Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise to debate the standing orders of the House.
I believe I am the first rookie member of the class of the 1997 election to speak to this debate. I am glad I have the opportunity to do so. One of the reasons I stood for election to this venerable institution was precisely because of my passionate concern about the state of democracy in Canada.
I would characterize the state of democracy in Canada as a crisis. Democracy in Canada, as democracy is conventionally understood, is imperilled not by any great spectre of tyranny or state totalitarianism but rather by the slow, creeping incremental gathering of power and authority by the executive and judicial branches of government at the expense of the legislative branch, the democratic branch, and particularly that branch of government as manifest in the House of Commons.
The history of parliament, the history of the development of this institution, reaches back over a millennium. The privileges which we here exercise, the right to speak on behalf of our constituents, on behalf of the subjects of the Queen, on behalf of the citizens of our country, are duties and privileges which people have shed blood to secure. Battles have been fought, wars have been waged and men and women have died in order to secure the liberties which this institution represents.
That conflict which has carried over a period of centuries was really a conflict between the authority of the executive branch of government and the democratic privileges and liberties of common people as represented in their democratic assembly.
As a first time member of this place, let me make it absolutely clear that I have enormous, inexpressible respect for the traditions this place represents. I am a traditionalist. I for instance am a strong supporter of our constitutional monarchy.
However, I support our constitutional monarchy, our institutions and our traditions as embodied in this parliament not for the sake of supporting tradition but because they embody something good. They embody a tradition of ordered liberty and democracy.
This unfortunately is a tradition which is imperilled by the fact that this legislature, a legislature which was created to provide a meaningful check and balance against the authority of the executive branch of government, effectively no longer does so.
As a member from the government said during his remarks, parliament essentially has two functions, that of a legislative body and the accountability function to hold the executive, the governor in council, the cabinet or the government accountable. I think on both those mandates of this place we no longer exercise the powers of an effective legislature.
I submit that the standing orders of this House have in a sense removed any meaningful role from this place and from members of Parliament as real legislators, people who can exercise the authority granted to us by our constituents within our constitutional framework to do the business of democracy here.
It has become a truism in this country to refer to our form of government as one of electing five year, temporary dictatorships. That is not just the words of partisans in the heat of debate, that is a sentiment expressed by many eminent political scientists, jurists and members of this place both now and in the past few decades.
What they see is essentially two devices of the standing orders of this place. The executive branch, the cabinet, the frontbenches, has managed to force members of parliament, essentially on the government side, to surrender any authority which they bring to this place from their constituents. The customs of this House do this by imposing a kind of party discipline unseen anywhere else in the democratic world, a party discipline predicated on the notion that if the government loses a vote on a question on a motion or a bill the government will somehow fall.
Therefore, as the hon. Leader of the Opposition said in debate this morning on this matter, we have created an impossible situation where government backbenchers are forced by their whips, their ministers, the Prime Minister and their government to vote with the government on every single conceivable matter except those occasionally designated to be free votes.
As we all know very well, there is never such a thing as a free vote for members of the government. There is always a party line with the government. Notes are always taken by the whip's office about how members vote. If they hope as a backbench rookie to become a parliamentary secretary or, heaven forbid, a minister, if they hope to get a fruitful position on a committee in which they have interest, then they must toe the party line. It need not be that way.
The other device used to impose this kind of outrageous party discipline is the failure of these standing orders in chapter 11 from sections 86 to 99 to permit private members to conduct legislative business here as legislators.
In a completely arbitrary system 30 bills and motions are drawn out of hundreds that are submitted for consideration. If they are lucky they get an hour of debate. If they are particularly lucky this star chamber of the private members' business committee will select five items to become votable.
So what happens is that very valuable legislative initiatives which are not on the agenda of the government and of the cabinet are almost from the outset given no chance of seeing the light of day. For instance, I have on the order paper a simple private member's bill which would recognize a period of two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day to commemorate our war dead. It is a motion supported by the Royal Canadian Legion and is a motion which I cannot imagine any member of this place in good conscience opposing.
If we amended the standing orders of this place to allow all private members' business to become votable, this motion I am sure would pass with unanimous or near unanimous support in the matter of a few minutes. I do not think it would require an enormous expenditure of the time and resources of this place to pass such a motion. All it takes is the will of the government to amend these standing orders to allow business like that, the business of democratically elected legislators to come before this legislature. That is all that it requires.
Indeed other jurisdictions have the flexibility to allow such business to come before their legislatures. The mother parliament in Westminster passed just such a motion because its private members are indeed legislators who can bring issues forward for consideration to be voted on.
The Queen's Park provincial legislature in Ontario passed a similar motion because its standing orders allow the same kind of flexibility.
We should take a close, long, hard look at our sister parliaments, at Westminster, at the Parliament of New Zealand, at the Parliament of Australia, at the the congressional system of the United States, and there we will see democratically elected representatives operating as representatives, operating as legislators, operating in the best interests of their constituents and not as voting flack for the executive branch of government.
I call on my colleagues opposite to put up or to shut up. We brought forward a concurrence motion in the fall which would have allowed them to make every private members' motion a votable motion. I am sure we will provide them with another opportunity to support that kind of fundamental reform so they can actually begin to represent their constituents.