House of Commons Hansard #89 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was debate.


Government Response To PetitionsRoutine Proceedings

April 21st, 1998 / 10:05 a.m.

Peterborough Ontario


Peter Adams LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 36(8), I have the honour to table, in both official languages, the government's response to five petitions.

Income Tax ActRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.


Jason Kenney Reform Calgary Southeast, AB

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-390, an act to amend the Income Tax Act (allowances paid to elected officials).

Mr. Speaker, I move first reading of this bill, an act to amend the Income Tax Act, which would have the effect of removing the special provisions in the income tax code which allow members of Parliament, members of provincial legislatures, members of municipal councils and elected members of school boards to exempt one-third of their regular indemnity or income from taxation.

This bill is being moved as I think it is completely inappropriate for politicians to exempt themselves from the tax laws that they impose on other Canadians.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)

PetitionsRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.


Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present a petition signed by a number of Canadians, including from my riding of Mississauga South.

The petitioners draw to the attention of the House that managing the family home and caring for preschool children is a honourable profession which has not been recognized for its value to our society.

The petitioners also point out that the Income Tax Act discriminates against families that choose to provide direct parental care to their children in the home. This point is also raised in the national forum on health report of November 1996.

The petitioners therefore pray and call on Parliament to pursue initiatives to eliminate tax discrimination against families that decide to provide care in the home to preschool children.

Questions On The Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Peterborough Ontario


Peter Adams LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I suggest that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions On The Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)


Questions On The Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Some hon. members


Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

10:10 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Pursuant to Standing Order 51(1), the following motion is now deemed to have been proposed:

That this House takes note of the standing orders and procedure of the House and its committees.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

10:10 a.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario


Don Boudria LiberalLeader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, when Standing Order 51 was adopted some time ago, it was assumed that while party members would change from parliament to parliament one House of Commons would not differ much in structure and character from its predecessor, and that the rules followed in the previous parliament would not generally require change to be effective in the new parliament. Therefore about halfway through the first session, which is what we are doing now, would be the appropriate timing for a review of the standing orders.

First, there would be a debate on the rules of the House itself, followed by a more comprehensive review of specific rules by the Standing Committee of Procedure and House Affairs.

The last two elections have obviously not sustained that assumption. In 1993 there was an unprecedented turnover in the membership of the House of Commons. In 1997, after many years of functioning as a three official party chamber, the House returned to a five official party system. Consequently today we are not, as anticipated in the standing orders, commencing the process of the revision of the rules but are taking stock of a revision process that of necessity began virtually the day after the last election.

It is not my intention this morning to attempt a dissertation on parliamentary procedure, although I do have a vent for that every now and then, but merely to review for the House the ongoing situation regarding our rules and how these rules have been changing since the last election. I would like to propose a few further changes that the committee might want to consider.

I will attempt to put forward a few observations and I look forward to receiving views from all hon. members on the rules of the House.

My first observation is that so far the House has functioned very well. According to the pundits of last summer, this was not supposed to be the case. They called it the pizza parliament, a House divided in five parties. It was supposed to be chaotic. It was supposed to be unproductive. In fact, from the very first contacts I found that the House leaders of all parties would be willing to make this House function. I thank them for the attitude demonstrated to that effect thus far. They have demonstrated a sense of responsibility to the Canadian electorate which expects all of us on both sides of the House to do our work in an orderly and organized fashion.

The House of Commons is a partisan political cockpit. It is also a legislative workplace. The task of all House leaders has been to adapt its procedures and the composition of the House as chosen by the electorate so that both of these realities would be given expression.

The task of making a five party House of Commons function effectively was expedited by all House leaders. Their early acceptance of proportionality is one of the governing principles. This has led us to agreements on funding for various parties to operate research offices, party officials' offices and so on, as well as agreement on the composition of committees, rotation of speakers and the allocation of opposition days.

We even had to change the amount of time for speeches during private members' hour and opposition days in order to permit the free flow across the House of Commons. We have also made some suggestions to the Speaker on the operation of the daily question period.

The proportionality principle I have just referred to has led to an increase in the size of the standing committees. Since the membership of the House is after all finite, we were obliged to combine a number of committees in order to reduce the overall number recognizing the finite situation of the number of members available to do the work.

Perhaps the most immediate obvious change that was brought about was in the daily question period. At least it is the one which was noticed immediately by a large number of Canadians. It was clear to all House leaders that if the balance between the parties was to be maintained, the Speaker would have to govern the question period strictly, especially with regard to the length of the questions and answers. I am one who thought the answers were usually better than the questions but that is a matter for another time.

The result is a question period which moves along far more swiftly with more succinct questions and answers. More important, more members have the opportunity to participate. This has been very successful. I again congratulate the leadership of all parties, the Speaker and of course the table for having administered this program which has worked very well.

It is a bit early yet to tell how effective the operation of proportionality has been with regard to the standing committees. The principle has led to a 16 member committee which is a trifle large from the point of view of developing internal cohesiveness and rapport. Its application has also made it more difficult to use subcommittees. This has led to a rather heavy committee burden on individual members.

Anyone who has worked on a committee whether in this House or elsewhere recognizes that smaller and less formal groups have a greater possibility to conduct proceedings coherently and that a consensus is usually easier to achieve. Nevertheless the committee structure satisfies the partisan position of all parties. However we should give some thought in terms of how satisfactorily it is working given the large number of people who must sit on committees.

Speaking about committees, we should seriously consider improving the approval process for travel by committees. By and large, bringing witnesses to Ottawa or alternatively using teleconferencing to permit the hearing of witnesses from other parts of Canada are more preferable than having committees travel. It is more cost effective and makes greater use of the members' limited time.

When there is a need for committees to travel, the structure by which we seek the permission of the House, the one which requires either unanimous consent or debate of a motion in order to arrive at the permission for a committee to travel, is somewhat cumbersome. Perhaps an easier and more flexible mechanism could be developed for us to achieve a condition whereby a committee would be able to travel on those limited occasions when there is such a need.

Proportionality worked well in allocating opposition days to the various parties, in spite of the fact that the number of days allocated to supply had to be changed. We will soon have to address the issue of the total number of days if the principle currently applied is approved and maintained in the fall.

As I said earlier, the five parliamentary leaders began their consultation process last summer, in the weeks following the election, and I want to thank them again. When the parliamentary session resumed, we found out that a policy of give and take based on mutual respect went a long way in resolving almost every problem both rationally and even amicably.

As a result, we wondered if the House would not benefit from long term planning of parliamentary business. Starting in the fall and continuing into the winter session, we looked at the time available, assessed the volume of parliamentary work for the government and decided on a plan for the current session. We wanted members from all parties to be able to plan their work and activities in their ridings and also to attend the House whenever a bill of particular interest to them is put forward.

The process I just described demanded openness and transparency on the part of the parliamentary leaders in their discussions, which in turn required a kind of self-discipline. Of course, there will always be times when, in spite of all our good intentions, we will not agree on the time to be allocated to debate on a given bill. When this occurs, the government must take the measures required to speed up the legislative process, if necessary.

The planning system also impacts on the committees' agenda, as we just saw. Pursuant to their general mandates under Standing Order 108, each of the standing committees may undertake specific studies, but they must also be aware of the business of the House, so as to be able to promptly deal with the legislation referred to them by this House. I believe this must be a priority for every committee.

I should point out that a review of our legislative procedures was undertaken during the previous Parliament and is still pending. I am referring to the report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs dealing with private members' business. The report primarily seeks to provide the House with the flexibility required to increase the number of private members' proposals that can be put to a vote, and to speed up passage of votable items.

Some members are reluctant to endorse the report because government bills must meet all sorts of criteria, while private members' bills are not required to meet the same strict conditions. However, the good work that parliamentary committees do in conducting detailed reviews of these bills leads me to believe that private members' bills will be treated very seriously to make sure they are properly drafted.

Generally speaking, it is our intention to adopt the report of that committee.

However, I should point out with regard to the rules of the House and the committees that, in future sessions, should private member's bills be automatically reinstated from the previous session, the same should apply to government bills. I believe the same test should apply to both.

There are many other issues which hopefully could be reviewed by the Standing Committee on Procedure within the coming weeks and months, including our voting system, for instance. Should the committee be reluctant to support electronic voting, as I hoped it would, it might explore other ways to solve the recurring problem of delays in the taking of parliamentary votes. I understand the committee has already looked into the issue of days and hours of sitting, and I would welcome any proposal from the committee in this regard.

Some members have expressed concern regarding the language and procedures of this House, which I would qualify as sometimes esoteric. This issue is under review. In Great Britain, a reform to this effect is presently under way.

I will give you the following example.

When we table private members' bills in the House, we seek leave to introduce the bill and then we introduce the bill. Both motions are deemed to be adopted right away. If they are both deemed to be adopted right away, why have two separate motions? One motion to do both tasks would surely be sufficient. It sounds like a repetitive process and it confuses many people, not the least of whom are those watching the proceedings or listening to the debate in the House of Commons.

The other point I want to bring to the attention of the House is that of the tabling of estimates. Once the estimates are tabled in the House they require a motion to refer them to committee. If the House ever decided not to adopt that motion I guess it would mean that the House itself rather than the committee would be dealing with the estimates.

I cannot see why that motion is not deemed adopted, similar to the motion for first reading on private members' bills. Otherwise a House that would defeat the motion would be forced to deal with the estimates itself in the Chamber, which is a procedure we did away with.

The language used in House procedure could be changed. For instance, when we table a bill, and the Chair says it will be studied at the next sitting of the House, should it not rather be “in the near future” or some more realistic expression more in tune with reality, instead of this slightly outdated language?

The standing committee may well want to look critically at the rules and process of debate with a view toward maintaining a vigorous and meaningful exchange of views in the House while permitting the House in the end to articulate a clear and correctly nuanced conclusion.

Several years ago the House decided to remove the automatic definition of opposition motions on allotted days as non-confidence motions. The intention was to permit opposition parties to raise issues for decisions by the House. On many occasions since, such motions albeit sometimes with amendments, have actually been adopted.

This noble purpose however has been perverted. We have a condition now that when some party is proposing a motion it does so splitting its own opening round and proposing its own minor amendment which makes a substantive amendment to the motion in question impossible. That was not the purpose of the rule when it was put in place. Its purpose has been perverted and I suggest respectfully that the committee might want to look at this very seriously.

In my opinion this House, thus far, has worked well. It has worked well because the leadership in the House, and presumably the leadership overall of the respective parties, has wanted it to be that way. The opposite would be equally true. If the leadership of all parties did not want it to work they would have some responsibility for creating that condition, should it ever occur in the future.

For the time being, we have worked constructively and we have had vigorous exchanges. That is fine. Overall the House is discharging its function. Some of our processes can be improved and I am sure they will be with the good work of the committee.

Meanwhile the leadership of all parties has not waited for this day and for this debate. It could not. We have engaged very constructively since the days after the last election and we have provided and offered, and the House has accepted, a number of amendments which have made this parliament function better and which have made all parties participate. I am pleased that has been the case.

I congratulate all members. I congratulate the Speaker and all the occupants of the chair for their good work and the excellent support that has been provided to all of us by our table officers and our respective staff in the House leadership offices in making the changes that we have effected thus far.

I look forward to the contribution of all hon. members in this day's debate.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

10:30 a.m.


Randy White Reform Langley—Abbotsford, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am going to split my time with my colleague from Calgary Southwest, the Leader of the Official Opposition.

My colleagues take seriously today the debate and we have waited some time for it to come. The issues that are going to be placed before us in the House of Commons today concern the standing orders, which are basically the rules that members develop for this House to be used in this House. Members on all sides of this House have a vested interest in their improvement.

Whilst I would agree to some extent with the Government House leader that things have worked well, there is no doubt in my mind that things can work better. That is what we are about, the reform of this House of Commons. A part of that reform comes through changes to the standing orders.

My colleagues today are going to spend about 10 minutes each talking to these issues. We could probably spend a lot more time talking to each issue. However, we want to talk about a number of serious issues that have been around this House for some time. They concern the election of the Speaker, free votes, petitions, the Senate, operation of committees, private members' business, royal commissions, borrowing money, closure, time allocation and order in council appointments. These are all issues which affect members, not only the members on both sides of the House but the very constituents that we are here to represent.

