Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak on MotionNo. 267 in its last hour of debate.
The motion is about returning the business of the House to the House. At this time I thank Bloc members from Bellechasse and Rimouski-Témiscouata for the amendment and the subamend-
ment which add a time element to my motion, that is to have the committee "report on its work within 60 sitting days from the date of the bills reference to the committee". I feel this time requirement is necessary to complete Motion No. 267.
When one considers the amount of time members of the House have waited to see their bills emerge from committee and the total disregard by some committee members of the obvious wishes of the members of the House when they vote unanimously to pass private members' bills, one realizes we must have change in the process.
I believe that change will come best from the members themselves in establishing rules and guidelines within which we must all work, rules such as the subamendment that the committee must report the bill back to the House within 60 sitting days. In this way the committee shows respect for the House and respect for legislators.
Motion No. 267 did not come about because the subcommittee on Private Members' Business was undertaking a study on the disposition of private members' bills at the committee stage, while I am very pleased it is doing so. Motion No. 267 came about because a bill to which the House gave unanimous consent was literally destroyed in the committee stage. It was treated with disrespect. The words of witnesses from across Canada were treated with disrespect. The democratic will of the elected members of the House of Commons was treated with disrespect.
The motion came about because Bill C-232, also known as the grandparents bill which got unanimous consent from the House in May 1995, when sent to the justice committee was treated with such contempt that I wonder how the Liberal members of that committee can hold their heads up. Their total disregard for families, for children of divorce and for our seniors who are the longest paying taxpayers is inexcusable.
We had excellent speakers as witnesses: Grandparent's Rights President Nancy Wooldridge from British Columbia and long time family law practising lawyers such as Charles Merovitz of Ottawa, Barbara Baird of Fredericton and Sheila Keets of Vancouver. Their testimony alone demanded in our family law to have the Divorce Act changed slightly to address a need to keep families united and supportive in spite of divorce.
I am concerned by the lack of respect shown for testimony that is often shown for the testimony given by some very expert and well trained Canadians who come as witnesses to the committee. The justice committee voted down the grandparents bill. It voted down each clause and it voted down the title. Members of the committee were so arrogant that I realized we had a serious problem with our committee process.
There was the interference of the Canadian Bar Association, in particular the family law section chair Steven Andrew who advised members of the committee on what they should do. He presented himself as spokesperson for family law lawyers across Canada when in fact they had not been notified. They had not received a questionnaire. Nor had they asked him to speak on their behalf. Misrepresentation of the greatest latitude was committed by this person and by the umbrella representative, the Canadian Bar Association. When one considers most of the Liberal justice committee members are lawyers, one begins to question the fitness of these members to sit in judgment of any bills passed in the House and deferred to committee. If the Canadian Bar Association keeps close watch on every piece of legislation passed, and I am told that it does, are not these lawyer MPs in conflict of interest? What happens when an election comes around and they lose? Is not the Canadian Bar Association their mother organization again? Do they pay dues to keep their law degree in good standing while in office as a member of Parliament?
No, the need for change, in my mind, for the committee system began when a small group of elected MPs decided they could do what they wanted with the business of the House of Commons without just reason.
When the committee votes down a bill, its clauses, its title and votes down returning it to the House, the bill has in fact two lives. As far as the House is concerned it has not been returned to the House, so it is technically and procedurally alive, yet it is buried in committee and not allowed to emerge. Therefore, to the member, the bill is dead because he or she can do nothing more with it.
When the bill was resurrected after the February 1996 prorogation of the House, along with other bills which had passed second reading, the committee voted the bill, now known as Bill C-245, down again, without discussion and without respect for its content.
It was then that I knew I must put forward a motion in the House to seriously look at the way our committees do business. In the spring of 1996 my Motion No. 267 was introduced in the House. I am very pleased that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on September 19, 1996 adopted a motion that a subcommittee be struck to look at the way private members' items are made votable and to study the disposition of private members' bills at committee stage. I commend the three members of the subcommittee. The chair was the Liberal member for Mississauga West, and the Bloc member for Bellechasse and my colleague from Saanich-Gulf Islands were the two other members.
I also realize that recommendation No. 4 proposed by the subcommittee and revised on March 13, 1997, deals very closely with the content of my motion, especially with the subamendment which is now before the House.
Democratic reform is part of the Reform platform. As chair of the parliamentary Reform caucus task force in 1994 I put forward
private member's Motion No. 89 to ask the members to allow free votes in the House. The motion passed in the early spring of 1994. We have been voting freely on Private Members' Business since that time, but now we have another calamity. The members of the House have passed good private members' bills from all sides of the House and they are being buried in committee, without just cause and without reason given. Even a judge has to give reasons for his judgment.
The deputy House leader says that we cannot do things in a rush. There has certainly been no rush. It is now three and a half years down the road since we allowed freer voting in Private Members' Business and our bills are still buried, without just cause, in committee.
While the hon. member for Stormont-Dundas said: "The government has also taken a free vote approach to Private Members' Business," I would remind him that was in response to a Reform member's free vote motion which was passed in the House. It was not initiated by the government.
The member for Stormont-Dundas stated correctly that the government reinstated nine private members' bills after the first session was prorogued, but what was the point of the government making this grand gesture if it was going to allow these bills to be buried again in committee, without just cause? Was it all smoke and mirrors?
I must point out again to the member for Stormont-Dundas that the reason committees are taking so long to report bills back to the House is because they have buried these bills with no intention to report them back to the House. The member for Stormont-Dundas stated: "Perhaps the sponsor has not done everything to identify the bill as a priority for the committee's consideration". Let me explain.
First, a member must argue to make the item a votable item. The member had to convince other members of the House. Then the member should and did contact every member of the House to ask for their help and for any suggestions, not once but three times, before each hour of debate in the House. Then the member worked with all interested members of the House, with a gallery containing considerable numbers of grandparents watching each hour of debate. The members of this House gave the committee its directive: unanimous consent at second reading.
Then this member ensured that the witnesses the committee members heard were among the country's most experienced and competent family law lawyers from across Canada, as well as from the grandparents' groups, speaking on behalf of their grandchildren. That, as I see it, is the responsible way for a member of this House to get a private member's bill passed.
The members of the House in committee must be free to deliberate on the expert testimony of excellent witnesses, without side deals being made, without lobbying. They must be free to deliberate on what is presented by the witnesses.
Canadians want their members of Parliament to do their jobs, study the bills proposed, hear from a good slate of witnesses and then discuss and deal with clause by clause in an intelligent fashion. This was not done. It was not even contemplated.
The members of the committee did not even discuss the testimony of the expert witnesses brought from across the country or their findings. As the Reform member for North Vancouver stated: "The present system is designed to prevent Private Members' Business from getting anywhere". I am afraid at this time that is true.
I agree the amendment to change the reporting time to 60 sitting days by the member for Bellechasse is a good, practical amendment. I am glad members can work together to get good legislation before the House.
Motion No. 267 is badly needed at this time to encourage members of the House to work on private members' bills and motions and represent their constituents. As the member for Skeena stated in his submission to the subcommittee about the lack of respect shown for private members' bills: "Many members, such as myself, felt that under the current rules this respect is missing and consequently we do not pursue opportunities to advance bills or motions". This is a tragic state of affairs for democracy.
Therefore, I ask the support of the House to send a strong message to the government, a message that brings democracy back to the House in some degree. Please support Motion No. 267.