The reality, however, with all due respect, is that debate was shut down. On one hand, you say you don't want to shut down debate, but you did. The government did. It brought in a motion to return to government orders. It shut down debate, and now it is impossible for the opposition to bring that privilege motion back for debate. It is shut down.
It is not postponed. It is not delayed. It is gone.
The members who brought forward the motion of privilege, which was found to be prima facie, are denied the ability to further discuss it, debate it, and vote on it in the House. That's what the government did. Again, I go back to my most basic point. Why are we even here?
Mr. Chair, you're doing yeoman's work just having to sit there for hours upon hours each day to listen to a debate that could be, quite frankly, close to endless, because there is no will on the opposition benches to allow this debate to stop, because you know what the result will be. As soon as that happens, there will be a vote on the discussion paper, on the proposed changes. The government members in the majority will pass it, a report will be tabled in the House recommending proposed changes from the procedure and House affairs committee, and the government will use that as its cover, saying, “They are recommendations from committee. We're not doing this unilaterally. We're not imposing our will on Parliament. This was a committee recommendation.” Right. That's something I just don't think any fair-minded person could possibly agree to.
Governments are elected. I said that before. Governments have the right to bring in their own legislation. Governments have the right to try to create a Canada they believe to be the right course of action, but opposition members are here for a reason. We are here to point out government shortcomings, at least in our opinion. There are shortcomings. We are here with a right to debate, and at times to delay, if we feel it is necessary, motions and legislation, but this is different from that. This is not a piece of government legislation we're debating in this committee. We are discussing the very rules that guide us and that are so fundamental to parliaments across the world.
I made reference to the fact that many learned authorities on procedure, such as Mr. Holtby, such as Mr. Yanover, would be dead set against any changes to the Standing Orders, except for the most minor tweaks, because they feel that those Standing Orders that have evolved over time are there for a reason. The government suggests that it wishes to modernize Parliament to make Parliament more efficient. Well, if it truly would benefit all parliamentarians, if it truly would make Parliament more modern, if it truly would make Parliament more efficient, then there shouldn't be any difficulty getting unanimity among all parties, because if they would benefit all of us, why wouldn't we approve changes to the Standing Orders?
Some of the ones we changed in the last go-round, when I was chairing the committee, were very minor. I want to give you a couple of examples, because they were easily agreed upon unanimously. A few were actually references to arcane situations that perhaps meant something back 100 years ago but mean nothing today.
For example, there was reference in the Standing Orders to the supper hour. There used to be a supper hour in Parliament because Parliament didn't meet as early as it does now. It opened in the afternoon and met into the evening, so there was a designated supper hour where committees would stop. Parliament would stop, and members had a chance to go to the Parliamentary Restaurant, or go off the Hill and have something to eat and then come back. There is no supper hour now, so we just deleted that from the Standing Orders.
There are also references to $5 fines administered by the Sergeant-at-Arms if a transgression took place. We deleted that and issues like that.
There was no question that all members agreed to those, because they made sense, but if there was any suggestion the standing order could adversely impact either a political party, and its ability to do its job, or an individual parliamentarian, those changes were never even discussed again.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a position where we're going to continue to filibuster unless saner heads prevail, and there can be some agreement among House leaders. I agree, my colleague talked about the fact that the House leaders are the ones who make these types of decisions. They give, frankly, the marching orders, and that's why they're in the positions they are in, but I also realize, having lived it—and anyone who has been in government lives it—there are other forces at play other than just House management. I'm specifically talking about the PMO.
Without question—and I'm not asking any of my colleagues on the government side to acknowledge this or to even say it's correct, but we all know it is—the PMO gives not just the suggestion but strict marching orders on what committees are to do. My good friend, Mr. Simms,—and I say that not lightly, he is a friend, I consider him to be a friend and one of the good guys—has stated that the motion that he brought forward, the motion we are now discussing, the motion and the amendment, was his doing. With all due respect, I believe there were other forces at play there. I simply do not believe that a discussion paper was forwarded, and mere hours later a motion fully translated came before this committee. I believe, without question, there was a decision made at a higher level than this that is instructing government members to follow through on this course of action.