I want to spend a few minutes talking about Standing Order 36 which deals with petitions. I have long since had a concern about petitions. Many times when we are in our ridings people who are looking to develop a petition will say “Can I really effect change in the House of Commons through a petition?” Most times we do not have the heart to say “I do not think that is working all that well. Do not go around getting 30,000 names or 10,000 names because the petition goes into some black hole in the House of Commons and you will get a letter back identifying the way things are, not the way things should be”.

Ironically enough, just before I stood up to speak, a response to a petition was delivered to me by one of our pages. It was a petition that I tabled in the House, but my colleagues on both sides of the House tabled petitions on this issue which is drunk driving. The response given by the House of Commons to the petition is what bothers me most. The response basically indicates that the Criminal Code provides that both impaired driving and driving with a blood alcohol content in excess of .08 are criminal offences. These people already knew that.

The third paragraph goes on to discuss what the Criminal Code says. It says that some provinces permit roadside suspensions. There are various paragraphs describing what the Criminal Code reflects.

That is nice, but the petitioners had expectations when they went across their communities, across the country in some cases. They wanted a change to be effected. They did not want a response to their petition saying “This is the way it is”.

That is one of the problems with this House. The response to change is “This is the way it is”. But these people want the House of Commons to say “We understand your dilemma. We will try to effect a change”.

Therefore, Standing Order 36 basically covers the process of submitting a petition. We stand here without debating it, read what the people want and away it goes. Later there is a response. That is not good enough.

After all, that is the reason we are here. These people want something changed in this country. We must give them a fair idea that at least their ideas, their considerations, their petition material will be given consideration in the House of Commons.

They have an expectation. We should have an expectation. Therefore I think it behoves us, with respect to Standing Order 36, that we submit a recommendation to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and ask the committee to consider, in cases where there is a significant number of signatures on a petition, giving that petition debate time in the House. The House would debate a motion referring that petition to a committee.

If the motion was adopted the committee would be required to report back to the House a bill or a motion that would give effect to the petitioners' prayer.

That is the recommendation I make on that. I do not think that in this House we would get opposition to that. Like many things that come into the House and go to committee it can be asked “Why do they not come back here?” “Why do we not legislate it?” “Why do we not just make a simple standing order rule change?” That is what we are asking for and that is what I expect to be done.

Mr. Speaker, I am going to speak about a topic which is near and dear to your heart. I want to talk about Standing Orders 2 through 6, which deal with the election of the Speaker.

The rules for the election of the Speaker are contained in these standing orders, but it is not really the process of electing the speaker that I am going to speak about, it is what happens prior to the election of the Speaker.

We have seen this for years in the House of Commons. I noticed it as a fledgling MP in 1993 on my arrival to the House. I did not know any of the individuals who we were supposed to elect as our Speaker. I did not know anything about them. There was one member of the Reform Party who had been here previously. I knew nothing about these individuals, about their skills, their beliefs, their positions on issues, their visions or their ideas for improving parliament, but I was expected to stand here and vote for these people. I think that is wrong.

After all, we came here as a result of going through nomination meetings, disclosing what we believe in, our own personal background, and our responses to issues which came up in candidates' debates. None of that happens when we come to the House of Commons to elect the Speaker.

I do not understand it. In other elections, whether they be municipal, hospital, school board, provincial or federal, we all insist on this democratic exercise, but when it gets down to the primary Standing Orders 2 through 6, the first objective, the first duty we have in the House of Commons is to elect a Speaker and we have no idea who the candidates are or what they stand for.

After the 1997 election, when we were electing a Speaker, we initiated an exercise. We asked all members from all parties to come to a meeting prior to the election of the Speaker to hear from the candidates. Some did not come because they thought it was inappropriate, that tradition prevailed. They said “No, it is just going to be an election and I am not going to tell you what I stand for”.

That is going to change in this House. At that meeting were members virtually from most parties, if not all parties. They saw that the prerequisite for becoming the Speaker is some form of upfront accountability. Heaven forbid if we ever in this House elect a Speaker who is obviously biased, for instance. We would not want that. We would not want a Speaker who consistently rules with the government. We certainly would not want a Speaker who threatens contempt, for instance, if he wants to prevent exposure of his thoughts. We do not want those kinds of things in this House.

I am not saying that has occurred, but we want to make sure that the Speaker of the House is elected by members who have full knowledge of what that Speaker stands for.

I make the recommendation on Standing Orders 2 through 6 that a new practice be added to the standing orders to provide for all candidates for Speaker to openly address members of the House before the election of the Speaker.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

10:40 a.m.

Calgary Southwest Alberta


Preston Manning ReformLeader of the Opposition

Mr. Speaker, today we are debating the standing orders, the rules whereby this parliament governs itself. As I gaze about me at this great throng of members sitting dutifully at their desks after a two week recess, I perceive that some members are perhaps a little bored with this subject and perhaps distracted.

To provide a little stimulus I would like to start with a little story.

Once upon a time there was a king named Jean I, who presided over a castle surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge. The inhabitants of his castle were divided into two classes: lords and ladies who occupied the front benches of the royal throne room on state occasions and the peasants who occupied the back benches.

One day a group of peasants, or backbenchers as they were called, went out to toil in the fields. As they crossed the moat and started down the road they passed a cave from which emerged a great dragon breathing fire and smoke. The fire consumed 50 of the backbenchers and sent the rest scurrying back into the castle.

When King Jean was told of this terrible tragedy he resolved to investigate it himself. To help him, he took along two of his most trusted knights. They included Lord Bob, the keeper of the royal whip, and Lord Boudriavere who had once been a bus boy in the castle cafeteria but had risen to high rank through his faithful service to King Jean.

As they surveyed the scene of the tragedy they observed three things. They saw the 50 fried backbenchers and said that was too bad. They saw the dragon lying dead from overexertion. They also noticed that the dragon's fire had ignited a seam of coal in the cave from which smoke continued to billow.

Lord Bob, who was a straightforward fellow, and had been a sword fight referee in another life, said the obvious “The dragon is dead. This is good news. Let's go tell the backbenchers”. But Lord Boudriavere, who had once been a bus boy in the castle cafeteria and had risen to high rank through faithful service to the king, said “Not so fast”. Turning to King Jean he said “I see an opportunity here to maintain and increase our control over the peasants. Let us imply, indirectly of course, that the fiery dragon still lives. We can point to the smoke belching from the cave as evidence of this. Let us tell the backbenchers that henceforth they can only go out of the castle with royal permission and under the supervision of myself and Lord Bob, for the safety and protection, of course, of themselves and the castle”.

King Jean thought this was a splendid idea and thus the myth of the fiery dragon was established. It was used to coerce and control the backbenchers of the kingdom until King Jean was defeated in battle by a knight from the west which is another story I will tell on some other occasion.

This is the point that I want to make.

There is a myth in the House that lurking out there somewhere is the fiery dragon of the confidence convention, the erroneous belief studiously cultivated by the government that if a government bill or motion is defeated, or an opposition bill, motion or amendment is passed, this obliges the government to resign. This myth is used to coerce government members, especially backbenchers, to vote for government bills and motions with which they and their constituents disagree and to vote against opposition bills, motions and amendments with which they substantially agree.

The reality is that the fiery dragon of the confidence convention in its traditional form is dead. The sooner the House officially recognizes that fact, the better for all. It is true that there was a time when the rules supported the traditional confidence convention but that is not the current situation. Our present practice is outlined in Beauchesne's sixth edition, citation 168(6):

The determination of the issue of confidence in the government is not a question of procedure or order, and does not involve the interpretive responsibilities of the Speaker.

Following the recommendations of the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedure as well as those of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, December 1984, the House removed references in the standing orders which described votable motions on allotted days as questions of confidence. The committee concluded that matters of confidence should at all times be clearly subject to political determination. Motions of non-confidence should not be prescribed in the rules.

The British parliament, the mother of all parliaments, has acknowledged the death of the traditional confidence convention. For example, in the British parliament of 1974 to 1979 the government was defeated 42 times, 23 times as the result of government MPs voting with the opposition and 19 times when the opposition parties combined against the government after it had slipped into a minority position in 1976.

Some of these defeats were on important issues such as economic policy and an important constitutional bill. Yet the British prime minister neither resigned nor requested dissolution. Despite the current citation from Beauchesne's and these historical facts, the myth of the confidence convention still appears to live in this parliament.

It is in the interest of the majority of the members on both sides of the House to dispel the myth of the confidence convention and thereby permit freer voting. I therefore offer the following three challenges.

The first is to the Prime Minister. Will he please stand in his place in the House and declare his intention to allow government members to vote for or against all bills and motions and all amendments to bills and motions free of party discipline, and that no such vote other than the adoption by the House of an explicit motion of non-confidence in the government shall require the government to resign? All he has to do is stand up and make that statement. It would take about 20 seconds and it would change the character of this place overnight.

The second is to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study this issue and report to the House with a view to dispelling the myth of the traditional confidence convention once and for all.

The third is to government backbenchers to test my hypothesis for themselves that the fiery dragon of the confidence convention is indeed dead, even though with the help of Lord Bob and Lord Boudriavere the smoke still appears to be billowing from its cave. I suggest that someday during question period while they are awaiting their turn to ask a scripted question they should engage in a simple mathematical exercise: count the number of people on the front benches and include their parliamentary secretaries, and then count the number of backbenchers. I know this is a strenuous intellectual exercise, but if they could carry it off they would find there are more backbenchers than there are those on the front benches and parliamentary secretaries. Then on some future occasion they could vote down a government motion or bill or support an opposition motion or amendment.

What will happen? Will the earth open up and swallow government members and their political careers? Of course not. Will the government resign? Of course not. Instead the government will demand a vote of confidence and since government members ultimately outnumber opposition members the government will surely win and carry on; but it is possible to kill a bill or part of a bill or to change it without killing the government.

The government will do exactly the same thing as the Pearson government did in 1968 when it was defeated on Mitchell Sharp's budget resolution but then carried the confidence motion which immediately followed. After that incident, Anthony Westell of the Globe and Mail concluded:

If the principle comes to be accepted that bills can be amended or rejected without forcing a change of government—the effective power of the opposition and of private members of the government party could be strengthened; the power of the cabinet to have its own way could be reduced.

In other words the House will have passed from the dark night of excessive party discipline into the bright sunshine of freer votes.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

10:50 a.m.


Michel Gauthier Bloc Roberval, QC

Mr. Speaker, there are three topics I would like to deal with today, and I will make recommendations to the House on all three.

First is the issue of the motions introduced on opposition days. The hon. leader of the government touched on this earlier in his speech, saying that the opposition had found a way around the Standing Orders by amending an opposition motion on an opposition day by introducing an amendment from the outset to split interventions into two 10-minute interventions.

The leader of the government said that, in a way, this changes the direction of debate, and uses the Standing Orders to prevent something from happening.

I would like to remind the leader of the government that I sent him a letter on this subject, requesting that no amendment whatsoever of opposition motions be allowed, except by the member who moved the motion in the event of a last-minute development, so that the essence of the proposed debate is not changed.

In fact, an opposition day is one of the rare days when an opposition party can control the debate. It picks the topic and makes major speeches, and this gives a party an opportunity to make its views known in the House of Commons and to promote a particular point of view.

The opportunity for other political parties, particularly the government, to change this motion through an amendment that, more often than not, will substantially alter the substance of the initial motion means that it is no longer an opposition day.

The instigator of the motion introduces it in the House but he can never be sure, unless he amends it himself or through a colleague, by splitting his time, that his motion will be debated as is by all the members of the House.

It is my sincere belief, and my first recommendation, that if we are to get back to what an opposition day really is, what it must do and what it must allow, we ought to ensure that motions are not amended except by the person who originated them, to reflect changes in the situation or the content of debates.

This would eliminate any possibility of manoeuvring to change motions or their nature, or to make the debate totally different from what it ought to have been initially.

For opposition days, therefore, I invite the Government Leader to at least acknowledge receipt of my letter to indicate “We have decided that we can or cannot follow up on this, for this or that reason”. The government ought to specify this in the Standing Orders.

The second point I would like to raise is somewhat more delicate, the matter of the Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. Normally, two of the House of Commons committees are chaired by members of the official opposition.

