Mr. Speaker, the first provision of the standing orders of the House of Commons that we should deplore is of course the one that allows a political party to table around two o'clock on Friday afternoon a motion to be debated the following Monday morning.
Standing Order 43, which allows such little notice, should be the subject of today's debate because it shows the weakness when some groups in Parliament are not guided by a sense of fair play. But let that pass. This motion gives us an opportunity to dwell on our role as members of Parliament. We do not intend to deal with specific cases that were presented as examples in support of the motion today.
What I want to do today is to deal with the nature of a petition, its meaning, the origin of such a form of representation to Parliament and the attitude we should have toward such means of communication which more often than not show that considerable effort was made to reach us as elected members.
When the parliamentary system began in Canada with the Constitution Act, 1791, citizens' groups clearly understood that they could express their grievances and demands by appending their signatures to a joint declaration. Petitions are an integral part of the political system, whereas the actions of members and
their respective parties are not influenced either by the electronic media or by laws governing lobbyists.
In the purest sense, a petition is a mechanism employed by a group of citizens who agree on a problem and on how it should be resolved. Quite often, sound ideas translate into co-operative efforts. In many cases, petitions have reflected a good deal of common sense and quite aside from broad expert analyses, they have often brought to light alternatives that legislative assemblies had not thought of or had not dared contemplate.
We must, however, consider the flip side of this issue. We are not fools and each one of us has seen petitions supported by organizations with significant resources, and capable therefore of producing a disproportionate number of petitions, more than could be processed.
In today's highly technological, computerized and mediatized society, it is more important than ever to distinguish public interest from personal interest, and actions taken in good faith from those taken with a personal goal in mind. The whole issue of petitions opens the door to a much broader issue, namely that of representations made to those who wield legislative power.
Last week, a documentary called "Les chemins de l'influence" was shown on Radio-Canada's Le Point . This program clearly showed how lobbyists are organized and how they go about influencing decision-makers. When compared to such specialized lobbying techniques, petitions come across as the poor relation, to say the least. Yet, lobbyists are never directly quoted in the House of Commons, even though we know full well what kind of influence they have on those in power. The program I just mentioned gave the example of the pharmaceutical industry which succeeded in securing commitments from the Mulroney government and from the Minister of National Health and Welfare, Benoît Bouchard, by dangling before their eyes the promise of job spinoffs and major investments.
Would a petition have been as effective in this instance? Would it have produced the hoped-for results? Certainly not! Why then do people persist in using petitions to make requests of the government? No doubt they do so for two reasons. First, for lack of an alternative, because this is the only means available to them to get the government's attention. Then, since it is probably preferable, from a moral standpoint, to act openly through a very public request instead of going through the corridors of power.
A petition, however visible, remains in current practice something that is merely tabled. Since the opening of this Parliament, 84 petitions have been presented in this House, but there has not been a single response yet. Everything is there. The credibility of this provision in the Standing Orders depends in large part on the response provided. Standing Order 36(8) now gives the government 45 calendar days to examine a petition and respond to it. The government should not evade this obligation.
Any member has the right to table a petition. This act of tabling, which is not currently open to debate on the form or content of the petition, enables the member to freely fulfil his or her responsibilities as a representative of the people without having to endorse the petitioners' claims. It would be against my principles to table a petition without endorsing it, but the Standing Orders give some flexibility to members whose top priority is to speak for the people they represent.
Beyond the tabling as such, the possibility of debating and voting on petitions, as suggested by the Reform Party's motion, creates many difficulties. First, the main difficulty would be to decide whether we should debate all petitions. If yes, it would probably be by grouping them, but if some groupings are obvious, depending on the form and origin of the petition, others are not so obvious.
On the other hand, if we wanted to sort or select petitions to be debated and disposed of, what criteria should be used? Should there be a random draw, as provided for in Standing Order 87 regarding private members' business? Should the number of signatures be a factor? What about the purpose of the petitions? Whatever the method favoured, it is clear in my opinion that it would be criticized as a form of discrimination.
Most important today's motion would open the door to a new practice that would put into question our role as defenders of the common interests. Many governments have been accused of governing by polls. This criticism could be extended to any government or Parliament governing by petitions.
The members of this House and the political parties to which they belong have all campaigned by openly promoting various policies and solutions to solve our modern problems. Mr. Speaker, these members have been elected and their first obligation now is to do everything they can to respect their commitments.
How would they always be able to reconcile the commitments they made to get elected with the petitions giving them directions on what to do and even how to vote? If this were possible, what would prevail in case of a divergence of views? Would it be the party line? Would it be the personal beliefs of the member? Would it be the commitments made during the election campaign? Would it be the petitions, and if so based on what: their content, their volume or their origin?
We must make a distinction between our role and that which innumerable sources want us to take on. Being the elected representative of a constituency, as well as a member of a parliamentary group sharing the same political views and a member of the first deliberative assembly of the country, each
member of Parliament must face all kinds of representations and limitations.
It would be a useless constraint to add to the already existing resources in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons and allow debates on petitions. There are numerous other possibilities to review issues, including those resulting from the tabling of petitions. Indeed, petitions are sometimes grouped together in a motion, then in a bill which is reviewed by a committee before finally being passed by the House. This avenue exists, regardless of all its limitations.
In conclusion, I would appreciate it if the sponsors of the motion could answer our questions and propose some solutions to the problems which I underlined.