That happens. I get that. It happened with us. It happened with previous governments. It will happen with governments after your government is long gone. That doesn't mean it's right.
If the government is so firm in its belief that these changes are necessary, then it has the ability to do it right now, but do you know something? I believe—and I may be wrong on this—that most of the suggested changes are in themselves a bit of a cover for the one change that the government really wants to have occur, which is on the estimates process.
Let me give you a little background on that. I am the chair of the government operations and estimates committee. That committee has a responsibility. When I say responsibility, I mean it deals with several government departments, one of them being Treasury Board. Minister Brison, another individual I like very much and whom I respect greatly, has come before our committee on several occasions trying to convince the committee to change the Standing Orders deadline for estimates to be presented not by March 31 but May 1. He said he ultimately wants to better align the estimates process with the budget process. Frankly, it's an objective with which I agree.
Right now, as we all know, if you have any knowledge of how the system works, it's just the reverse of what should happen. A budget is presented, and afterwards the estimates come in, rather than estimates of what might be in the budget discussed first and then the budget follows the approval of the estimates. It's ass-backwards. Other jurisdictions have changed the system sequentially and gotten it into better alignment. That's what this government is trying to do.
I applaud the government for trying to do that, but Mr. Brison is trying to do so by changing the Standing Orders to allow him, for a two-year period, to change the timing of the estimates and when they're presented to committees. The difficulty with that is that once you change the Standing Orders, there's no guarantee they'll ever be reversed.
The government doesn't have to change the Standing Orders. It has a number of options at its disposal to achieve its objective of better alignment. It has the ability to present financial information at any time. It's not restricted or constricted as to when it can do so. It's certainly not forced to bring down a budget in March or April. It can bring down a budget in January, should it wish, which would solve the problem entirely. However, Mr. Brison has stated that he wants this to happen, and he has stated that if he can't get it by going to the government operations and estimates committee and getting its approval, he will find another way. My belief is that he's trying to find another way in this package of changes.
Just look at the big four. My understanding, and I get this only from reading articles in the media, is that there are four primary changes that the government now has said it would like to see enacted in the Standing Orders.
One is having a Prime Minister's question period once a week. They don't need to change the Standing Orders for that. We saw that the other day. Frankly, I applaud the Prime Minister for doing that. To my knowledge, it's the first time it has been done. He didn't give any answers; nonetheless, he got on his feet and he said something to each question. I give him credit for that, but you don't have to change the Standing Orders for that.
The second thing is on proroguing Parliament, having to change the Standing Orders to force governments to give justification for prorogation. You don't need to change the Standing Orders for that. In fact, any prorogation that I can recall has always been justified and some rationale has been given. There has never been dead silence and just prorogation occurring. Whether it be provincially or federally, there has always been a reason, so you don't need to change the Standing Orders. If it wishes to prorogue, and I understand the government is probably contemplating prorogation perhaps this summer, that is its right, obviously, but also it would make some sense at the halfway point of the four-year term of this government that it might want to hit the reset button. Prorogation would make sense in that regard, to come back with a new Speech from the Throne sometime later in the fall. That makes some sense. I can understand that, but you don't need to change the Standing Orders. Just prorogue and give your rationale.
The third change in the big four is no more omnibus bills. That's fine; just don't bring one forward. Some might argue, well, we can do that, but we want to make sure that future governments don't do it. The fact of the matter is that you do not have to change the Standing Orders today to stop the use of omnibus bills. You have the ability to do it yourself.
What does that leave of the big four? It only leaves changing the Standing Orders to deal with the estimates process and the timing of estimates. That's the only one left, and even though the government has the ability to deal with it without changing the Standing Orders, for some reason the President of the Treasury Board feels that he has to do this, that he can't do it any other way.