The purpose of this is to give some kind of counterbalance to the power of the government. The Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which examines government expenditures, is chaired by a member of the official opposition, and this is normal. This allows the opposition to be extremely productive in these committees by initiating matters and by presiding over the work of these committees.

Having opposition members chair the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations sort of counterbalances the immense power of the government and its team.

However, there is a problem. The Reform Party, the official opposition in this Parliament, decided to assume its responsibilities concerning public accounts, but at the same time decided not to assume its responsibilities as official opposition on the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. And yet, this is extremely important.

To those who follow our proceedings, the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations may appear as something terribly technical, very boring, and very difficult to understand. But it should be pointed out that on this committee, members have the opportunity to examine the way bills passed by Parliament will be enforced in everyday life. The bills we pass are very broad and provide for various things. They are general policy statements with a number of specifics, but each law is accompanied by regulations stating how its provisions will be enforced, by whom, and how responsibilities will be shared. Regulations are an extremely important part of any bill.

When the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations is chaired by a member of the official opposition, this intentionally gives the opposition an extremely important role in monitoring government action. This gives the opposition a lot of power to scrutinize regulations, which do not come to the attention of members of this House. People are entitled to know that MPs draft bills, but that once a bill is passed by Parliament, its enforcement is the government's responsibility. Regulations are made by senior officials, people who know how to do their job and do it very well, but who are accountable only to the government and the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations.

Since the Reform Party refused to assume its responsibilities, we thought that, as the third party, we could legitimately chair the committee since the chairperson must be a member of the opposition. The Reform Party refused our request. It is its problem. It has the right to do so. It would then have made sense for another opposition party—there are four altogether, the Bloc Quebecois being the second largest—to chair the committee. We thought it was up to the Bloc Quebecois to chair this committee, which acts as a government watchdog.

But no. Being the great democrats that they are, the Liberals decided to appoint one of their members to chair the committee because, for the first time ever, the official opposition was refusing to assume its responsibilities. We now find ourselves in a situation where the Liberals took it upon themselves to appoint a Liberal chairperson to the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, thus tipping the balance that must exist in the parliamentary system. By appropriating the committee chair, the Liberals gave themselves an additional power, at the expense of the opposition. They took advantage of the Reform Party's withdrawal. But this is wrong. It is unacceptable.

I call upon the democratic sense of the members of this House. Today's debate must be free of partisanship, since its purpose is to improve the Standing Orders of the House, so that Parliament can operate as smoothly as possible.

So, I urge the government to restore the situation and to give back to the opposition the chair of the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. It can offer the position again to the Reformers—we do not particularly relish the idea, but the Liberals can do so if they wish—but if the Reformers continue to say no, it would make sense to offer that responsibility to the next party, that is the Bloc Quebecois.

By appointing one of its own members to the chair, the government just set a precedent. It increased its power over the committee's operations, and this is not right. It is not right because it affects the very fragile balance that we have here. They transferred to the government responsibilities that should be assumed by the opposition. Worse, they did not transfer them, they took them over.

Therefore—and this is my second recommendation—the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations should have as its chair a member of the opposition. If it is not a member of the official opposition, it should be a member of the Bloc Quebecois or of another opposition party. The Bloc Quebecois has always fulfilled that responsibility and would be very pleased to continue to do so. This would restore a balance. It would only be normal to do so.

I call on the government to correct this anomaly, which almost went unnoticed to outside observers, but which says a lot about the will of the cabinet to take over more and more powers, thus leaving the opposition to fulfil an increasingly less meaningful role.

Let us not forget that a system such as ours works well when there is a balance between the opposition and the government, when the government is not free to do whatever it pleases, unimpeded, when the government must answer to other parliamentarians who do not share its point of view and who force it to improve its proposals and rules, to introduce better legislation. All citizens benefit.

The second recommendation is that the Liberal member who co-chairs the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, which is an anomaly, step down and offer the position, as is only right, to a member of the official opposition or of the second opposition party.

The third point is an extremely serious one. It involves the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. A few weeks ago, during the so-called flag flap, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was asked by the House of Commons to conduct a serious review of the behaviour of members of the House whose statements may have been an attack on the integrity of the Speaker. These statements were tantamount to threats. Members clearly said that, if the Speaker did not rule in a particular way, they would run riot, that he must resign, and that they would withdraw their confidence.

Make no mistake, this was the first time that such statements had been made about the Speaker so directly in all the media. The House decided to resort to an existing mechanism, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, to investigate the behaviour of these members.

When members do not behave properly—a very rare occurrence, but not unheard of—the House may then, at leisure, turn to this committee. The member is therefore judged by his peers. A member whose conduct may have been questionable or was plainly reprehensible is therefore judged by his peers.

Since I have been a member, this is the second time this committee has been used. The first time, as members will recall, was in the case of Jean-Marc Jacob, the former member for Charlesbourg, who was accused of trying to corrupt the army, to get soldiers to transfer to Quebec after a winning referendum. It was quite a to-do, and Mr. Jacob was summoned before the committee.

A Reform motion was ruled in order in the House. It called on Mr. Jacob to explain his behaviour before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The Bloc Quebecois was in agreement and Mr. Jacob, a member of the Bloc Quebecois, appeared before the committee. He was questioned for six full hours on May 2 and 7. During these six hours, the committee had the opportunity to put questions to Mr. Jacob. Committee members asked as many questions as they wanted to, relating to every conceivable aspect of this matter in order to get to the bottom of it.

There was a lengthy debate. The committee was struck as a result of a motion passed by this House on March 18. It tabled its report three months later, on June 18. Many were called to testify before the committee and, as material witness, the member himself, Mr. Jacob, was grilled by parliamentarians for six full hours.

We thought nothing of it. We abide by procedure. We figured “If you want to examine the conduct of Mr. Jacob, the MP, fine, so be it”. The hon. member appeared before the committee and answered its questions. In that, the Bloc Quebecois showed a great sense of responsibility. We abided by the House's standing orders.

When time came to examine the conduct of four other members, from the Reform Party and the Liberal Party, who had made rather surprising statements concerning the Speaker, we showed up at committee with questions to ask.

The committee chair decided that each witness should have 20 minutes, including five minutes for an opening statement. There was 15 minutes left for members to question the witnesses. Members of the Reform Party and of the Liberal Party, whose colleagues were involved, were entitled to ask questions, like everybody else. We have no problem with that.

But the fact remains that for the Bloc Quebecois only had five minutes to question these members who had threatened, so to speak, the Speaker of this House. How can any MP, regardless of how brilliant or effective he may be, manage to cast light on the unacceptable behavior of another MP in five minutes?

The Liberal chairman made use of his authority within the committee, with the support of his colleagues and the Reform MPs, who were in the same boat, having also made unfortunate statements. They came to an agreement among themselves, and they were the majority—imagine, the government and the official opposition—and they decided that there would be 20 minutes, no more.

We asked whether the questions could go on longer because we had things we wanted to ask. Jean-Marc Jacob was grilled for six hours. We were not asking for six hours per witness, but neither were we asking for five minutes. Such is the concept of justice in parliament and in committees, where the Liberals and the Reform Party are running the show. Five minutes to question them, but six hours when a Bloc MP is involved.

That is what justice is like in this Parliament. When a Bloc MP is in an awkward situation, he gets questioned for six hours, and three months are spent on it. When it is a Reform or Liberal MP, their parties vote together, make use of their power, and allow us five minutes.

This is unacceptable, and the people have a right to know. I rose in the House to raise a point of order. It was an unusual situation. I brought the matter to the Speaker's attention and told him “Mr. Speaker, this makes no sense. How can the work get done properly?” His reply was “Well now, generally things are done properly in committees. You will sort this out among yourselves, and big boys like you ought to be able to reach some agreement”. The committee chair, a Liberal, got up and said “Mr. Speaker, the member for Roberval is barking up the wrong tree. The member for Roberval ought to know that we have reached agreement for witnesses to be able to be called back before the committee”.

I bought that, and I sat back down, telling my colleagues “You will go back to the committee and ask for the witnesses to be recalled, even if it is only for five minutes a shot. You will call them back as often as necessary for there to be a proper examination”.

Do you know what happened? The Bloc went back again and called for the witnesses to be heard again, as the Liberal member had told us in the House. The Liberal chairman claimed he was not an undemocratic person by saying “You can recall a witness as often as you want. It is provided for in the committee's rules”.

When the committee resumed its proceedings, we asked that the witnesses be recalled, but the Liberal and Reform majority refused. These Liberal and Reform committee members were in a conflict of interest. How can Parliament operate properly if special and ad hoc committees, whose role it is to review the behaviour of parliamentarians who did something wrong, are controlled by people who are in a conflict of interest?

If it is the behaviour of a Liberal member that is reviewed, the Liberal majority can of course allocate five minutes to the review, as opposed to six hours. The next time it could decide on two minutes or, for that matter, 30 seconds.

That is the way things work. However, Canadians have the right to know that one the most important tools in this Parliament, and in all the parliaments I know, is the special committee that reviews members' behaviour. Members are judged by their peers. However, that committee was manipulated by the Liberal and Reform majorities, with the result that it could not do the job that had to be done.

This is unacceptable and must be condemned. When it is a Bloc Quebecois member who appears before the committee, the proceedings last for six hours. It should be the same for a Liberal or Reform member, if necessary. It should not be six hours for a Bloc Quebecois member and five minutes for a Liberal member.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to participate in this debate on the standing orders mandated under Standing Order 51. I had something to do with the creation of this standing order in the 1980s and I think it has proven itself to be a worthy recommendation to provide the House with this opportunity on a regular basis. This is an opportunity for the House to consider how it can improve on its procedures which are rooted in tradition and in history but which also must be responsive to changing political contexts.

I begin my remarks by considering two contexts that make the House of Commons unique. The first is the unusual fact that there are four opposition parties duly recognized by the Chair and the standing orders. Immediately following the last election there was considerable comment in the media about how such a parliament would function. I think it is worth pointing out, as the government House leader did, that this so-called pizza parliament, an institution for debating matters of public concern and for holding the government of the day accountable, has worked better than many commentators led us to believe it would.

It is true the government has continued to resort to time allocation and closure and each of the opposition parties has on occasion made full use of the rules of the House to provoke votes and debate issues more fully than the government would have liked. But when it has come to the practicalities of planning for the orderly consideration of parliamentary business, I think it is fair to say that the parties have managed to adopt an effective and pragmatic way of dealing with one another and have served the public well.

This has allowed for an unprecedented degree of forward planning of the parliamentary calendar, and the government House leader is to be commended for his efforts in this regard. The whole question of legislative planning is a matter which I consider to be important and which I regard as some of the unfinished business of the special committee of the reform of the House of Commons. I am glad to see we are making progress in that regard.

The election of a five party House of Commons did confront the House with the challenge of reconciling the new political context with the existing standing orders that in a number of ways have been designed for some time now around a House consisting of three parties.

The House has already dealt with one of the implications of five parties by amending the rules regarding speaking times for private members' business under Standing Order 95, ensuring that members of all parties can speak in each debate. We dealt with the matter of redesigning question period over the summer of 1997 after the election.

However, other difficulties remain and should be addressed. For instance, Standing Order 74(1) grants the first three speakers in a second reading debate 40 minutes of speaking time, a measure evidently and obviously designed to apply to a House that has three official parties. As it stands, this standing order gives an advantage to some opposition parties over others and increases the possibility that not all opposition parties will have their first speaker participate on the first day of debate.

This standing order should be amended to put all parties on an equal footing, a change that would have the added advantage of allowing for a question and comment period following the first speaker of all the parties. I think this would be a good thing. It is often the case that the leaders, the very people members might want to question, are exempted from this procedure.

More important, the current supply process does not allow for an allocation of debating opportunities that reflects the relative strength of the parties in the House. Standing Order 81(10)(a) and (16) set the number of allotted supply days at 20, 8 of which are votable. These numbers do not break down into an equitable distribution between the four opposition parties as they are now represented in the House.

The House leaders have agreed to improvise on the number of votable days in the current supply period in order to accommodate the current representation of the opposition parties in the House. However, the House should consider formalizing an appropriate formula for future supply periods.

