Mr. Speaker, I am proud to take part in this debate concerning amendments to the Standing Orders of the House. After listening to the previous speakers, you can tell how everyone is concerned about giving elected representatives more responsibility and more influence on how this House and the whole process work.
As my colleagues have done earlier, I would like to express my point of view and begin by describing some of the fundamentals involved here. The hon. member for Dartmouth talked about progressive elements. Instead of using words like "progressive", he should talk about rules or evolution, as his colleague from Saint-Léonard did.
The hon. member for Saint-Léonard reminded us that there are over 200 new members in the House. It is true that those new members have a lot to learn and to take in.
As for the proposed amendments to the Standing Orders of the House, according to the Constitution, Canada's sovereignty is entrusted to three entities: the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons. In reality, however, that is not the case. We have learned from the history of Western parliamentary government that the real power belongs to the inner cabinet of the government party.
However, as we come to the end of the 20th century, the political power in Canada is based on only one legitimate principle, and that is the power given to the House of Commons whose members are elected to represent the will of the people. A minimum balance has to be struck between the sovereignty of the people, expressed by universal suffrage, and the efficiency of the modern state so that the spirit of democracy can survive throughout Canada as well as Quebec.
The primary objective of members of Parliament, who represent the various societies and nations that comprise the Canadian entity, is to control the actions of the parliamentary executive.
With the emergence of the welfare state, the postwar period marked the beginning of an era in which politicians were faced with an ever increasing number of laws that were more and more complex, mounting budgets and a more cumbersome administration. So, we are witnessing the progressive growth of the executive at the expense of the legislature. This is not in itself a serious problem, but it can become extremely dangerous for the democratic future of a geopolitical entity when, for example, the leader of the governing party states repeatedly in the House that no one in Canada or in Quebec wants to reopen the Canadian Constitution, thereby denying the very existence of the official opposition.
As I said, the contemporary role of the House of Commons is to control the government's actions, which implies the right of members to question and criticize freely and publicly the government and its legislative measures. The disappearance of the parliamentary balance and the emergence of a parliamentary oligarchy infringes on this right and reduces the democratic nature of the House of Commons.
The members of the Bloc Quebecois, the Official Opposition in this House, have a number of reservations about the proposed changes to the Standing Orders of the House put forward by the Liberal government, since the dynamics of the proposals are such that the sacred balance between the legislative and the executive powers would be destroyed.
These proposals call into question the very essence of parliamentary democracy. However, Bloc members did not receive a mandate from Quebec voters to reform federal institutions and, in this particular case, much less a mandate to reform the House of Commons which of all the institutions is the one largely responsible for Quebec's gradual, ongoing loss of political autonomy.
The Bloc's mandate in this House is clear. It is to defend the interests of Quebec, according to parliamentary rules and traditions, while there is still time. The Bloc has a fundamental obligation to oppose any reform which is aimed at limiting the role of opposition members in controlling government activity. This obligation involves protecting the interests of Quebecers.
Since this political party's primary objective is to secure the national independence of the Quebec state, it cannot help but advocate the decentralization of the decision-making process. In short, the Official Opposition acts as a watchdog in ensuring
the transparency and openness of the proceedings of the House of Commons.
It is written in the famous red book, the Liberal Party agenda so often waved about during the election campaign, and I quote: "The people are irritated with governments that do not consult them, or that disregard their views, or that try to conduct key parts of the public business behind closed doors".
This amendment put forward today by the same Liberal Party would enable a minister to make a motion to refer a bill to a committee immediately after second reading. It makes the Bloc Quebecois wonder what some of the statements contained in the red book are worth.
Also, the throne speech mentioned that the government was "committed to enhancing the credibility of Parliament". Basically, to make the House of Commons run more efficiently, the Liberals advocate providing members of Parliament a greater opportunity to contribute to the development of legislation. Again, the Bloc Quebecois questions the value, the usefulness of the government proposals in terms of referring bills to committee immediately after first reading, because that is the intent: to change second reading proceedings to allow the minister to ask for the bill to be referred immediately to committee. This would means that no amendments could be considered in the House. We do not think that abolishing debate in the House at the second reading stage is a measure that will increase transparency or allow members to make a greater contribution. The Official Opposition believes, on the contrary, that it undermines the legislative function of private members. Does this mean that parliamentary democracy is progressively disappearing? Is the member of Parliament not the front-line representative, that is to say the elected representative of the people of his or her riding, the riding being foremost in a system of democracy by representation? Those are the questions that we must ask ourselves.
