Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to inform hon. members that the principle of the motion before the House today has already been the subject of debate and was referred on February 7 to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for consideration and a subsequent report by the committee.
The text reads as follows: "That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs examine procedures regarding members statements, special debates, the taking of divisions of the House by electronic means, the conduct of Private Members' Business, especially with regard to private bills and to Senate public bills, any anomalies or technical inconsistencies in the Standing Orders, the reform of question period, measures to achieve more direct participation by citizens, including citizens' initiative, the right of constituents to recall their MP-binding referenda, free votes in the House of Commons, debates on petitions and fixed election dates."
Although this exercise is redundant, having already been initiated by a standing committee of this House, I certainly do not question the right of the opposition party to debate the subject today, on an allotted day.
Before starting the actual debate, I think it is important to realize there are two kinds of petitions: first, petitions arising from the fundamental right of citizens to present grievances to Parliament, and second, petitions to seek presentation of a private bill, which are signed by the person or persons seeking to be exempted from the application of certain legislation. Of course, today's debate concerns the first kind which presents grievances expressed by citizens.
For the benefit of Canadians who are listening, I will take a few minutes to give a short history of the petitions presented in the House of Commons and explain how they are presented and how the government is expected to respond. I will then give some examples to illustrate that our Standing Orders give the members of this House the means to discuss matters presented by petitioners. Finally, I will provide a summary of what is being done by this government to bring about a thorough reform of the operations of the House of Commons, which will substantially expand the role of members in developing fiscal policy and in the legislative process as a whole.
Petitions as we know them today were developed during the 17th century at a time when the British Parliament was beginning to be perceived more as a political and legislative institution than as the highest court of law in the land. The rights of petitioners and the powers of the House to act on the petitions were defined in two resolutions passed by the House of Commons in 1669. The resolutions were worded as follows:
"That it is the inherent right of every commoner in England to prepare and present petitions to the House of Commons in case of grievance and the House of Commons to receive the same; that it is an undoubted right and privilege of the Commons to judge and determine, touching the nature and matter of such petitions, how far they are fit and unfit to be received".
Until the adoption in 1842 of several standing orders aimed at defining the format for presenting petitions and at making any kind of immediate debate on their content virtually impossible, the House of Commons imposed very few restrictions on the debates arising from the presentation of petitions. Petitions had become a way to introduce a subject into the House for debate
and they were sometimes used to obstruct the planned work of the Commons.
Moreover, since the composition of the House was becoming at the time increasingly representative of the different trends of thought, the need to use petitions as a means of conveying to Parliament the pressing demands of the public decreased and as a result, the number of petitions presented declined considerably.
The Constitution of Canada recognizes that the right to petition the crown or Parliament to remedy a grievance is a fundamental principle, one that has been invoked frequently since 1867. While the House of Commons is an institution that is representative of the voters, only their elected representatives are allowed to bring issues before the House. Ordinary citizens cannot petition Parliament personally. Therefore, it is important that Canadians have a mechanism for bringing grievances deemed relevant to the attention of Parliament.
Contrary to the situation in Great Britain, the number of petitions addressed to the Canadian Parliament decreased dramatically owing to the establishment of courts of law, to the lack of clarity in the standing orders of the time and to the manner in which petitions were handled. The process in no way reflected the importance that petitions should have been assigned, considering the fundamental right of the people to petition Parliament.
Therefore, in 1984, the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons examined the question of petitions and recommended numerous amendments to the standing orders to correct the problems associated with the procedure governing petitions.
Here is what the chairman of the McGrath committee had to say in his report tabled in June 1985:
"Public petitions addressed to the House of Commons constitute one of the most direct means of communication between the people and Parliament. It is by this means that people can voice their concerns to the House on matters of public interest. However, despite the considerable effort spent preparing and circulating petitions to gather signatures, once they have been presented in the House and received, it is rare that further action is taken.
We agree that the right to petition Parliament is a fundamental right of the citizen and that petitions are an integral part of the process whereby the people of Canada speak to their elected representatives. However, the use that is made of this right gives us some concern. The procedure governing petitions should be defined more clearly to generate respect for the process and make it more meaningful. There is a definite need to clarify the rules relating to petitions, to promote increased uniformity in their presentation and to ensure that they are acceptable by the House in terms of content. In addition, we should issue guidelines on the drafting and signing of petitions. We also think that petitioners are entitled to a response".
In order to achieve these objectives, the committee recommended eight amendments to the Standing Orders on petitions.
Here are the rules to follow in presenting a petition in the House of Commons-I am sure that all members already know them, but I am repeating them for the benefit of the people listening to us-as prescribed under Standing Order 36 and summarily described in the third edition of the "Précis of Procedure" prepared by the Table Research Branch.
Members wishing to present petitions in the House do so during Routine Proceedings after "Motions" and before "Questions on Order Paper" are called. A petition may also be presented simply by filing it with the Clerk at any time during a sitting.
Before being presented, a petition must be certified and examined as to form and content by the Clerk of Petitions.