That's why I believe that is the true motivation behind this so-called discussion paper. The rest is almost like a bit of a subterfuge. “Let's throw a whole bunch of things in there and slide this point in, this standing order change, in a package of other proposed changes. We don't care about the other ones but we really want this one.” I think that's what's happening here.
If you want to have a discussion about better alignment of the estimates and the budgetary process, that's great. We're having that at government operations. We members, other than the government, have stated at committee that we are in favour of a better alignment process. It would make sense, and it can be done. It would take a couple of budget cycles to get there, but it can be done. However, the way in which the minister is proposing it has not been received well, and there has been opposition. You can understand why. It's because it would require a change to the Standing Orders.
Even though I take Minister Brison in good faith—and as I say, I respect him greatly and like him as an individual—once you change the Standing Orders, there is nothing to stop future presidents of the Treasury Board from abusing the situation. There is nothing to say that the Standing Orders would be changed back to their original March 31 date in two years.
Once the government changes the Standing Orders with a commitment to revert back to the old dates or the old ways, there is nothing to stop them from keeping the standing order changes as they see fit. As for the precedence that is being set, I cannot stress enough that it is extremely dangerous. I can certainly see a time when some government in the future would take the changes that are being proposed here and try to manipulate them to their own benefit.
Let's have a discussion by all means, but having a discussion in a forum in which the government has the hammer and the sole right and ability to make changes is meaningless. It's pointless. It's not a discussion. It's lip service to the opposition to try to keep them at bay and to say, “Well, you know, we consulted.”
No, you didn't. All you did was report a sham. Meaningful discussion means unanimity on changes to the Standing Orders.
I would suggest to my friends and colleagues on the government side that this is eroding whatever trust is left between opposition members and government members. It's no secret to members of the government that their failure to follow through on their commitment on electoral reform has eroded a lot of the trust and goodwill in this Parliament.
I would also point out, while I'm speaking of electoral reform, that the government is now taking the position of saying, “We made a campaign commitment to democratic reform within Parliament, so that's why we're bringing this discussion paper forward.” It seems a little hollow to me.
Not only was there no specific discussion about many of the proposed changes in the so-called discussion paper. There was a firm commitment in their campaign platform prior to the 2015 election to change the way in which we vote in this country, specifically, “This will be the last first-past-the-post election,” definitively, period, full stop.
What happened? We didn't see that happen.
If you break a campaign commitment and a campaign promise, how can you then possibly have the chutzpah to come back here and say, “We have to do this. We have to make these changes because we made a commitment in our campaign platform”?
No. There is absolutely no reason for the government to attempt to do what it is attempting to do with these proposed changes. There is no rational thought that I can come up with that makes me think they have justification to do what they are doing.
Consequently, we are where we are, but I hope, and I mean this sincerely, that there's an opportunity for the government to perhaps draw back just a little bit. They could agree to either setting up an all-party committee within PROC with equal representation from each party and a commitment that unanimity must be achieved before any standing order changes are implemented, or to accept the suggestion from my colleague, Mr. Reid, to establish a special committee on parliamentary reform requiring unanimity, which has been done before by a previous Liberal government.
I know my colleagues on the government side are all aware of that. Prime Minister Chrétien made the provision that an all-party committee would be set up, and it was, and it would have to have unanimous consent before any changes were made. It worked well. It has always worked well. This was the first time in my recollection that—although I stand to be corrected, but I believe I'm on solid ground when I say this—in the history of the Canadian Parliament, where a government is attempting to have a committee discussion of parliamentary changes and recommend them without unanimous consent.
Governments have done so unilaterally, but they haven't done it through the committee process. They have never done it through the committee process, so why now? It's simple. They're looking for cover. They want to be able to say to Canadians that these changes were discussed, debated thoroughly, and the committee recommended these changes, even if there's a dissenting report.