Evidence of meeting #66 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 commons.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Charles Robert  Clerk of the Senate and Clerk of the Parliaments and Chief Legislative Services Officer

11 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

I'm going to start on time so members get fair time with the minister.

Good morning, and welcome to the 66th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

This meeting is being televised.

Pursuant to our mandate Standing Order 108(3)(a)(iii), which provides the review of Standing Orders procedure and practice in the House and its committee, we have with us today the Honourable Bardish Chagger, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.

Committee members will remember that we agreed on May 18 to invite Ms. Chagger to meet with us to discuss potential changes to the Standing Orders, as outlined in her April 30 letter to the House leaders of the official opposition and the NDP.

Thank you very much for coming, Minister. We really appreciate it. I know it's very busy at the end of the year here.

We'll open it for your opening remarks.

11 a.m.

Waterloo Ontario

Liberal

Bardish Chagger LiberalLeader of the Government in the House of Commons

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all members of this committee for asking me to appear before you today.

As members of this committee, you have a unique and important responsibility with regard to how the House of Commons conducts its work.

It is clear to me that all of you have a genuine interest in ensuring members of Parliament are able to represent their constituents well and do the job they were sent here to do.

I am thankful for the commitment you have shown, and I respect you all for the work you do on this committee.

I am pleased to be here to provide an overview of the changes that our government proposes to the Standing Orders and to answer your questions.

As background, I would like to remind members of the committee of some of the key steps that brought us here.

Two years ago, as Canadians were preparing to cast their ballot in the general election, the Liberal Party released its campaign platform. That platform promised real change and pledged to give Canadians a voice in Ottawa.

The platform said:

For Parliament to work best, its members must be free to do what they have been elected to do: represent their communities and hold the government to account. Government must always stay focused on serving Canadians and solving their problems.

Among the specific promises that were made in the platform: introduce a Prime Minister's question period to improve the level of direct accountability; end the improper use of prorogation and omnibus bills; provide better parliamentary oversight of taxpayer dollars; and strengthen parliamentary committees so that parliamentary secretaries do not have a vote on committees.

On October 19, 2015, Canadians went to the polls and made their decision on the type of government and the type of Parliament they wanted in Ottawa. The result was clear: Canadians elected a government with a mandate to strengthen Parliament. The Prime Minister is committed to making that happen. It is important to note the instructions he has given me in my mandate letter.

The letter says:

As Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, your overarching goal will be to make Parliament relevant again and to ensure that Canadians once again have a real voice in Ottawa. Parliamentarians must have the information and the freedom to do their most important jobs: represent their constituents and hold the government to account. It is your job to help empower all Members of Parliament to fulfill these essential responsibilities.

Mr. Chair, as we move forward, I would like to stress that this is our main goal.

Our intention is to give more powers to members on both sides of the House. We want to provide them with the tools they need to do their work.

We want to ensure the Prime Minister and members of cabinet are held to greater account in the House of Commons, not less. This spring, I released a discussion paper in good faith to foster a dialogue on additional ways that we could modernize the operations of the House of Commons. I had sincerely hoped we could all participate in a conversation on behalf of Canadians about how to improve the place where we work. That did not happen, and I regret that.

Members expressed heartfelt and legitimate views and concerns about some of the ideas in the discussion paper. Those disagreements had an impact on the work of the House, and indeed, of this committee. As you know, because the political will did not exist in the House of Commons to proceed with that dialogue on modernization, I informed my Conservative and NDP counterparts that we would not be moving forward with many of the ideas in the discussion paper at the present time. However, there are some changes that we committed to Canadians to making. They involve implementing the specific platform commitments that I mentioned earlier. All of these changes will strengthen the House of Commons and make the government more accountable.

I have always been committed to dialogue among House leaders about charting a path forward on these ideas. In recent days, I have been pleased by the constructive dialogue I have had with my Conservative and NDP counterparts on this issue. We have worked together collaboratively, in the spirit of what's in the best interest of Parliament and our country. Now Canadians expect us to act.

