Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to comment on the motion on our standing orders, pursuant to S. O. 51(1).
I believe this is a worthwhile debate, even if some consider it a mere formality. The standing orders regulate almost every aspect of parliamentary procedure, and the legislative process could not function without them. Let us take the example of a debate that is still very fresh in our memories, and those of all Canadians, the flag flap. Without a concise set of standing orders, the House would find itself in a terrible mess from which no one would benefit.
In the time available to me I will not be able to address all questions surrounding the standing orders in any depth. I will therefore limit my comments to a few areas, and to some related issues of particular interest to me.
First I would like to turn to the issue of private members' bills, clearly a popular topic in today's debate. For many members, private members' bills are one of the most visible ways members can influence the debate of the House and reflect the particular concerns of their constituents. One current problem with private members' bills is the system of making bills votable or non-votable.
Currently a very limited number of private members' bills are deemed votable. This designation is decided unilaterally by a subcommittee of the House procedural committee. There is no appeal and no justification given for this decision.
The reasons for the designation of non-votable should be given to the MP sponsoring the bill. A right of appeal of the subcommittee's decision should be created. This right of appeal would be before the substantive committee most directly concerned by the subject matter of the bill. The committee would be asked to study the bill for a limited period of time to give the author of the bill a chance to present the problem and the context that gave rise to the legislation.
Without unduly tasking committee time this hearing would provide a more visible record of the myriad of concerns that members raise through private members' bills.
I understand that currently there is an examination of the legislative and procedural changes proposed in the last parliament by the House affairs and procedural committee. This report contained many suggestions designed to increase the number of private members' bills, to increase the number of bills that would be votable and to increase the number of those bills that could be adopted by the House.
As the government House leader mentioned in his presentation on this issue, any of these changes would require the House to perform the close scrutiny of private members' bills that currently occurs on government bills. It is clear that increased scrutiny would fall in many ways to committees. My suggestion about the right of appeal of votable designation would be a compromise between the present system and the proposals of the House affairs and procedural committee.
Committees and the House would not be overtaxed with frivolous legislation while private members' bills would get the hearing sponsoring MPs deserve and desire.
A related topic is the availability of legislative drafting counsel for private members' bills. Hon. members will be aware of the consternation expressed by some members during the previous parliament regarding the availability of legislative counsel for private members' bills. Essentially this problem arose as the private members' office lost legislative drafting advisers.
In my opinion the innovative project between the House and the legislative drafting masters program at the University of Ottawa should be attempted again. This kind of practical experience is essential for graduates. In addition, these students would provide an important service for members of parliament.
As lawyers, these masters students are well aware of the confidential relationship between the solicitor and their client. Furthermore, given the success of the policy in legal internships currently available to members' offices, I feel that a similar approach to legislative drafting would be welcome.
I would like to comment on the distinction to be made between bills that are financial in nature from those that are not. I feel, and I believe I am not the only one, that more and more private member's bills are financial in nature.
Subsequent to a reform to the standing orders in 1993, a member can, under certain circumstances, introduce a bill which involves public moneys, provide it obtains a royal recommendation before third reading. There is no provision, moreover, to prevent a member from introducing a bill which would reduce allocations of funds.
This raises matters of principle, however. The British parliamentary system has bequeathed us certain basic principles we have a duty to respect, including that of responsible government.
Canadians insist that their government be answerable to it for its decisions, particularly anything of a financial nature.
This can only be the case if we allow members of Parliament to introduce tax bills and if we pass these bills. We should probably review the related provisions of the standing orders, to ensure that the principle of government accountability is fully maintained.
Let me turn briefly to another issue that has been vigorously discussed in this parliament, that of electronic voting. Let me say from the outset that I do not support this initiative. Forcing all members to stand in their place and be counted is an important part of the job of a member of parliament. When sensitive issues are debated and decided members are forced to declare their vote or their lack of vote as the case may be. I feel strongly that electronic voting would remove some of the symbolic accountability from this place.
I have one last point before concluding. The standing orders provide that, during an opposition day, a member of the party tabling the opposition motion can amend the wording of the main motion. Since the standing orders also allow the member of the opposition party who begins the debate to share his or her time with another member, that second member has the first opportunity to propose an amendment to the wording of the motion.
However, this prevents any other member of the House from proposing an amendment to the main motion, and not only to the amendment to the motion. This procedural tactic is unfair, in my opinion, and the standing orders should be reviewed and amended accordingly.
I hope members of this House share my views on these issues relating to our rules. It is our responsibility to ensure the standing orders are as concise as possible, if this House is to operate effectively.