forum for opposition to pose questions to the government. It's probably no secret that it is principally an opposition forum. It's principally an opportunity for the opposition to pose questions to the government. I think, generally, the opposition would want to have more question period, and the government would want to have less question period.

At the same time, I think a responsible government understands the value of that institution for democratic accountability, recognizing that, yes, the government of today may be the opposition of tomorrow, but also recognizing that our institutions, our governance, and our society are strengthened by having more mechanisms for accountability, and that question period, as well as Order Paper questions and other ways in which opposition can pose questions to government are all important vehicles.

Then the government, shockingly, would like to take this vital structure of our democracy and impose unilaterally through the discussion paper and then through the unamended motion, if it were to proceed without the amendment, an ability to unilaterally make changes to this opposition forum.

Specifically around the question of where this goes in the future, if the amendment were not to pass, the government would have established a very dangerous precedent, one that I think members of the government should ruminate on a bit, that if the government can change the way question period works, even in ways it thinks are defensible—

2:20 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, NL

I have a point of order.

In the spirit of good faith, earlier we made a point of seeking unanimous consent to make a few points. I wanted to make one salient point about the discussion paper, if I could ask the permission of Mr. Genuis or anybody else for unanimous consent.

2:20 a.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Sure. I'd be happy to move unanimous consent, as per the previous motion, that Mr. Simms can make a few substantive comments, and then the floor would be returned to me and we continue with the speakers list as it currently is.

2:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

2:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Okay.