Our government will soon come forward with specifics of our approach on how to make the House of Commons a better place. I would like to provide a brief overview of what to expect.

On the Prime Minister's question period, our Prime Minister is firmly committed to being more accessible to all members of Parliament in question period. Our proposal to introduce a PMQP would significantly enhance the parliamentary accountability of the Prime Minister. Here's what it would mean: when the Prime Minister attends question period on Wednesday, he would answer all the questions that day. This special question period would be in addition to the other days of the week when he attends the regular question period to answer questions with his cabinet ministers.

Already our Prime Minister has shown that he is committed to this reform. He has attended six special question periods on Wednesdays, answering a total of 233 questions from MPs on those six days alone.

The prorogation of Parliament signifies the end of a session and can occur with justification during a mandate. There have been times, however, when governments have improperly prorogued early to avoid politically difficult situations. If that happens again in the future, Canadians deserve a formal explanation in Parliament. We would like to build accountability into the process and force the government to justify its decision and let the House pass judgment on it.

Next comes omnibus legislation. Our government is committed to ending the improper use of omnibus legislation. I am not speaking here of responsibly drafted budget implementation bills that contain changes stemming directly from the budget. Rather, I am referring to what should happen when a government introduces a non-budget omnibus bill that contains entirely separate and unrelated themes. We want to ensure that MPs are not forced to vote against some things they believe in as they cast their vote on a bill. We want flexibility for MPs in these instances.

With regard to the estimates, members of Parliament are responsible for keeping track of how the government intends to spend money. And yet the financial accounting system that they are expected to use is inconsistent and unclear.

We need a better way. We want to better align the budget and estimates process so that the data means something and is truly relevant and timely for members.

Concerning committees, our government believes strongly that committees provide the backbone of much of the work done in Parliament. It is there that MPs can do some of their best work, scrutinizing legislation and hearing the views of experts, stakeholders, and Canadians at large. Indeed, it is at the committee stage that proposed legislation can be improved, and members from all parties can constructively work together towards that end. We believe there is a role for parliamentary secretaries to be members of committees, but we also believe that those parliamentary secretaries should not have the right to vote on committees or move motions.

In summary, Mr. Chair, our proposals all stem from promises we made in the last campaign to improve Parliament. Canadians gave us a green light to move forward. They are waiting for us all to make the reforms they want. I believe we can work together to make that happen.

With that, I'd be pleased to take any questions.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you, Madam Minister.

Now we'll go to a seven-minute round, and we'll start with Mr. Simms.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

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

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for being here.

I have one question on one particular issue. Thank you for explaining what was in your mandate letter, but I'm going to veer away from the mandate letter for just a moment. You and I had a few discussions about what was in your discussion paper and my motion here, before I became the skunk in the room with the filibuster. That's fine; it's all part of debate.

There was, however, one element of that discussion paper that at first blush made me think to myself that I didn't think we should go there.

I had a chance to go to the United Kingdom, and I spoke to a woman by the name of Margaret Beckett. She was the House leader for Tony Blair and was the one who brought in the idea of government programming, which at first some people might say is just time allocation in disguise, or as they call it a “guillotine” in disguise.

I asked her if she had brought this in because Tony Blair thought it was the right thing to do. She said, “No, I did it because Margaret Thatcher convinced me this was the right thing to do.” She had a bill about poverty reduction, and it was guillotined just before she could get her best points out there during the course of debate.

Since she brought it in, there have been several governments and several leaders, and each one—and they set up a committee to review it—accepted this. There are problems with it, yet they all accepted it. I spoke to the Liberal Democrats; they accepted it. The Labour Party accepted it. And the Conservatives.... It will be interesting to see what happens now that they're back in a minority, but even when they had a Conservative minority with the Liberal Democrats, they still accepted this idea of government programming.