The second unusual characteristic of this House is not only are there four opposition parties in the House but all four of them have in the recent past had members sitting in the House who were not recognized as belonging to a political party.

In the previous parliament the members of parliament elected as New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives by their constituents could not convince either the rest of the House or the Speaker to recognize their party status. In the parliament before that it was the turn of the Reform Party and the newly formed Bloc Quebecois to have their party status go unrecognized.

This is not the occasion to fight past battles for recognition of party status. However what the past disputes have shown is that there is no clear definition of party status in the standing orders themselves, only a loose and ambiguous series of precedents that are often in contradiction with one another.

Given the experience of each of the four opposition parties and given that there is not now a party seeking recognition in the House for which there would be a conflict of interest, it would be opportune for this parliament to carefully consider ways of clarifying the rules regarding the recognition of parties under the standing orders now that all the parties are on an equal footing.

The House may decide to formalize the most recent Speaker's rulings on the 12 member threshold, or it may choose to resurrect an earlier tradition of recognizing smaller parties. But the House itself should speak clearly on the matter animated by the most generous democratic outlook.

Apart from dealing with the presence of five parties in the House which is unique to this parliament, the House should also revisit the enduring questions of whether our current parliamentary practices give the fullest possible expression of the democracy Canadians rightly expect from this institution.

I think it is fair to say that those questions can be distilled to two basic issues. First, is there a proper balance between the ability of the government to govern and the ability of the opposition parties to hold the government accountable and offer alternatives to the government of the day? Second, is there a proper balance between the legitimate and necessary operations of party discipline and the opportunities of individual members of parliament either to dissent from the party line or to put before the House consideration of issues that concern them individually?

As the House considers how it might address these enduring questions there are a couple of historical precedents that should instruct us on how to proceed and how not to proceed with changes to the standing orders.

The example of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons which resulted in what is now called the June 1985 McGrath report after its chair, the Hon. Jim McGrath, a former member for St. John's East, should instruct us on how to proceed. The McGrath committee of which I had the honour to be a vice-chair offers the good examples of a consensus building process as well as a series of specific recommendations some of which remain to be implemented and still deserve the attention of the House.

The episode not to be repeated and indeed an episode some of the consequences of which should be undone was the unilateral imposition of major changes to the standing orders by the Mulroney government in June 1991 against the vigorous opposition of all of the opposition parties at the time. I urge members of the government not to repeat in any way the unilateralism of that regrettable episode and to be guided by their past opposition to those measures forced on the opposition parties on which there is no consensus.

Among the most undemocratic of the measures introduced at that time which offends the principle of striving for a due balance between the rights of the government and the opposition was what is now Standing Order 56.1. If the government has been denied unanimous consent on a particular course of action, this standing order gives the government the right to put the same question again during routine proceedings without debate or amendment and deems the motion to have carried unless 25 members stand in their places to oppose it.

This measure was clearly designed for use against small parties or factions in situations where a government wanted to act quickly and override the required parliamentary process for consideration of a government bill or motion. In essence because it sets a threshold which some opposition parties can meet and others cannot, its effect is to allow the government to deprive a recognized party of party status in particular situations where it is convenient for the government to do so.

This is not to argue that the government should not have at its disposal in situations where it feels it must act quickly mechanisms to accelerate the parliamentary process. What makes Standing Order 56.1 intolerable is that the government already has a wide array of other tools at its disposal to do so.

The government can use time allocation, closure, and seek extended hours. All of these measures balance the right of the government to act quickly in particular situations with the rights of the opposition parties to insist on due process. Standing Order 56.1 removes that balance entirely and without such a balance, where a government can act as if it has the unanimous consent of the House when in fact it does not, the Canadian public remains vulnerable to a parliamentary dictatorship.

It is unfortunate that the government has seen fit to make use of Standing Order 56.1 two times in this parliament, even though the Liberals opposed and voted against such a change when they were in opposition in 1991. On the first of those occasions, the government used it as part of its parliamentary tactics in moving Bill C-24 through the House very quickly, the back to work legislation concerning the dispute between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

This brings me to the next point about achieving a greater balance between the rights of government and opposition. Whenever governments want to circumvent the normal proceedings on government bills, it is almost always to force back to work legislation through the House quickly. It is almost always a case of infringing on the collective bargaining rights of Canadian workers.

This pattern stands in stark contrast to the direction that has been taken in recent years regarding the rights of investors and corporations. In the NAFTA, the WTO and the embryonic MAI, the trend has been to put up more barriers to government actions that might impinge on the rights of corporations and to make these corporations almost immune to government action.

In the case of the draft MAI, the proposal is to put in place a series of hurdles to public action that would last up to 20 years, even if governments were elected to withdraw Canada from the agreement. This stands in stark contrast to the rules and practices of this House where labour rights can be compromised by the passage of back to work legislation in a matter of 20 hours, not 20 years.

Here is another area where our democratic practices must restore some balance. I point to Standing Order 71 which states:

Every bill shall receive three several readings, on different days, previously to being passed. On urgent or extraordinary occasions, a bill may be read twice or thrice, or advanced two or more stages in one day.

This standing order is very vague about what procedures must be followed in order to read a bill at more than one stage in a day. It is therefore very vague about what must be legitimately done to circumvent one of the opposition parties' most important vehicles, which is time.

Time is not just time to be wasted; time is time to be used. Time to consult with interested parties. Time to make the opposing case to the public. Time to make sure that public policy is not conducted in a reckless manner. What has happened over the years is that delay has come to be seen as inefficient in a culture of efficiency, rather than seeing delay for what it is and can be, which is an integral part of a parliamentary process by which time is provided to the public and to opposition parties to make sure that a full and appropriate debate takes place.

I urge the House to consider ways of formalizing the procedures for allowing a bill to be read more than one time in a day in such a way that gives greater balance between the government's ability to act in a timely manner when there is a legitimate time constraint and the opposition's ability to do its job well.

Clearer rules would have the added benefit of creating a greater opportunity for constructive compromises to be arrived at as is often the case in back to work legislation, a process that in the past has shown parliamentary democracy to be working at its best as a vehicle for mediating between competing interests in society. When the government needs the opposition to get something through, we then have a meeting of the minds, genuine dialogue and genuine amendments to legislation. Things get done around here in a way that they should be conducted more often.

There are other standing orders giving power to the government to accelerate the consideration of government business which need some rebalancing. These are the standing orders governing time allocation and referral to committee before second reading.

In regard to time allocation governed by Standing Order 78, it is clear that time spent on a bill is a major source of conflict between governing and opposition parties. On most occasions when an opposition party makes deliberate use of a filibuster as a tactic, or the government resorts to time allocation, the parties will ultimately be guided by how the public judges their actions in the next election, or for that matter in the next poll, that is, such decisions are very often matters of political judgment.

However there have been and no doubt will be occasions when there will be a widespread and objectively arrived at concern that a government is resorting to time allocation too precipitously, and that there is a genuine public interest in a full debate in the House. For such a situation it is important that the standing orders vest in the Speaker the right to rule a government motion for time allocation out of order or inadmissible.

It is right and proper for the Speaker, especially now that the House has an elected Speaker, to have the authority to stand in the way of a government that was prepared to use time allocation to stifle debate when there was a widespread appetite for such a debate.

Giving the Speaker such an authority, even if he or she did not use it regularly, and I would not anticipate the regular use of such a power, would create the healthy habit of circumspection before the government resorted to time allocation. Perhaps then we could move away from the practice of the almost routine use of time allocation which really makes a mockery of the procedures of the House.

As regard referrals of bills to committee before second reading, it is sad to say that while this measure has the admirable intention of expanding the scope of a committee's ability to amend a government bill, in practice it has been used too often simply as a means to accelerate the passage of bills that the government clearly has no intention of allowing the committee to amend.

Standing Order 73(1) at present only requires the government to notify representatives of the opposition parties before proceeding with referral to committee before second reading. I urge the House to consider amending this standing order to require the agreement of at least some of the opposition parties before referral, perhaps along the lines of Standing Order 78(2)(a) which requires the agreement of a majority of the representatives of the several parties.

There is one further point I would like to raise under the heading of rebalancing the rights of the opposition and the ability of government to govern. That is the right of standing committees to scrutinize non-judicial order in council appointments. This process is governed by Standing Orders 110, 111 and 32(6), measures that resulted from recommendations of the McGrath report.

Although these standing orders are in place and empower committees to scrutinize a wide range of public appointments, committees are not making use of the powers available to them with any kind of regularity. I call on committee chairs and the government majorities that support them in committee to allow committees to make greater use of these standing orders in the spirit in which they were introduced. If they do not and the process withers on the vine, then the House should consider strengthening the rules requiring committees to fulfil this important function.

In the meantime the House should also consider extending the process of committee scrutiny to judicial as well as non-judicial appointments. I do not now wish to suggest a particular formula for the parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments but some form of scrutiny must be on the agenda for parliamentary reform.

The introduction of the charter of rights and freedoms fundamentally altered the role of the judiciary in our Constitution and its relationship to federal and provincial legislatures. As a country we are still in the process of assimilating the profound changes the charter has brought to the relative power and authority of the judiciary and the legislatures. The House of Commons must participate in that process by considering whether the new powers of the court must be met with a new level of parliamentary scrutiny.

I would now like to address some of the issues pertaining to the balance required between the requirements of party discipline and the rights of individual members of parliament. The main opportunity for individual members of parliament to play a meaningful role in the legislative process, or certainly one of the main opportunities, is in committee. It is in strengthening the independence of committees that this House can do the most to achieve a better balance between party discipline and the independence of individual MPs.

The McGrath committee recommended that alternate membership on committees be abolished and that members of committees themselves, not the party whip, have the responsibility of seeking their own replacements. The thinking behind this recommendation was to lead the House of Commons away “from the concept that everything in the House of Commons is controlled by the whips, the House leaders and the prime minister”.

It borders on the tragic to watch situations develop where a committee is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing, studying a bill or an issue carefully with the members developing an expertise and a collective sense of where policies should be headed, and to have the process cut off by a government whip who can stop such a process in its tracks. The current rules make it easy for whips to undermine the work of committees.

I urge the House to revisit this recommendation of the McGrath committee as well as the recommendation that parliamentary secretaries not be allowed to sit on committees. Too often we see the parliamentary secretaries sitting there as a kind of censor or a government point man on the committee.

Another area where the effectiveness of committees could be enhanced would be in altering the concurrence process for committee reports.

At present any member of parliament may move concurrence during Routine Proceedings, but almost always the process results only in a single speech by the mover of the motion and the first government speaker moving that the House proceed to Government Orders. The current process then is useful only as a dilatory mechanism for the opposition with the government retaining full control over the debate and any subsequent vote on concurrence.

Committee reports are too important a part of the legislative process to be reduced to tactical footballs in the procedural wrangling between government and opposition. There must be some mechanism to allow for a full debate on important committee reports.

One possible mechanism would be to allow a committee that presents a unanimous report to recommend to the House that a concurrence debate and vote be held on the committee's report and that a fixed number of days be set aside each parliamentary year as with the supply process for holding such debates should committees request them. These debates could be time limited perhaps along the lines of the 180 minute debates with 10 minute speaking spots attached to the process of referring a bill to committee before second reading.

Another area relevant to the status of individual members of parliament is the whole question of Private Members' Business. This has been the subject of much parliamentary activity in this parliament with points of privilege being raised concerning the resources available to individual members of parliament for the purposes of drafting private members' bills and with the 13th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs proposing a new method for selecting votable items of Private Members' Business.

I just need a few more minutes, Mr. Speaker. I wonder, with unanimous consent of the House, if I could wind up my remarks.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

The hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona has asked for unanimous consent for a few more minutes to wind up his remarks. Is there consent?

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.

Some hon. members


Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:30 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, one thing would concern me which I know is not a part of the 13th report. There has been significant support expressed for this idea in some quarters of the House. It is the idea that somehow all private members' motions and bills should be made votable, uncritically so, that their very existence should render them votable.

I want to register my own concern about any proposal that would take away from the House's ability to filter what will actually become votable. If we do not have a system at the end, as we do now, for selecting what will become votable then we would have to have some kind of system at the beginning which would recreate what we now have at the end to make sure that the House is not put in a situation where it has to vote on private members' motions and bills, no matter what their content, no matter what the quality of their drafting and so on.