If the petition meets the requirements specified in the Standing Orders, the member presenting the petition, after being recognized by the Chair, can make a brief statement to inform the House of the content of the petition; debate on the petition itself is not allowed.
The government is obliged to respond within 45 days to all petitions referred to it. Various conditions apply to the presentation of petitions. Aliens, not resident in Canada, have no right to petition Parliament; nor may ordinary citizens of Canada address the House directly-their petitions must be dated, presented and endorsed by a member. A member cannot be compelled to present a petition and no action may be taken against a member for refusing to do so.
It is interesting to note that Standing Order 36 includes the eight recommendations in the McGrath report except for one element. The committee recommended that the government be obliged to respond within two weeks of receiving a petition, while Standing Order 36 prescribes a 45-day time limit.
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons offer several alternatives for a debate on a grievance expressed in a petition presented in the House. A member can make it the subject of a motion or a bill to be included in the "Order Paper" of the House for debate. The grievance can be the subject of a government motion, like the motion we put forward on cruise missile testing on Canadian territory, which enabled parliamentarians to debate this issue often raised in many petitions presented in this House. Speaker.
The grievance can also be reviewed by a committee of parliamentarians, or take the form of an oral question during question period or of a question in the "Order Paper". Of course, the government can decide that it needs to legislate to
redress the grievance submitted to it through the House of Commons.
Then there are the general debates on the business of supply, better known as Opposition days like today, when the Opposition can decide on the motions to be debated on designated days of a given supply period. We are currently in the period ending March 26, which includes nine allotted days. The next period, which will end June 30, will include 10 allotted days. The period ending December 10 will also include six Opposition days.
So if they wish, the opposition parties normally have 20 days a year during which the grievances presented by Canadians in petitions tabled in the House could be debated.
On February 7, the House of Commons passed the motion presented by the government House leader, the Hon. Herb Gray, which changes the rules of Parliament. The purpose of this reform is to make the House more effective by giving every member more influence over policy development.
These changes which give members a greater role in drafting legislation and setting the government's spending priorities were the first initiatives arising from the Liberal election program for job creation and economic recovery, as mentioned in Creating Opportunity, our famous red book. These initiatives were adopted by the House of Commons.
During the debate, Mr. Gray said, "Today, we are providing a framework for renewal. It will be up to all members, both government and opposition, to make these procedures effective".
The main changes to the Standing Orders are as follows. Two new processes, in addition to those that now exist, are being established so that members can review bills. Thus members will participate directly in the preparation of laws and have greater autonomy in amending government legislation, through the committee system.
The Standing Committee on Finance will hold pre-budget consultations and make recommendations to the Minister of Finance.
The standing committees will be authorized to examine the government's future defence priorities and to report on them at the same time as they deal with the Main Estimates for the current year.
These measures were preceded by a review of the structure of standing committees to reflect the reorganization of the government. These reforms are only the first stage.
A petition is an excellent way for the public to express its opinions directly on the floor of the House of Commons or the Senate, through a parliamentarian. The government is forced to respond and in many ways will take the petitions into consideration in future decisions.
For instance, and this is a very good example, last week, my colleague, the minister responsible for Canada Post, announced a moratorium on the closure of post offices. There is no doubt in my mind that the many petitions presented in this House by hon. members on this subject definitely had an impact not only on the decision to review this policy but also on the decision to impose the moratorium.
Another case is also a good example: the GST. In the election campaign, we promised to replace the GST and to ask the Standing Committee on Finance to study alternatives. This decision was not made in a vacuum. Obviously, Canadians were heard by our government and their thousands of petitions presented in this House, submitted to the House, bore fruit.
Of course, the members of the opposition party who presented the motion are eager to bring up cases where the opinions expressed by Canadians in petitions were not reflected in decisions made by the government and they neglect to mention all the other cases.
The main subject of debate today is petitions, but I believe that the real issue of this debate and of all the questions raised by members of the Reform Party on the subject of parliamentary reform is the loyalty of members to their constituents, to their party, to their country or to their conscience.
We, Liberals, believe that members of Parliament must strike a balance between these positions which can sometimes be reconciled in making a decision, but can also be highly conflicting.
Canada is a country greater than the sum of its parts. So, for the sake of national cohesiveness, the decisions made by Parliament must be greater than the sum of individual decisions made by its members.
We, Liberals, feel that the credibility of parliamentarians is enhanced when they contribute directly, and can make an important contribution, to the development and implementation of programs and goals that the federal government must achieve, and not, as some members would have it, by repeating the public opinion parrot fashion and serving as mere voting machines.
In conclusion, and I know my time is running out, as for the other examples cited in the opposition motion, I wish to bring to the attention of the members the fact that the Minister of Justice has already answered in Question Period to some of these subjects and is looking into those matters.
As for the third and last example, that of recall, I do not need to repeat what has been said in this House about the experience in Alberta.
In closing, I sincerely feel that our Standing Ordes already provide many procedures to deal with grievances presented in the petitions we table in this House. On the other hand, if the Procedure and House Affairs Committee were to conclude that changes were called for with regard to petitions, I am sure that all the hon. members would consider their recommendations very carefully.