The reason is that it does two things. It allows people to see what the debate is about, providing transparency without doing time allocation, and they can see how it will unfold. It also, however, allows the government to be efficient in putting its mandate through in legislation.

Okay, that's a long question, but I would like to get your comments on government programming and how you feel about it vis-à-vis time allocation.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

Thank you, Mr. Simms. Thank you for the fruitful debate you had here. I believe that these are some ideas. That's why I released a discussion paper—it was in good faith—to have some of these conversations. I believe that Parliament and the House of Commons can be modernized, and that's why I wanted to throw some ideas out there, so that you could research other models.

My goal as the government House leader is to ensure that we are having meaningful debate as well as advancing the mandate Canadians gave us. I think it's important that members of Parliament be able to represent their constituents and have their voices heard. That's why a made-in-Canada model would be the best solution, I believe. It would allow us to do the important work we do in the House of Commons as well as continue doing the other important work we do here in Ottawa and in our constituencies as well.

I know that on any day of the week, as much as I am physically present in Ottawa my heart and my mind are in my riding with my constituents, listening to the challenges they are facing to ensure that I am doing my best to respond to them. I have no doubt that every member is here to act in the best interest of their constituents, the people they represent.

I believe, then, that it's a conversation the committee could undergo and take on. I believe it's a worthy conversation to have to ensure that it works for our Parliament, our House of Commons. I would encourage members to continue the conversation when they're ready.

I took an attempt at it and I did not succeed, and I'm okay with that, but I know that the conversations have continued, and I encourage their doing so.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

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

During the course of the filibuster there was quite a bit of debate, some from here but primarily from over there. I've said before— and I mean this sincerely—that I enjoyed it. All the members here brought in some very good input to this.

Did you have a look at that debate and say to yourself, “This may be a good idea and maybe that's a bad idea”?

I think the biggest problem was that we didn't get witnesses to come in, such as Ms. Beckett, who was willing to come here. She told me verbally she would come here to talk about this. That was unfortunate.

Did you have a look at some of the deliberations and take some advice from them or not?

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

Not only did I look at them—I'm just cool like that—but I listened to them when I was not on Parliament Hill.

It was an important debate to have. There was a lot of great, constructive feedback within that time. We've referred to it as a filibuster, but I know that members were sharing perspectives and viewpoints that needed to be heard. It was unfortunate that this was the only way to do it.

The work that committees do is essential to the process, because committees are able to scrutinize legislation. They are able to bring in witnesses and stakeholders and ask tough questions to ensure that we are making good decisions in the best interest of Canadians.

Yes, to answer your question quickly, I did observe that debate and I believe it was an important conversation.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

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

You informally participated at one point, so there you go.

I want to touch briefly on the mandate letter that you spoke about earlier. Two of the elements that I think were misunderstood by the public, primarily because they were misused in the last Parliament, are those regarding omnibus legislation in particular and also prorogation, but I'm more interested in the omnibus legislation piece of it.

I want to get your thoughts on how you see governments handling the idea of being accused of having omnibus legislation in the future and how the Speaker could deal with it.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

What we are proposing is that the government of the day can always introduce what the government wants. What's tough is when members of Parliament have viewpoints in certain areas and a certain issue is stuck into another bill in which it perhaps does not belong; hence the reason we're suggesting themes. We're suggesting, then, giving the Speaker the ability to divide out votes so that, if there is an area that members do not believe matches, the Speaker will have the ability to divide out votes.

This is no different from what the Speaker is able to do now. They can pair votes as well on themes. We would like to provide the Speaker that ability and also provide the Speaker the ability to have legislation go not only to one committee but to other committees to have them also study it.

June 15th, 2017 / 11:15 a.m.

Liberal

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

You think that from a thematic approach this is the way we can deal with it, that anyone can take it to the Speaker, who can deal with it. Is that how you envision it?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

That would be the approach I would be encouraging us to advance, yes.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Simms.

Now I'll officially recognize Thursday—bow tie day—and Mr. Reid.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you.