I have a final comment on another matter that has been raised by Reform Party members in the House and on which we have supported them. It is the fact that bills keep originating in the Senate. This is a practice that was questionable in the past but is even more questionable now, given that the Senate does not reflect the five party constitution of the House of Commons. It creates a new tension between the two chambers that I think the government should take into account when it considers whether or not it wants to continue with this practice of originating legislation in the Senate.

With respect to the election of the Speaker, I think it would be appropriate for the standing committee to consider what would be appropriate campaigning and what kind of structures the House might set up for candidates for the speakership to make known to members of parliament their views, their attitudes toward the House and so on. I think this has to be done very carefully.

The initial recommendation of the McGrath committee was that there be no campaigning at all because we did not want to bring the speakership into the disrepute that sometimes is associated with political campaigning. That spirit has to be respected. I hope we might be able to find a way to meet the needs of new members who feel that they do not have enough information about candidates for the speakership and at the same time respect the original spirit of the McGrath committee that we not have that kind of campaign.

My final comment, because I promised not to abuse the generosity of the House, is on the matter of free votes. All votes in the House are already free. This was achieved by the McGrath committee. The dragon to which the Leader of the Official Opposition referred, that is to say the confidence convention, is slain. What is not slain is the desire for uniformity and for obedience which exists within all political parties, including the Reform Party and including my own. That is what has to be slain if we are to have the kind of parliament the Leader of the Opposition called for. That is something that is the responsibility of political parties and not primarily the responsibility of the House of Commons.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Peter MacKay Progressive Conservative Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, NS

Mr. Speaker, as a new member of the House I am extremely proud to take part in this important debate which focuses on the rules and practices of the House. This is one of the few occasions when the House is required to consider its practices. Parliamentary procedure is as much a part of the Constitution as are the written constitutional statutes.

The standing orders which govern the House, like all laws, should be pliable and flexible to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

As a member of the Progressive Conservative Party there is a proud history of our party to improve the House of Commons. In 1979 the Clark government put forward a white paper on the reform of parliament. Tabled by the late Walter Baker, this position paper offered as a thesis that “the House of Commons should not govern but should poke and pry without hindrance into the activities of those who do”.

It was also the government of the Right Hon. Brian Mulroney which struck the McGrath committee to which the hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona referred in his remarks. It was the same government which accepted most of the recommendations of that committee. Indeed I note that some of the reforms which were brought to this House have now been proposed by the modernization committee of the British House of Commons.

It was also the Mulroney government which agreed to the secret ballot for the election of the Speaker, a measure that Prime Minister Trudeau would not accept. Lest we forget, he was the man who characterized members of parliament as nobodies when they get 50 feet from the front door. Quite typical of his attitude.

It is obvious that some members may be feeling that they are being marginalized as demonstrated by yesterday's antics when one hon. member chose to retreat with his seat. There is a level of frustration that exists on the part of members of the House.

The hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona also referred specifically to Standing Order 56.1. There is a legacy again of the Conservative government that has to be referred to here and one that we would acknowledge as perhaps being somewhat incorrect in this standing order. Recognizing one is wrong is certainly an important part of democracy. I note that the hon. member across, the Minister for International Trade, recently demonstrated that when he publicly agreed the Liberal government was wrong in opposing free trade some years ago.

I want to indicate that with Standing Order 56.1 there is the concept of unanimous consent as it should be restored to exactly that, unanimous consent. Under normal circumstances the request for unanimous consent to move a motion would be a prelude to a question being put to the House for division. The standing order now allows a minister to put forward a motion and if 25 members do not object then the motion is put and carried. The House does not get a chance to decide the matter. In this parliament the government has used the standing order to suspend the requirement for quorum despite the fact that quorum is prescribed by the Constitution.

Essentially this standing order allows the government to run roughshod over the opposition and the right to question and hold the government accountable is therefore curtailed. This can be an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the government. It is something that the committee should look at very closely.

I want to turn my remarks next to Friday sittings. During this debate, particularly in the remarks of the government House leader, there was some suggestion that there may be a movement afoot to eliminate Friday sittings. I want to be very clear and unequivocal about my party's position on this point. We are completely opposed to any elimination of Friday sittings. We feel that the present arrangement of Fridays is an important and integral part of the process. Fridays can be as effective as any other day of the week. I would suggest that Canadians would take a very dim view if the committee were to do away with Friday sittings in the House.

The government House leader did speak in reference to the spirit of co-operation and the desire of those present to make this parliament work. I think that is an apt observation. However, as has been suggested by previous speakers, there is a great deal of room for improvement.

One area where I might suggest there is room for improvement is Private Members' Business. There are certainly historic reasons the private members' process is set up as it is, but I would suggest that some of the rules are unnecessarily complicated and, more important, costly to the general public.

There needs to be an avenue for members to raise an issue they wish to bring to the House on the part of their constituents, but they may not wish to pursue it further. They may wish to simply bring it forward at that time.

The government House leader spoke of the esoteric notions and traditions that evolved from Great Britain. These traditions are fine but as I said in my opening remarks we must strive to be effective. The public opinion demands this and we certainly owe this to Canadians.

One suggestion would be that there be an avenue for members to put forward items they do not wish necessarily to be brought to the House for decision but instead brought forward for simply airing of opinion. Instead of a lottery based on business items before the House, a lottery of members' names would then entitle a member to put forward an item of business for complete consideration. This would therefore save a considerable amount of time and money wrapped up in the current system.

A possible suggestion would be that upon a member's name being drawn he could then decide whether it was for discussion purposes in the form of debate or simply to be brought forward as a motion. This would be a useful area the standing committee might take a look at.

Time allocation and closure have been touched upon as well by previous speakers. There is certainly a recognized need for the government to be able to move a motion for time allocation. That is acknowledged. However the Speaker, as suggested by the hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona, should be empowered to disallow the government from invoking this quite draconian motion at times, in the event that the Chair is of the opinion that the closure motion being invoked is premature.

My next point concerns written questions and answers. The House has agreed to limit the number of written questions but the government is being extremely tardy in its answers.

Most questions can be answered within two weeks and three weeks at the most. That is a reasonable period of time. However, there is a major problem, I would suggest. Public accountability in the House should insist on prompt and complete answers from the government, particularly in light of the circumstances and the criticisms of the commissioner of freedom of information.

There needs to be some form of sanctions available to the Speaker when the government is not being responsive. I would suggest a form of a yellow card or a penalty box that can be imposed on the government when it is not responsive to these questions.

I will now turn my remarks to the estimates. There are few Westminster styles of parliament that have an adequate system for scrutiny of the estimates.

Yesterday I was at the justice committee where we were examining the estimates of the Minister of Justice. The meeting lasted for two hours and about 35 questions were posed to the minister and her staff. That is likely to be the only examination of her stewardship over this ministry which comprises several billion dollars in the present fiscal year. I suggest that is simply not enough. Two hours is not enough time to delve into very complicated and very crucial issues not only in justice but in all of the ministries in this parliament.

I would like to see some experimentation with bringing some departmental estimates to the floor of the House of Commons for supply, similar to the committee of the whole process that takes place at present.

This might mean that the House would have to meet during some evenings but a longer debate and examination of beneficial issues to the Canadian public, I would suggest, should be of primary concern and first on the agenda.

I would also suggest that ministers, above all members of the House, must be willing to subject themselves to the intense scrutiny that is required. It would also lead to a more rigorous debate in the House. The government has talked repeatedly of openness and transparency. These are the buzzwords of the nineties. However, it seems very reluctant to put that accountability into practice. It shies away from it.

There was mention of the Chair and of the selection of the Speaker of this House. I will add a few remarks to that. The present process allows for the selection of the Speaker through an election in which all members of the House have input. But subsequent to that, as Mr. Speaker is aware, the deputy Speakers are then selected at the whim or by the will of the prime minister. That is not to cast aspersions on the present occupant of the chair. There is certainly ample evidence of the brave, courageous and true nature of the present Deputy Speaker. As with the election of the Speaker, there should be a similar process of input from other members for the deputy Speakers who also occupy the Chair.

If a Speaker comes to the conclusion before the end of a Parliament that he or she may not reoffer, a common practice or courtesy might evolve, not necessarily a hard and fast rule, where that Speaker may choose to step down so that one of the deputy Speakers might receive the training necessary to assist Parliament in the subsequent convening of the House. The position of the Chair is very important to the ongoing success and spirit of co-operation mentioned by the government House leader.

I will discuss special or emergency debates. I began with a reference to the position paper which the Clark government placed before the House in 1979. I make reference to another document, a paper that was placed before the Canadian electorate in January 1993. It was endorsed by the now Prime Minister and was presented by David Dingwall, then opposition House leader, the then chief opposition whip who now sits in the House as minister of public works, and the two assistant opposition House leaders who are now respectively the Deputy Speaker of the House and the leader of the government in the House of Commons. That paper was entitled “Reviving Parliamentary Democracy”.

Those four Liberals endorsed by their leader had this to say about special, urgent or emergency debates in the House of Commons:

The granting of leave for special urgent or emergency debates under the present Standing Order 52 should become more generous, thus permitting the House to consider a greater variety of important issues that do not command the top of the national political agenda. If the House is to claim relevance to the interest of Canadians, it must make the most of its opportunities to debate issues of current significance. It is time for the rule to be restored to its original purpose of enabling the House to add important issues to the agenda at short notice. There is no change to any rule required for this step. The House only need make its general will on the question known to the Chair.

This is the suggestion in the paper that was tabled by the government House leader and endorsed by the opposition leader at that time, the current Prime Minister. In 1993 the Liberals were telling the electorate an idea that would be embraced by my party colleagues and by many members of the opposition, that we should have more time for special debates and more open discourse with the government. It was on the timeliness issue. When something arises that needs to be addressed on short notice, this House should be amenable and prepared to allow for that debate to occur.

In the past we have made requests. The Progressive Conservative Party has requested special debates on the disastrous conditions that exist in the fisheries on the east and west coasts. We also requested a special debate on the situation that was brewing in Iraq. Yesterday other members made application in this House for debates on the megabank mergers. All these applications were refused. I have had to assure my colleagues that the government does not instruct the Speaker on these matters. It is clear that the general will of the House should be conveyed to the Chair.

It is time the Deputy Speaker and others including the government House leader review the commitment they made while in opposition in 1993. Once again I suggest the present government be very wary of what it has said in the past and be prepared to live up to its words.

Previous speakers have had a great deal of experience and a wealth of knowledge they have put forward in this debate and the House has heard some extremely insightful and constructive suggestions. I am honoured to be able to partake in putting forward these suggestions.

Partisanship aside, the rules that govern all of us will continue to govern those who participate in this chamber in the future. We must always be aware of the shifting political signs and fortunes and the realignment of power that may some day occur because something that is said in this House is very important. It may come back again to be used either for or against you.

I want to conclude my remarks by referring once again to a policy paper. The Prime Minister had this to say: “Canadians feel alienated from their political institutions and they want to restore integrity to them. That is why we are proposing reforms to make individual MPs more relevant, the House of Commons more open and responsive, and elections more fair”.

Those are noble ambitions and they call for action from the Liberal backbenchers. They hold the key. They must do their part. The solution to the hepatitis C problem does not lie with the Minister of Health, it now lies with the Liberal backbenches.

In the closing pages of his book 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal , Christopher Moore had this to say:

If parliamentary democracy functioned in Canada, the future of Prime Minister Chretien would depend on the Liberal Party caucus. If the 301 men and women who Canadians elected in June 1997 recovered authority over their leaders, they would also recover power over the making and changing of party policy.

No constitutional amendment, not even a legislative act, would be required to return a prime minister's tenure in office to the control of the parliamentary majority, or to make all the party leaders answerable to their caucuses. It would simply require an act of moral courage and a little organizing on the part of the backbenchers.

How we collectively write the internal constitution of this House does much to decide how courageous we are in the discharge of our responsibilities.

Members on both sides of this House must shoulder that responsibility, proudly and diligently. I suggest this is the forum and the place to make the necessary changes. Self-discipline and restraint when it comes to the use of our time are extremely important.