The reality is the following: the time allocated to the consideration of private members' bills in the House of Commons has shrunk from three to four days a week in 1867 to a mere two to four hours a week in 1968. The exact same thing is happening now with regard to the time allocated to the Official Opposition, for this government proposal basically eliminates any debate in the House on the principle of bills being read for the second time. And that is an important stage! Second reading is the most important stage a bill has to go through. That is when the House gets to vote on the very principle of the legislation.
Again, the Bloc Quebecois has serious reservations concerning this measure put forward by the government to reform the House of Commons. One of the primary immediate objectives of the Bloc Quebecois will be to introduce legislation to increase the capacity to get involved, the legislative responsibility and the input of members of Parliament in the development of a decentralized Parliament. After all, Parliament is a rhetorical instrument in the original meaning of the word, that is to say one that allows public debate on matters of public interest. As I said, it also encourages the expression of dissent in a civilized way. Real political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy, tolerance and confidence in the people's ability to resolve their differences peacefully. Opposition is essential to the parliamentary political system; otherwise, politics simply becomes administration.
With this in mind, the debate and vote on the principle of a bill at second reading is the most important way that opposition members have to oversee government bills and provides an opportunity to question the advisability of a bill before it is studied and debated clause by clause. By sending a bill to committee right after first reading, the government prevents members from criticizing the principle of a bill before its passage is assured.
Mr. Speaker, you will agree that it is difficult in committee, at report stage, to call into question the principle of a bill while it is being amended clause by clause. Once again, the Bloc Quebecois believes that this infringes the fundamental right of members to control government legislation.
With this reform, the opposition could no longer delay debate; from at least six hours allotted to the official opposition under the present Standing Orders, we would have at most one hour under the government's proposal. It seems that the power of backbenchers is being strangely eroded, as I already said several times, whence the reluctance of Bloc Quebecois members to approve such a measure. Incidentally, this same amendment does not restore Parliament's public credibility.
The government's proposal to amend the Standing Orders of the House concerns the committee charged with tabling a bill. Thus a minister can present a motion delegating to the committee the power to draft a draft bill and table it in the House. In its report, the committee can then recommend the principle, scope and general provisions of the draft bill, which implies a provision for an immediate vote on second reading, without debate or amendment.
The consequences of this proposal on the principle of parliamentary democracy and the importance of the role of the backbencher as a legislator are the same as in the case of the preceding proposal, namely that it prevents MPs from criticizing the principle of government bills. Indeed, nothing in this proposal indicates that a bill tabled by the government, following the report tabled by a committee, complies with that report. The government may well not respect the principle of the bill drafted by the committee when that bill is tabled for first reading.
With this measure, the government is trying to force the hand of the opposition by indirectly implicating it in the decision process, by enabling it, in theory since committees are controlled by the majority, to participate in the drafting of bills. The government is trying to get the opposition to support the bills which are tabled.
Although we do not systematically oppose this proposal, Bloc Quebecois members want to emphasize the importance of having a debate here on the principle underlying any bill, and they want to make this House aware of the fact that this measure does absolutely nothing to ensure transparency and to improve Parliament's credibility, two important election promises contained in the famous red book.
The Official Opposition deplores the fact that the government's proposed reform does not provide for special debates on bills deemed important by MPs. Indeed, emergency debates are rather rare in the House. The rules governing such debates are very strict, thus preventing this type of exercise on issues of concern to the public. The relevance of the proceedings of this House often is not obvious for the public, since in the absence of emergency debates these proceedings are not always related to current issues.
In order to better protect Quebec's interests, the Bloc Quebecois would like to enhance the status of the work done by the House of Commons. We therefore propose that a procedure be established to hold special debates on specific issues, as was recommended in the 81st report of the Standing Committee on House Management.
The Bloc Quebecois also deplores the fact that the government did not make any proposal for a special question and answer period on specific issues, during which some ministers would answer all the questions asked.
The eighty-first report, mentioned earlier, contained a recommendation that a special period for questions and answers be institutionalized on a weekly basis. The Standing Committee on House Management saw this as an effective means of dealing with regional and sectoral problems which, due to lack of time, could not be dealt with by the opposition during Question Period. The committee also saw this as a way to question ministers more systematically.