Yes, it's something that got started by guys on your side, actually. Greg Fergus was the originator of this practice. It's an excellent practice, if I may say, and I encourage my colleagues of all—

11:15 a.m.

An hon. member

Stripes?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

—partisan stripes, and also paisleys and whatever else, to do this.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

By convention, not by spirit—

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

That's right.

Welcome, Minister. I'm glad to have you here.

First of all, I wonder if I could start by giving notice of a motion.

The motion is as follows:

That, in relation to its consideration of the proposed appointment of Charles Robert to be Clerk of the House of Commons, the Committee invite former Clerks of the House of Commons, Robert Marleau and Audrey O'Brien, to appear in order to gain a better understanding of the role, duties and responsibilities of the Clerk of the House of Commons.

Minister, if I could turn to the proposed appointment of Mr. Robert as the Clerk of the House, do you think it's reasonable that we should hear from these two former clerks prior to making this appointment?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

As I told you last night, Mr. Reid, this isn't on the topic today; we were asked on the Standing Orders.

The witnesses, if they want to, could answer questions outside the reason we were called here, but you don't have to, because you weren't prepared for that.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

I'll take a moment to say that in appointments such as this, when candidates are nominated, I believe it's important that the committee be able to bring the witness in. The other work the committee does is the prerogative of the committee.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

You'd have no objection to us having the two former clerks here prior to actually making a recommendation apropos of the proposed appointment of Mr. Robert.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

I believe that's the work of the committee.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

All right. Well, I hope we'll get consent from other members of the committee to bring in these two former clerks. That's actually a message for the rest of the committee members.

I'll be asking them for their consent on this point, but please go ahead, Minister.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

I'm not sure if you are aware, but prior to initiating this process, I believe in September, I sent a letter to the opposition House leaders, as well as to the Bloc and the Green Party—Ms. May—to ask them what they thought was important for a Clerk to have and to hear qualifications, experiences, and so forth. That was a letter that I believe was well received and responded to. These are conversations that took place not at the committee table, but I did initiate that conversation and I did receive responses, just for the record.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you.

Perhaps, then, we could also make the request of the various House leaders. If they're willing to share the responses they gave to you, we can add those to the mix. That would be very reasonable. I can't really ask you to provide those to us, because of course those presumably were sent back to you confidentially, and that would be putting you in an awkward position. We'll make that request of the various House leaders.

I want to deal with something you said in your comments today in the theme you expressed. You said that, “Canadians elected a [Liberal] government with a mandate to strengthen Parliament”. That's a direct quote from you. I'm not in a position to dispute the accuracy of that, but I am in a position to say that when it comes to the appointment process, your government has been failing at this, and failing very badly.

The example of Madam Meilleur and the way in which consultation, which is legally required, was handled is the paradigm example here. It was after-the-fact consultation. It was actually advance notification, so before the House gets to find out, the leaders of the other parties get to learn what decision has been made, which is not the same thing as consultation. Consultation involves the ability to say no.

With regard to Charles Robert's proposed appointment, something very similar has occurred. He has been presented to us in the dying days of this Parliament. We have had a meeting foisted upon us so quickly—of course, as soon as you leave, he comes in and we meet with him—that we have had no opportunity to do proper research and to determine the right kind of background information that will be helpful. This has been an enormous frustration.

I told the chair that I did not give my consent to changing the agenda of the meeting to include Mr. Robert today. I asked for it to be set off until Tuesday. That was overridden, and I can't believe that was overridden at the sole discretion of the chair himself.

This is an enormous, enormous frustration for us. What I need to hear from you is that you will give us the time to have the hearings we need—I propose next Tuesday for the two clerks—so that we can then get back to you with a yes or a no as to the proposed nomination. Would that be acceptable to you?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Bardish Chagger Liberal Waterloo, ON

I'm not sure if I need to reiterate, but committees are masters of their own domain. I do not—