With that in mind, I will conclude my remarks with the hope and optimism that this will be a fruitful and useful debate and the necessary changes that can be brought about will be embraced by the government.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

11:50 a.m.


Marlene Catterall Liberal Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, we are moving to 10 minute speeches now so I will have limited time and will briefly make a few comments on items that I hope the procedure and House affairs committee will look at in reviewing the standing orders for this parliament.

I want to make a few comments first on the importance of the standing orders. I think it is important for our constituents and for all Canadians to understand that the standing orders are the rules that parliament adopts for itself to govern and how we carry on the business of the House. They provide an important protection not only for the institution but for each and every one of us. They are an assurance that we can come into the House and freely speak on behalf of our constituents without fear of being insulted, cut off or treated less favourably than other members of the House of Commons.

These are rules which we as a parliament have accepted and we have also accepted the principle, certainly since I have been in parliament, that the rules change by consensus. When there is agreement among the parties that there is a need for changes to make the House work better and allow each and every one of us to be more effective then those rules will change.

That is why I was particularly perturbed by the so-called flag flap a few weeks ago when one party chose to bring into the House a debate regarding the rules and to make it a partisan issue.

What has preserved civility and respect for one another in this House is that we have adopted rules by consensus, by agreement and not through partisan confrontation. That is why this debate today is so important. All members have the opportunity to put on record those things about the rules which they think will help make Parliament work better and help make their jobs more effective.

I want to mention a few items I hope will be addressed by the committee in its review of the standing orders. First, during the last Parliament we had the so-called Boudria solution, when the then whip of the government party brought in procedures which allowed us to more expeditiously take votes in this House without spending countless hours in standing up, being counted and sitting down, over and over again. It is time to look at incorporating those rules into the standing orders so they become part of the normal procedure of the House and the House can count on how they operate.

The issue of televising committees, in particular, is extremely important to how Canadians understand the work of their parliament and their parliamentarians. My experience is that the work of committees is carried out generally in a non-partisan way. Committees work on issues that the members have a common interest in and try to move forward the agenda of public policy in the public interest. It is extremely important that, as often as possible, Canadians have the opportunity to see their parliamentarians working in that collaborative way on issues that are important to them. Therefore I encourage the committee to look at expanding the use of televising committee meetings.

The other issue which the committee has dealt with in a small way, and I hope that we will continue, is the clean-up of the standing orders with respect to gender. I was very pleased to have the support of all parties in the House when we made a recent amendment to the standing orders to get rid of the “he” in reference to every person of importance or position who operates in parliament. I trust that in amending the standing orders further we will get rid of the archaic reference entirely in the standing orders to every important position in this House in male terms.

I want to also speak about members of parliament and the changes that have been made in how parliament functions, to better recognize that members of parliament have roles in their constituency, roles in parliament and also, however little, a personal life. Changes have been made in the procedures and in the schedule of the House to allow members of parliament to better plan their lives and have a better balance between those many different functions they perform. Again, I hope that the committee will look at the schedule of the House of Commons, the length of the week, the length of the days, to see whether there are further improvements that need to be made.

I briefly refer to the work done by the subcommittee on the business of supply which in the last parliament conducted a very thorough review of how to increase the effectiveness with which this parliament holds government accountable for and has some influence over the expenditure plans of government. A report was tabled in the last parliament and will be dealt with again by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. I hope it will be tabled again with a request for a response from the government.

To implement its recommendations requires changes in the standing orders such as the establishment of a continuing standing committee on the estimates; various other measures to give committees the opportunity to amend the estimates, to improve the responsibility of the government to respond to the work of parliamentary committees that have an impact on the estimates; to request the finance committee to give priority in its prebudget consultations to those committees that have done reports on the plans of departments on the estimate and to take into consideration the report of those standing committees.

Dawson said in 1962 that there is no part or procedure in the Canadian House of Commons which is so universally acknowledged to be inadequate to modern needs as the control of the House over public expenditure. Yet this is the core function of parliament, to decide how much money the government may have, how it may raise it and how it may spend it.

I trust that the committee will spend some time on that report and incorporate its recommendations into its changes to the standing orders.

Finally, very briefly I want to speak on the issue of confidence. The official opposition in particular raised the issue of free votes. If anybody examines the records of voting in this House they will find that the government caucus, the government party, has more often expressed differences of opinion in its voting than any of the opposition parties. I urge them to examine their own consciences before they talk too stridently about party discipline.

It is also important for people to recognize that governments of whatever party run on making certain commitments to Canadians. While this is not directly related to the standing orders, it is important for parliament and for Canadians to recognize that some measure of solidarity behind those commitments made to the public during an election campaign is what allows a government to keep its commitments. That is one of the most important things in restoring the confidence of people in their institutions.

I challenge all other parties to do as I believe my own party does, to have a very open and frank caucus process which allows legislation to come to this House having been thoroughly debated, discussed and influenced by all members of the caucus. I am not sure that happens in other parties.

The committee has important work before it. The procedures, the standing orders which we accept as parliamentarians, are what allows this institution to function in the interests of Canadians and in the interests of each and every one of us to be able to do our job of representing our constituents. This debate is an important contribution to the work of the committee and I look forward to what will be said during the rest of day.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders



John Williams Reform St. Albert, AB

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate regarding the standing orders which govern the rules of this House. I am sure there is some decorum in that we can continue to achieve the legislative agenda that is introduced by the government.

I will focus my remarks on the issue regarding the business of supply which, as the critic of the Treasury Board, tends to fall within my purview.

I would also like to acknowledge the work of the deputy whip of the government in the previous parliament where we as a committee, including members from the Bloc and others, tabled a document called “The Business of Supply: Completing the Circle of Control”. That document contained many recommendations for changes to the standing orders. I would certainly like to see it examined in detail by the procedure and House affairs committee. The recommendations of this all party committee had full endorsation both by the government and by the opposition in making its report to improve the business of supply.

The business of supply deals with the way parliament approves or grants to the government the funding it requires to carry out its programs and to govern the country for the ensuing year.

I do not think there is any piece of legislation that goes through this House faster and with less scrutiny than the business of supply which accounts for $150-odd billion of spending each and every year. We go through the business of supply in one day's debate. We approve interim supply without any debate because the standing orders do not allow debate.

Can anyone imagine anything more fundamental and more central to government than the way government spends its money? This House has allowed, over many years, its authority to be eroded and stolen by the government to the point that we are now simply a rubber stamp. That should change.

I think of the ordinary course of business where a a bill is introduced and amendments and subamendments to the amendments may be introduced and we vote in the reverse order. We vote on the subamendment. If it carries it would amend the amendment. We then vote on the amendment. If it carries it changes the bill. We then vote on the bill. If it carries it becomes legislation. It is a fairly simple and normal process that is adopted not only by this House but by all houses. It is how committees work all over the world.

However, when it comes to the business of supply we reverse the process. When the opposition tables an amendment to the business of supply to reduce or to delete an expenditure proposed by the government, that causes the President of the Treasury Board to introduce a motion to concur with the expenditure as proposed. That vote comes first and this House then votes on the entire expenditure.

Let us talk about a simple program with which many people identify such as TAGS which helps the people in Atlantic Canada. No one has any difficulty in helping the people in Atlantic Canada through these difficult times. However, let us say that we as opposition would like to make some minor change to that expenditure. We are forced by the standing orders to vote and approve the entire expenditure or defeat it entirely before we come to the motion that may be to reduce or change it a small amount. After having voted to endorse the entire expenditure, how can we turn around and vote to change it?

The standing orders are designed to guarantee that this House votes the government's wishes on the business of supply. That cannot be. I sincerely hope that the procedure and House affairs committee looks at this issue very carefully.

The deputy House leader on the government side talked about confidence and how she felt that this was being dealt with in open debate in caucus. Open debate in caucus is an oxymoron because caucus, as we all know, is a secret debate where the votes are in secret and where parties do their own internal management in private so that they do not have to wash their dirty linen in public.

Therefore, this open debate in caucus is an oxymoron. If we are to have open debate, surely it should be on the floor of this House because that is why this House is here. That is why we have Hansard . That is why we have television. That is why we have recorded debates. That is why this House is for open debate. To take it from the floor of this place and put it into the caucus room where no one has any say, other than their own particular members, is an affront to democracy. We should be doing it right here on the floor of the House.

We have seen how confidence has applied. It is well recognized that confidence is rigid in this country. It is more rigid than in any other democracy in the world. If one person steps out of line they are subject to severe punishment for their misdemeanour or their perceived misdemeanour. When they stand up for what they believe in or for their constituents they are disciplined.

I think of the member for York South—Weston who now sits as an independent because he stood up and voted for what he believed in.

Therefore, confidence is a lever to guarantee that people fall in line regardless of their wishes and it must be relaxed.

I would like to turn to “The Business of Supply: Completing the Circle of Control”. The procedure and House affairs committee has a road map to deal with the business of supply. Many hours went into preparing this document. It has been called the best document on the business of supply in 50 years. It deserves to be adopted. It has the full support of government members who sat on this committee. It has the full endorsation of the deputy whip on the government side who was the chairman of this committee. It was adopted by the procedure and House affairs committee in the last parliament and tabled in this House. It deserves serious consideration because it gives parliament more authority over the business of supply. It gives parliament some discretion to move the money around. It calls for the creation of an estimates committee to study the expenditures on an ongoing basis. It deals with things that we never have before us in the House of Commons today called tax expenditures.

The Minister of Finance will stand in this place and announce a change in the tax rules. Let us take a simple example that people can identify with, RRSP deductions. They are a good thing but we never have the opportunity to debate whether we are getting value for our money through the amount of taxes that are forgone. Does it provide the benefits that are equal to or greater than the taxes that are forgone? Surely we need some methodology to talk about tax expenditures.

We need to have some methodology to talk about crown corporations that suck up taxpayers' money by the millions of dollars, yet there is no formal mechanism for having a debate.

We need to talk about loan guarantees that show up in the estimates as a $1 item. They may be for a $100 million guarantee to a foreign country or for the sale of wheat or for whatever, but they show up as a $1 item. Only when the guarantee is called in and it is too late to do anything about it are we asked to approve the expenditure to fulfil our guarantee, again without debate.

There is great room for improvement in the business of supply. I hope that the procedure and House affairs committee will look at this document, “Completing the Circle of Control”, recognize that it has all party endorsation, adopt it and amend the standing orders accordingly.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:10 p.m.


Carolyn Parrish Liberal Mississauga Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I rise in the House today to talk briefly about the business of private members and the recently filed report from the procedure and House affairs committee.

The current system of selecting votable motions and bills is based on a draw. Often there are up to 300 bills sitting in the bin and they are drawn for order of precedence. As all members know, they are then sent to a committee that is comprised of a chair from the government and one representative from each of the House parties. They decide which bills will be votable. At any given moment there will be five votable bills and five votable motions working their way through the House.

In 1985 the McGrath committee reviewed this business. It is an ongoing review. We continued it in the last parliament and we revised it in this parliament. It was referred to the House leader as a report, which went through the procedure and House affairs committee. It makes a few recommendations that I think are along the line of fine tuning or making the business of private members more reflective of what members of the House want.

Currently we separate the listings of motions and bills. As I said, we can select five of each to be votable and working through the business of the House. There is time allocated for the debate of Private Members' Business and private members' debates often result in a vote.

It is not a static system. As I have mentioned, it has evolved over the years as a response to the demands and concerns of members and it is continuously being improved and redefined.

The study that was undertaken in the last parliament was endorsed by this parliament. The recommendations include four or five quite different suggestions.

One is the concept of a maximum of five votable bills and motions. The committee decided this was an artificial separation. Given that they get the same amount of time for debate in the House, we would like to see that artificial separation removed. In other words any combination of 10 could come forward and be on the House agenda.

The second recommendation was to alternate the precedence order. Right now the bill is put into a draw and is selected literally through the luck of the draw. Sometimes there are 300 bills. A private member's bill can stagnate for many years. Sometimes they are drawn on a regular basis. My colleague from Mississauga South is probably the champion having had more bills drawn. He probably has shamrocks hanging from both ears.