We therefore notice a lack of political will on the part of the government and an attitude that clearly contradicts the great principle of the election platform of the Liberal Party of Canada.
In this perspective, and to protect the interests of Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois proposes setting aside once a week, outside normal sitting hours, at least one hour for questions and answers on a subject or problem to be dealt with by a single minister. The Official Opposition would determine early in the week which ministers are to be questioned on what subjects, as well as the date and time of the proceedings. During these sessions, the House would sit according to a format similar to that of committees of the whole.
And, as a last point, I would like to draw the attention of the House to several government proposals concerning public spending and pre-budget consultations. The proposed reforms which empower the committee to examine the future year expenditure plans of departments before the last sitting day in June and to table a report advising the government on its future expenditure plans is a positive measure involving backbenchers in the budget planning process.
The item on authorizing consideration of proposals regarding the budgetary policy of the government from September to December is also a way of involving backbenchers in the budget process. The opposition sees this as a positive element as well.
Finally, the proposal regarding the possibility to amend the tax system in committee without previous notice before the introduction of a bill seems destined to give committees, with a parliamentary majority, all the flexibility required to impose tax measures. That way, the opposition would not get notices in the House and the government could introduce bills without saying immediately that their application would entail taxes.
Before I conclude, I would like to remind the federalist members of this House who might feel very patriotic that Bloc Quebecois members were not sent to Ottawa to reform parliamentary structures, but to defend the interests of the Quebec state. Need I mention it? We are sovereignist members and as such we denounce the proposed changes to the Standing Orders since they do not improve openness and are not, therefore, in the interest of Quebec.
Let me mention, as an example, the absence of any measure whatsoever which would allow the House to examine order-in-council appointments of officers of Parliament, judges, ambassadors, high commissioners, presidents and administrators of Crown corporations and of various people in regulatory bodies, agencies, and courts. It would have been very much in the public interest if, in the context of this parliamentary reform, a procedure allowing members to examine appointments before they became reality had been proposed to the House. In so doing, the government would have enriched and transformed the members' role and would have given back to Parliament its credibility. That type of proposal is essential to the openness of political decision making and seems to be a fundamental democratic measure if the people are to express their sovereignty since it would protect the country against patronage and political bias.
The Bloc Quebecois cannot help but feel concerned since it is not covered in the proposal for parliamentary reform. The lack of such measure shows how the government are against openness even though last autumn, during the campaign, they prom-
ised they would base appointments on qualifications and put an end to patronage.
In conclusion, I would like to quote the liberal member for Kingston and the Islands who said, on April 9, 1991: "That exposition of the importance of an opposition in Parliament to inform the people and to express their grievances in Parliament is a deep rooted one in the British parliamentary tradition" and "We believe that this country functions best when it has a strong and effective opposition". We of the Bloc Quebecois also believe that our country, that is Quebec, will have the opportunity to assert itself and gain political autonomy thanks to the presence in Ottawa of a strong and efficient Official Opposition. The voice the Bloc Quebecois is raising in protest against the centralizing views of the federal government and the lack of transparency of the parliamentary reform proposed today, is the same voice we hear, coming from the Canadian political scene, in favour of political independance for Quebec.
Therefore, the sovereignist MPs reject the government's proposal to refer bills to committees for review, immediately after first reading, on the grounds that it violates the guarantees granted opposition members, under the Standing Orders, to question and criticize the government.
The Bloc members deplore the lack of political will that would have allowed for real reform and put an end to the general disillusionment felt by Canadians for politicians as a whole. The same members deplore a partial reform which does not provide for this fundamental balance between the role of the government, which is to govern, and that of the opposition, which is to control the government's activities.
To conclude, we also deplore the fact that this reform of parliamentary rules, which challenges some fundamental principles of our parliamentary system, does not address the tarnished image of MPs.
In short, all the Official Opposition is seeking is that the rules of the parliamentary system be respected, and that decisions made by the Canadian political community be transparent, as requested by the Quebec people.
Quebecers have a good memory and they are not ready to forget the many years under the Liberals, when many decisions regarding the political future of Quebec were taken, with total disrespect for openness, and resulted in the Constitutional Act of 1982.