The system we recommend so that the bill could be pulled out of that lottery and brought before the private members committee much more quickly is that the bill could be jointly seconded by 100 members of the House represented by at least 10 members from each of the parties in the House. It is not an easy process but it is more orderly. A bill that is of great interest to a majority of the members of the House could then go through the seconding process with 100 signatures and go before the private members committee to decide on its votability. We consider this a rather strong departure from the lottery system that is currently in effect.

The third recommendation concerns when a draw is held before a deferred vote. Votes are deferred all the time and we defer private members' votes. The debate is finished in the House, the reading is finished, everybody has spoken on the bill and the vote is deferred to the following Tuesday for example. We would like it to be deemed off the list at that point, once it is deferred. When there is another draw we could then fill that space with a new private member's bill. This is a housekeeping rule which gives more bills the opportunity to be deemed votable.

Another recommendation concerns an issue on which a lot of concern was expressed by many private members who came before our committee. When a bill finishes its debate in the House it is referred to a committee for amendments and discussion. Sometimes because the committee is too busy or maybe because there is an ulterior motive that is implied, the bill dies there. We believe that once the bill has had second reading and it has been voted upon in the House it is no longer a private member's bill but is a bill of the House.

We recommend that after second reading when a bill is referred to a committee it becomes a bill of the House and the committee shall report within 60 sitting days. The committee can ask for one extension of 30 days if it is too busy to have considered the bill. If at the end of that period there are no amendments suggested, the bill should be deemed reported without amendments. That will cause all committees to make sure that a private member's bill is treated in the same fashion as a bill of the House.

The fifth recommendation appears on the surface to be a rather frivolous recommendation. Right now we like to separate private members' bills from government legislation. In the normal system of voting we start in the front rows and work our way back. We suggest for private members' bills on both sides of the House that the sponsor vote first and then the voting begin in the back rows and work its way forward. We think this would keep everyone honest. There would be no influence by the front rows on either side of the House. We thought this would be an interesting diversion and a way of keeping the thought processes involved with private members' bills totally independent.

Members may recall that the House was prorogued halfway through the 35th parliament. The House leader introduced a bill that said all bills, government legislation and private members' bills, would be reintroduced at exactly the same stage they were when the House prorogued. This is not from one parliament to another; it is when there is a prorogation in the middle of a parliament. We thought it worked well. It speeded up the process and it stopped private members' bills from dying and having to go back through the lottery. We recommend that be enshrined in the rules governing private members business.

Legal advice is very important to private members when drafting private members' bills. We want the bills to be as accurate as possible, as votable as possible and as realistic as possible. We suggest that the House appoint a law clerk and parliamentary counsel for the House of Commons who would be responsible for the provision of legislative drafting services specifically to members, who would give them unbiased advice and would be without any party affiliation.

The last recommendation of the report was to give priority to members who currently do not have a lot of bills being drafted. In other words a member who went to the clerk's office for a first effort in a session and did not have three or four other bills being drafted would be given priority. That encourages as many members as possible to get involved in the process.

When we held the review which came up with these recommendations a lot of people said that all private members' bills or motions should be made votable, that there should be no process to select votability. A lot of people gave us written submissions. A lot of people gave submissions in person.

It looks on the surface like a really great idea. Everybody's bill would be votable. It would cut down dramatically the number of bills that would have time to go through the House. It would make each of those bills less important. There would be no way of jockeying them into importance. Every bill would be voted on mechanically. The conclusion of the committee at that time was not to make every bill votable.

I just came out of a procedure and House affairs meeting where we are talking about it again. We are looking at the criteria. As I said initially in my remarks, it is an ongoing process. It is here to serve the backbenchers specifically. It is their opportunity to draft legislation and to have an impact on the country and the legislation of the country. We will again revisit this. It is one of those processes that never stops. We will be looking at the criteria. We will be looking again at the concept of making every bill votable.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, I am delighted to follow the remarks of the member for Mississauga Centre. I too intend to speak on private members' business and I endorse many of the recommendations she made.

I begin by referring to the remarks of the member for Calgary Southwest in his speech a little earlier in this debate. He suggested that the government side could very easily have free votes. His proposal was that individual backbench MPs should always examine legislation and vote exactly according to their evaluation of that legislation and that it should not be a show of lack of confidence in the government.

The problem with that, as the member for Calgary Southwest should know, is that each one of us in the backbench does not have the resources of the government in examining all the legislation the government must put forward. We also have commitments to our ridings. We have commitments and interests and specializations.

No individual backbencher on the government side or on the opposition side for that matter can possibly hope to examine every bit of legislation with the kind of due diligence that is necessary to always vote independently. We have to trust our leadership. I do note on the other side that the opposition MPs also usually trust their leadership and vote with their leadership.

That is not to say however that there is not a need for more independence to be shown on behalf of backbench MPs. I think the solution for that is in improvements in private members' legislation.

One of the problems is that our role as backbench MPs is not seen very clearly by the public. What we actually do is work in committee. We adjust legislation in committee.

Members on the opposition side, and fortunately I am not on the opposition side, but the opposition MPs by their criticisms contribute in a major way to the progress of legislation. Their criticisms enable backbench government members to arm themselves in caucus to push the government in the direction they want to go.

For example, the fact that the Reform Party came to parliament in 1993 in such strength certainly gave some backing to those of us in the Liberal caucus who are fiscal conservatives and wanted to push the Minister of Finance in the direction of cutting back spending and bringing down the deficit. Now there are more members of the New Democratic Party. This gives, shall we say, ammunition to those members in the Liberal caucus who want to push the government in the direction of more social spending.

The opposition makes very important contributions to the progress of policy and legislation in the House. The problem is that the public does not see this. Some opposition members from time to time feel a sense of frustration, as we do occasionally in the backbench when we are not recognized for the efforts we make in committee.

We saw an example yesterday in the opposition benches. A member was terribly frustrated by not getting the attention he felt he deserved. I am referring to the member for Lac-Saint-Jean who felt it was necessary to take his seat out to the lobby before the press in order to get attention. I submit that this was extremely juvenile and a great disrespect to the rest of the MPs who do feel that we are contributing but do not have to pull pranks for the media.

That aside, what can we do as backbench MPs to make the public see that we do have an important role in this House, a role that they can see on a daily if not weekly basis? The solution is in private members' business. We have to expand the opportunities of meaningful private members' business in this House certainly to the extent that the member for Mississauga Centre mentioned but even more so.

There is a great opportunity for private members to engage in amending existing government legislation. One of the problems now in parliament is that when the government enacts legislation it does not come up for review again for approximately 10 years. This is a formula which exists. It is a tradition in this parliament.

The reason is that governments feel there would be a lack of confidence in the government if once the law was passed and went out and was tested in the field, in Canadian society it was found to be inadequate in certain ways. Past governments have been very reluctant to return to the legislation to make the adjustments that would make that law better.

We as parliamentarians cannot anticipate all the problems of legislation when we pass it. When legislation gets out into the community there are inconsistencies. Examples are the tobacco bill, the gun bill and the competition bill. The competition bill is 10 years old and we are only revisiting it now with amendments in Bill C-20.

Private members could play a vital and important role in the legislative life of this House and this nation by doing more to amend existing legislation, to fix it up and make it work better in society. For example the notorious gun bill did go through but is not working. We as members and the government should not be afraid if members on all sides of the House introduce an amendment to the gun bill and support that change. I would propose that we look in that direction to give backbench MPs a more meaningful role.

I would also suggest that we do good service to improve private members' business to take the monopoly of writing legislation away from the Department of Justice. Almost all meaningful legislation that comes into this House is written by the Department of Justice. It is not that the department does a bad job in general but the job is sometimes inconsistent. It is the old story that if there is no competition in an endeavour then the quality of the product deteriorates. If we had better and more meaningful bills coming from private members through the legislative counsel rather than through the justice department maybe we would get an overall improvement in the quality of legislation that actually comes before this House.

How do we do this? The member for Mississauga Centre made one very good suggestion. This is a recommendation of the subcommittee of which she was the chair. She indicated that we ought to have a system whereby if an individual member has a very good bill and the member can obtain the support of 100 seconders on all sides of the House including the opposition benches, that bill should jump the lottery and should get on the order of precedence.

That is a way of getting quality bills introduced in the House by private members. It is a very good suggestion. I hope that the report which contains that recommendation is tabled by the government and I hope the government will show a certain amount of sympathy for doing so.

We also have to make more time for meaningful Private Members' Business. It is difficult to extend the hours of the House. I would suggest that we do away with private members' motions.

Private members' motions do not accomplish anything in the House and we all know it. It is an opportunity for partisan point scoring by the opposition. That is fine and so it should be. Sometimes it is an opportunity for partisan point scoring by members on the government backbenches. The reality is that private members' motions do not commit the government to do anything. It is a charade. I recommend very strongly that private members' motions be set aside in favour of more private members' bills. That is what we want.

There is one flaw in this scenario. It goes back to what the member for Calgary Southwest said. If we give this kind of initiative to backbench MPs will they use it wisely? Will backbench MPs on all sides of the House debate private members' legislation intelligently, coherently and with due diligence? We are all human on both sides of the House and sometimes we do not do our homework. One of the problems of giving a lot more power to private members to create legislation is that occasionally bad bills will slip through.

We have a new role for the Senate. The Senate is dying to have something more useful to do. If we improve the quality of legislation that comes from Private Members' Business and make it meaningful, the Senate will have the time to give it due diligence scrutiny. It would be a new role for the Senate. There would be more public confidence in the Senate. Improving private members' bills would improve public confidence in backbench MPs and in the Senate.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.


Stéphane Bergeron Bloc Verchères, QC

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise in this House today to discuss our Standing Orders to determine whether some changes may be warranted and also whether some of the existing provisions should be not only maintained but strengthened.

I salute the open-mindedness of the members of all political parties in this House, and particularly the government party, which has agreed to hold a debate on the Standing Orders in this House. I think it is rather unusual to have parliamentarians discuss the Standing Orders in this place to allow us to begin a review process that will no doubt be taken further by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

That having been said, while the open-mindedness of the members of this Parliament ought to be saluted, I must immediately express a concern. It is one thing to discuss the Standing Orders in this House, but it is another to take into account the recommendations, comments and concerns voiced in this place today.

Do government and other members of this House have any intention of following up on this debate? Will this not just be another of those sterile debates we have all too often in this place, debates that end up leading nowhere or to a unilateral decision by the government? I certainly hope not and I do hope the government will take note of what is said here today.

Right off, I would like to address the issue of the privilege of this House. The Standing Orders set out the procedure applicable when the privileges of this House have been breached. Parliamentary jurisprudence, customs and traditions and even the Parliament of Canada Act all show that there are, in this House, a number of privileges enjoyed not only by the House as a whole but also by individual members in the performance of their parliamentary duties here in this chamber.

We are told that for centuries these privileges have been sacred and carry with them certain safeguards. In the past, this House, members of this House and other parliaments in the British tradition have used provisions provided for in the Standing Orders, the legislation and case law to have their privileges upheld, privileges which, it must be pointed out, are considered sacred.

Unfortunately we cannot but notice that through the years, maybe as a result of changing political mores, maybe as a result of expanding communications, who knows, the procedures to uphold these privileges have become increasingly toothless.

It has become increasingly difficult to have the Speaker of the House rule that, in a matter which, in the opinion of some members of this House, represents an obvious breach of the privileges of the House, there is indeed a prima facie case of privilege or even contempt of Parliament. Once we have gone successfully through this first screening, the assessment of the matter raised in the House by the Speaker in his wisdom, then we must debate a motion usually aimed at referring the matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

First I must point out that, over the years, there might have been, on the part of members of this House and the Speaker, regardless of the person who sits in the chair, a lack of political will not only to enforce procedures protecting parliamentary privilege in a concrete way, but also to consider any measure aimed at protecting it as being of the utmost importance.

When we debate privilege, which is often referred to the Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, we are faced with yet another problem. If the question involves in any way the government majority or a parliamentary majority made up sometimes of only the party in power or other times of the party in power and certain opposition parties, it becomes absolutely impossible to have it recognized that yes indeed there has been a breach of the House's privileges.

I am referring specifically to the case that has been before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The facts are as follows. We passed a motion in the House to refer to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs the matter of the statements made by certain MPs in the Ottawa Sun that, prima facie, constituted, or could constitute, breaches of the privileges of the House.

Obviously, an objective examination shows that these statements were made only by members of the government party or of the Reform party. Accordingly, when we examined the matter in committee, the chair and members did everything they could to squelch debate, to keep light from being shed on this very murky affair. The report is therefore very indulgent—I use the term deliberately—with respect to the members of the House who made these statements.

Traditionally, the Speaker of the House does not interfere in decisions taken in committee and in decisions taken by committee chairs.

This, I think, is an aspect of the Standing Orders that deserves closer examination because, although each one of us firmly believes that the person who occupies the chair in this House will act in an objective and impartial manner, so as to protect all members' individual rights, we do not, nor will we ever, feel this way about committee chairs. Why? For the simple reason that these chairs are partisan. For the most part, they are Liberal MPs with partisan interests to defend—which leads me to another question.

As I said, we do not have the absolute conviction that committee chairs will apply, not only the Standing Orders of the House, but also the spirit that lies behind them, which is protection of individual rights, the parliamentary rights of each and every member in this Parliament.

Unfortunately, we have had this unpleasant experience in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in connection with the référence to committee of statements made by members of this House to a daily newspaper which, in the opinion of the Speaker, might constitute contempt of the House.

I shall return later to that question of contempt, if time allows, but I would like to take advantage of this debate to raise the question of committee chairs. Traditionally, at least two committees are headed by members of the opposition, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. It stands to reason that this should be the case, since the very nature of the control Parliament must exercise over the government's actions is at stake.

It would appear that, in the case of the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, since the Reform Party refused to take the chair position, the Liberals decided that they would, thus usurping the tradition that this position is reserved for the opposition. In keeping with the very logic of this committee's serving as a control over government regulation through this Parliament, the position of chair ought to have gone to the next largest party in opposition after the official opposition.

We will also have to be looking very soon at the matter of the weekly timetable for House sittings, and I trust that changes will be made which will allow more freedom

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.


Steve Mahoney Liberal Mississauga West, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is interesting to hear members opposite speak about the need to show respect for this place. In a moment I want to get into some of that and some of what we might describe as antics that have occurred in the House which the House has no ability to deal with and that some members opposite have been perpetrating on the Canadian public.

I am a new member of the House of Commons since the last election but I have some comparisons that I would like to share between this place and the provincial legislature of Ontario.

We have heard speakers talk about the need to make Private Members' Business easier to deal with, the need to bring them forward and make them votable as they say. I certainly concur with all that.

While there is a lot to be said for our parliamentary democratic system, there is some frustration that members on all sides feel when it comes to putting forth ideas and making achievements.

To give an example, when I arrived here I noticed that we use analog clocks in this room. Our speeches are timed to a 10 minute timeframe. We share our time with other members. I suggested to the Speaker that it would be nice to have a digital clock, start at 10 minutes and have it count down to zero in order to avoid the Speaker's having to cut the member off at the end of debate. Interestingly enough, I received a letter from the Speaker saying they have adopted my suggestion. So my first great claim to fame in Ottawa is that we are going to have digital clocks installed.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

An hon. member

What is the problem?

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.


Steve Mahoney Liberal Mississauga West, ON

The problem is it is going to probably take two years because we have to wait for the renovation. It is not as simple as taking a clock off the wall, but at least it is progress.

One of the things soon learned when becoming a parliamentarian at any level is that you have to be prepared to accept your achievements in small doses. I was pleased in my last session in the Ontario legislature to sponsor a private member's bill that would prohibit young people under the age of 18 from buying lottery tickets. At first blush this was questioned as can they do that now. People were stunned. I remember the premier of the day, Premier Rae, being astounded to find out that there were kids lined up in the corner store playing Pro Line sports. They were actually betting their lunch money on Monday night football or on the outcome of the NHL hockey game. Everyone was astounded to find out it was happening.

The subsequent investigation and publicity took it right across Canada and everyone said the kids should not be able to do that. I think our society really feels that we should not have kids gambling on pro sports in corner stores. That is certainly not the vision of the kind of Canada that I or members in this place would like to see.

That private member's bill was subsequently supported unanimously in the parliament of Ontario and it went through first, second, third reading and royal assent in 16 sessional days. This was a record in the province of Ontario and unheard of in Canada for any private member's bill to receive that kind of attention and success.

I recall as I walked out of the chamber everyone slapping me on the back and congratulating me and my colleagues. My comment to one of them was thank you, but the problem is this appears to be as good as it gets. I really think that is the issue. We come here in numbers of 301 with views, aspirations, goals, visions and with information from our ridings. Perhaps we have different political perspectives on issues of concern to our community but we come here looking for ways to make these issues reality. The system is such that in my respectful submission my experience here is that one can accomplish more through the caucus system than one can through the official system of committees and parliament. I think that is wrong.

The reality is that in the experience of the caucus that I am a part of the government listens to the people in the backbench who are bringing messages and information from their ridings. I have seen numerous examples where policy of this government has been changed by intervention from members in the House of Commons who sit on the backbenches. This is a very positive thing, something we can be proud of and something our constituents should know, but it should go beyond that. There should be an opportunity that goes beyond hoping your name gets pulled out of a drum to introduce private members' bills. If eliminating the motions which my colleague suggested earlier would provide more time for private members' bills then I think that is a very constructive suggestion.

I want to talk about some of the comments I have heard and that are heard from time to time about members suggesting we need to have more concern about member privileges. The word privileges tends to dominate the landscape here in Ottawa. Members are always concerned about their privileges. We had a huge debate because one of the members made disparaging remarks at the Olympics about our flag. We had a huge debate over whether her privileges had been violated. We have other members who stand up from time to time about comments made outside this place, concerned about their privileges.

There is another word that I do not hear enough members in this place talking about and that in my view the standing orders do not address. That word is responsibilities. Along with privileges come responsibilities. When we think of what is going on in Ireland, when we think of war torn countries where their solution is murder and mayhem to political differences, when we realize that the difference between the Prime Minister's desk and the Leader of the Opposition's desk is the distance of two people holding out extended swords and the tips simply touching, when we realize that our weapons are our minds and our ammunition is our words and that in this great country we simply use this institution to put forth those viewpoints, we realize what a cherished responsibility we all have.

I was very disappointed in light of that issue of being responsible to the House of Commons and responsible to the people of Canada because I believe those two issues are intertwined; we cannot show disrespect in this place without showing disrespect for all Canadians.

The member for Beauharnois—Salaberry has made comments that were quoted when he was a parliamentary mission to justify his reasoning for the separation of the province of Quebec, saying that Quebec would be more democratic and more respectful of minority rights than under the Canadian federal system if it separated. That is contempt for this place. That is contempt for this country. It has no place in this chamber or in this great nation.

I think it is unfortunate that in this House our standing rules do not have a mechanism to call that member forward to stand up and be accountable for the remarks he made while on taxpayer expense travelling under the privilege of being a member of this House and denigrating this country and this House and everything we stand for.

Finally, the nonsense I saw yesterday of a 24 year old member of the Bloc standing up and taking his chair out of this place in some kind of a demonstration is just the silliest thing I have ever seen in my days of watching this place. I have a 27 year old who left home recently. He moved out on his own and he had the good sense not to steal the furniture. I would suggest that the member opposite was just grandstanding to try to make a point of some kind. He should realize that maybe in his case we should charge him with theft of chair and maybe we should change the locks. Once a young man leaves home it seems to me that young man should try to find it on his own.

I would hope that we could look at a way to put in place rules in the standing orders to hold all members of this House accountable for their actions, to make them respectful of this place both in the House of Commons and outside when they are on official duties. I would like to see that kind of amendment take place that would bring true dignity and responsibility to Canada's House of Commons.

Standing Orders And ProcedureGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

André Harvey Progressive Conservative Chicoutimi, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate to improve—and I know you personally care a lot about this issue, Mr. Speaker—the democratic process and respect for minority groups in every assembly, particularly here in the Parliament of Canada.

I did not much appreciate the comments made by the member who just spoke. He took advantage of an anecdotal situation that occurred yesterday and that involved one of our young colleagues, who is about the same age as our children. Our young colleague was making a statement, asking us to be more receptive, to pay more attention to members who do not necessarily belong to parties that are well represented here. Indeed, it must be understood that numbers, not substance, are what matters in this House.

In all assemblies, what people care about and what inspires them is ideas, not screams.

Over the years I noticed that, as a rule, it is those with the best and most inspiring ideas that we try to silence.

I do not intend to pass judgment on yesterday's incident in the House involving the member for Lac-Saint-Jean. Instead, I will try to be more open and receptive to the message from our fellow citizens, who want Parliament to be a place where the best ideas are often put forward by backbenchers or by members of small parties, and want these members to be heard.

I am pleased to sit with the hon. member for Shefford, who cares a great deal about young people, children and families. Just about all her comments in the House are aimed at improving the well-being of families that have problems.

We are here to promote our ideas. The message sent to us yesterday is that poverty is on the rise across the country. We have not even been here one year, and on two or three occasions, I had the opportunity to express my concern about the impoverishment of our society, even though economic indicators and figures may say that progress is being made. The fact is that poverty is very much on the rise.

I have risen in the House on two or three occasions to question the government with respect to the message we received from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops about the disappearance of all social infrastructures. I would have liked a debate on that. I have put this question to various government members on two or three occasions. Yet, governments are no longer doing anything to remedy the lack of support for social agencies that help the most disadvantaged.

After I lost my seat in 1993, I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer with a national organization known as the United Way. This organization does extraordinary things to help the very agencies that help the most disadvantaged. I have not had much feedback or positive reaction indicating a new awareness of this gradual disappearance and weakening of the agencies there to help the most disadvantaged, there, in fact, to help the government ensure that the poorest members of society receive a fairer share.

We are here to convey both our party policies and our personal points of view on a variety of issues. There is not a lot of leeway. Things are improving, but too slowly for my taste.

I can give an example. The Parliament of Canada is not particularly accustomed to the presence of five parties here in the House. That is too bad because, with respect to policies that are very important for the future of our country, particularly everything to do with the throne speech, the government's general policies are set out, not necessarily in any detail, but very clearly.

A party such as ours, a national party whose roots predate Confederation, has tried in vain to make it possible for its amendments to be put to a vote. It has been impossible. I think that, just because there are only 20 of us, and that will soon drop to 19, this is no reason why we should not have access to an amended parliamentary procedure allowing our amendments with respect to the throne speech to be voted on.

Sometimes, all it takes is one parliamentarian. It has happened in the past, and the history of the House of Commons shows that it is possible for one parliamentarian to push through measures that are extremely constructive and important for the future of the country. We were not given the opportunity to do so during the throne speech debate.

It happened again with the budget statement. We suggested directions we thought were interesting. I am not saying our ideas are better than those expressed by the other members of this House. All we wanted was to contribute in a constructive manner, but we were not allowed to. Because we are the fifth party in the House, we were unable to push through what we felt were very progressive measures and I will give you some examples.

It does not make sense for the government to hoard, keep in the bank, $19 billion this year in the employment insurance fund. This is absolutely crazy. At a time of high unemployment, when we need more money to invest in economic development, in SMBs or in training, the government is sitting on $19 billion. Moreover, we were unable to have the motion to drastically reduce employment insurance premiums, which are still way too high, put to a vote.

Tax cuts are another example. There is nothing like tax cuts to boost job creation or the economy. I realize that this government will argue that they had to reduce the deficit. It is always the same old song “When the Conservatives were in office—”

When we were in office, we eliminated the $16 billion current account deficit. We took structural measures like free trade, which made our exports grow from $90 billion to $215 billion. All the Liberals are doing right now is pocketing money and covering the deficit. I think a more progressive approach is required and steps should be taken.

To this end, the House of Commons must be more responsive to initiatives from the NDP and the Progressive Conservative Party. It is odd that our motions relating to major bills are not considered votable.

The same is true of committees. We have to wait weeks or months to obtain committee reports. Yet we draw inspiration from these reports when we take part in the debates in this House.

With respect to private members' business, I think we will have to take a very close look at this to ensure greater responsiveness to such measures, so that as members of the third, fourth or fifth party represented in the House of Commons, we can try to put across our ideas, which, I am sure, would help give Canadian parliamentarians a slightly more positive image.

In this spirit, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting me the privilege of expressing my views.